To her colleagues at the day care centre in Hull, Charlotte Burton is an independent woman who works full time and manages just fine. They admire her for biking to work at this time of year, when chilly winds blow and the River Hull swells with rainwater.
Only her mother knows that Burton, 34 and single, bikes because she cannot afford the $4.75 bus fare, that she huddles under a blanket at night to save on heating bills and that she recently started relying on a local food bank because by the end of the month she was eating only one meal a day — pasta mostly, or bread.
“I was hungry,” she said in her kitchen one recent morning, fiddling with a piece of paper covered in numbers. Her monthly budget: Rent, gas, electricity, taxes, down payments for the television and the debt she owes her landlord. That leaves about $100 a month for food.
The working poor, long a part of the social landscape in the US, are becoming more common on this side of the Atlantic. As their numbers grow, so too does hunger — a feeling Burton describes as a nagging sensation, not pain as such, more an obsession that consumes all your thoughts and energy. It is no longer confined to the homeless or those struggling to make ends meet on state benefits in the world’s sixth-richest economy, say charities, economists and even some members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party.
In Britain, five years of economic weakness, austerity and rising prices have left a mark: Average hourly earnings have risen a mere 7 per cent while the cost of living has gone up almost 20 per cent, leaving at least 500,000 people reliant on food aid, three times as many as a year ago, according to the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity that runs a network of more than 400 food banks.
Food banks distribute food for free or at heavy discounts to people generally referred to them by government agencies. They have sprung up in unlikely places, from southern commuter towns to Westminster, a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. Steve Baker, a Conservative lawmaker, says that one in five children in his constituency of Wycombe goes to bed hungry, calling the figure a “scandalous indictment of the safety net that is the welfare state”.
Hull once had a thriving fishing industry and bustling harbour. Today, in per capita terms, it has the greatest number of jobless benefit claimants in the country. More than one in three children here live under the poverty line.
The city’s reputation has never been great. More than once, Hull was voted the worst place to live in Britain.
Things have actually been looking up recently. In a former fruit market in the rapidly gentrifying waterfront of the Humber estuary, hip art galleries and music venues helped Hull win Britain’s “City of Culture” designation for 2017. But so far little of that regeneration has trickled down.
Burton’s local food bank is supplied by a charity that continued…