Today, we have a guest blogger in the guise of Professor Scott Baum from Griffith University who has been one of my regular research colleagues over a long period of time. He indicated that he would like to contribute occasionally and that provides some diversity of voice although the focus remains on advancing our understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its applications. It also helps me a bit and at present I have several major writing deadlines approaching as well as a full diary of presentations, meetings etc. Travel is also opening up a bit which means I can now honour several speaking commitments that have been on hold while we were in lockdown. Anyway, over to Scott …
Not enough food: The case for a Just, Urgent and Sustainable Transition continues
As 2020 came to a close, and we enter a new year, the case for a Just, Urgent and Sustainable Transition continues to gain pace. Each day there seems to be media commentary pointing to the social divisions that are becoming entrenched in society. If the existing level of accumulated social wreckage wasn’t enough, 2020 saw an exponential increase. The evidence is not hard to find. A recent story published by the UK Guardian (December 17, 2020) – Unicef to feed hungry children in UK for first time in 70-year history – we learned that for the first time in 70 years, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) have had to provide food for children in the United Kingdom. That suggests that something drastic has gone wrong in one of the most advanced nations of the world.
The details of UNICEF’s involvement include supplying:
18,000 nutritious breakfasts to 25 schools over the two-week Christmas holidays and February half-term, feeding vulnerable children and families in Southwark, south London, who have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
From a – range of statistics – we see that Southwark is a disadvantaged Borough in south London, where around 40% of children live in low-income households and 19 per cent live in households with no employed parent.
Almost half the population are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, unemployment is above the average for London and the population face a raft of accumulated social issues including high rates of crime, childhood obesity and high rates of preventable mortality.
So we see that food poverty is another component of the ever growing social malaise experienced by proportions of our populations.
But the 25 schools in Southwark are only the tip of the iceberg.
In the same Guardian story, we read
A YouGov poll in May commissioned by the charity Food Foundation found 2.4 million children (17%) were living in food insecure households. By October, an extra 900,000 children had been registered for free school meals.
For context, the Op Ed article by Regina Keith (June 17, 2020) – Marcus Rashford: a brief history of free school meals in the UK – reveals that free school meals in the UK have had a long history and used to be provided by local authorities before being privatised by the Thatcher government.
That shift resulted in a poorly organised program with cheap rather than nutritious meals, less children eligible etc.
The usual F on the neo-liberal report card!
On hearing the news, the Twitter-sphere went crazy with UK opposition politicians taking pot-shots at the conservatives as though they are the only ones to blame.
UK Labour MP – Angela Raynor – tweeted:
It should never have come to this. We are one of the richest countries in the world.
@BorisJohnson and @RishiSunak should be ashamed.
While another Labour MP – Richard Burgon – obviously going for more cheap political points (surprise surprise) wrote:
Britain is one of the world’s richest nations. Unicef, for the first time ever, is now delivering emergency food to children here.
Poverty is a political choice. The Gov’t could end UK child poverty by making the super-rich pay fair taxes. It refuses to.
Correct sentiment. Incorrect understanding.
The author of this tweet is correct about poverty being a political choice, but wrong about the solution (let alone the fact that as a MP they are part of this political choice).
Regular MMT-ers will know that statements about ‘making super-rich pay fair taxes’ has nothing to do with addressing the problem, unless we are taxing them to reduce wasteful behaviour that results in larger scale food wastage, which is another story altogether.
A similar story to the UK experience is, of course, playing out elsewhere.
The situation in the US is documented in the – Week 20 Household Pulse SurveyNovember 25-December 7 – published by the US Census Bureau.
The data shows that prior to March 13, 2020, around 11.5 per cent (11.2 million) of the households surveyed who had children said they either sometimes or often did not have enough to eat.
For the latest survey covering the period November 25 to December 7, the percentage of households with children who said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat shot up to 14.2 million or 14.7 percent.
Here in Australia, we witness a similar picture.
