Riders of the Storm
This month, an Oxfam report revealed Wales as one of the places worst hit by a ‘perfect storm’ of hunger and poverty. In a guest blog post for the Wales Co-operative Centre, Kirsty Davies, Head of Oxfam Cymru, asks what can be done to tackle rising poverty in Wales.
Food bank use in Wales is disproportionately high, according to Below the Breadline, produced by Oxfam, with Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust. The Trust gave out three days’ food to 79,000 people for a population of just three million last year, compared to 71,000 in Scotland with a population of over five million.
Benefit cuts, sanctions, low wages and insecure jobs are all driving people to rely on hand-outs to survive. We know Wales tops the tables for low earnings and benefit claims, with 25% of Welsh workers earning less than the Living Wage and 19% of working age people claiming benefits.
These are the stark statistics. The reality on the ground is that thousands more Welsh families have joined the ranks of the ‘precariat’ – people constantly living on the brink of financial disaster, where a broken fridge or a child’s birthday provokes a crisis that leaves the door open to local and corporate loan sharks.
What can be done? The Welsh Government has blunted the impact of some social security reforms, such as keeping up the Council Tax Reduction Scheme after the abolition of Council Tax Benefit and replacing the abolished parts of the Social Fund with the Discretionary Assistance Fund.
At UK level, we are calling on the Government to urgently draw up an action plan to reverse the rising tide of food poverty and to collect evidence to understand the scale and causes of heavy food bank usage. We also want all parties to sign up to protecting the principle of a proper safety net as a core purpose of the social security system.
Action in communities is just as vital to help people take control of their own lives. Our own Livelihoods projects across Wales encourage vulnerable groups to build up their resilience and self esteem to cope better with whatever life throws at them. The work of Credit Unions, including Credit Union Rent Accounts has never been so important in spreading financial education and managing debt.
We know only too well from our projects that people can react to a money crisis by taking out a pay day loan and soon getting up to their ears in debt through towering interest rates. Such loans can seem the simplest and quickest way out when you are up against it. Build up people’s confidence and widen their knowledge of their options and you can stop them taking this often disastrous step.
In the longer term, we need jobs in Wales with decent pay, not more temporary work and zero hours contracts. Alongside conventional investment and enterprise, we must release the potential for community co-operatives and social enterprises to boost local jobs and help keep money where people live. That is why Oxfam Cymru is part of the campaign for a meaningful Future Generations Bill that will pave the way for a prosperous and sustainable Wales.