The Australian charity Food Relief notes in their – 2020 Food Bank Hunger Report – that:
In 2019, the main groups accessing food relief were families living on a low income, the unemployed, single-parent families, the homeless and people with a mental illness. Since March this year, some of these groups have become even more vulnerable needing to access food relief more often. But charities are also seeing groups of Australians who need to access food relief for the first time. Almost three in ten (28%) Australians experiencing food insecurity in 2020 had never experienced not having enough food before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
The report goes on to point out that households are forced to make trade-offs between putting food on the table and paying other expenses:
Cost of living has consistently been the main reason Australians experience food insecurity, with people most likely to cite unexpected expenses or large bills (41%) and rent and mortgage payments (35%) as the most common reasons they are unable to afford enough food. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these challenges as people’s lives have become more volatile and unpredictable.
They then point out that the measures the government introduced as part of its COVID-19 income support packages did provide some relief, but they also noted:
… charities and food insecure Australians alike have an extreme sense of unease about the future as these measures are rolled back. More than one in three (35%) receiving assistance don’t know how they will cope or expect they will not cope well at all. Four in five Australians receiving the Job Seeker payment (80%) expect a $300 cut to the payment would mean they would definitely have to both skip meals and reduce how much fresh fruit and vegetables they buy
I don’t think there would be too many people who would disagree that everyone should have the right to access decent food.
In contemporary society, the fact that many people go without meals is a testament to policy failure.
That children should have to do without meals is doubly bad.
The literature on food insecurity and food poverty, surveyed in this article – Food insecurity and hunger: A review of the effects on children’s health and behaviour – published in the Paediatrics Child Health journal (March 2015) is clear.
When children don’t get enough to eat, they suffer from reduced learning and productivity, poor mental health, an increased risk of developing chronic diseases and an increased risk of becoming obese.
These negative outcomes then follow many for life and so the cycle of poverty continues.
Returning to the Twitter comment above, the author was 100 percent correct about the political nature of the problem.
Like so many of our accumulated social wreckage, children not having enough to eat is a political choice.
It is a political choice to have individuals and families living in poverty.
It is a political choice to resign individuals to unemployment and precarious employment.
All these things are linked and could be rectified if there was enough political will for governments to end poverty.
Governments of all persuasions are good at paying lip-service to ending poverty.
In 1987, the late Bob Hawke, while Australian Prime minister announced that:
By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty
Apparently, in making the announcement, he mis-read the script and should have said no child need to live in poverty (Source).
While this would have been a great achievement, it was always going to be unattainable as successive governments, including the two Labor governments subsequently (one of which was Hawke’s) became increasingly shackled by the neo-liberal project.
Poverty became increasingly the fault of the individual and governments began making distinctions between the deserving and the underserving poor, while actually giving only limited support in the way of ever deficient levels of income support.
Regular readers of this blog will know too well the arguments around the government’s ability to end poverty.
1. The best way to eradicate poverty is to create jobs (November 21, 2011) – which includes recommendations for large-scale public job creation.
2. Australia’s minimum wage rises – but not sufficient to end working poverty (June 6, 2017) – which addresses the ridiculously low minimum wage in Australia.
3. Reducing income inequality (August 8, 2016) – which includes an analysis of why governments should ensure that wages growth reflects productivity gains, which helps raise living standards.
4. Welcome to the ‘homeless’ working poor – a new neoliberal KPI (February 22, 2018) – which includes a recommendation to increase the supply of social housing, given the massive shortfall that has developed over the last 3 or more decades as governments have cut back on public investment.
These types of arguments firmly set within the context of a MMT lens should inform all debates around ending poverty and should lead the way to the kind of Just, Urgent and Sustainable Transition that we all need and deserve.
In closing, I am hoping that while the politicians were sitting around the dining table enjoying their festive lunch recently that they had found what they really needed under the Xmas tree — a new ideological and conceptual lens and a copy of Mitchell, Wray and Watts’ – Macroeconomics – or Mitchell and Fazi’s – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World – for their holiday reading lists.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2021 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.