Food banks will be to the 2010s what hunger marches were to the 1930s. But they are not dramatic places. You don’t see queues of distressed people waiting by their doors. The food banks are discreet. The Anglicans who run them show their kindness by doing nothing to draw attention to their clients’ poverty.
For all their unobtrusiveness, food banks might do as a symbol of our times too.
Let us take food banks to be a sign of our times then. What do they signify?
That Brits seem to be entirely happy to put their hands in their pockets and provide charity for their fellows? Seems like a pretty good thing to me.
But this is simply silly:
In America, the average worker has not had a pay rise since 1973. In Britain, median full-time pay stopped rising in 2000, then collapsed after the crash. The great recession came after 30 years of the rich leaving the rest behind. (In the past two decades, for instance, the top 1% has grabbed three-fifths of all the gains in American growth.)
You cannot believe both of those things. That the average USian has not had a pay rise in decades and also that the rich have only been taking three fifths of the economic growth. It’s an either or. Either the rich have been taking all of the economic growth (for we all do agree that economic growth has been taking place, yes?) or the wages of the average worker have indeed risen.
And we know where this confusion comes from too. From the way that health care insurance is paid for in the US. It is part of labour compensation but not part of labour wages. And an increasingly large part of labour compensation has been devoted to health care insurance over the decades (given that the health care sector has moved from 8 % or so of GDP to 18% this must be so). Meaning that looking just at cash wages shows no great post inflation change but labour compensation has grown strongly.
To clarify why this is important think about our own health care financing system. It’s paid for out of taxes (nominally, but not in fact, out of national insurance). The cost of the NHS has increased (some 5% of GDP to 11% or so). So, let us try to equate the two systems. Have UK wages risen over this period? Yup, they sure have. Has NI risen over this period to pay for the NHS? Yup, sure has. But, do we look at the rise in wages after the increased costs of paying for health care? Do we look at post NI wages when determining whether wages have risen? No, we don’t. And thus to compare with the US system we should compare after health care has been paid for: or, both before. But not look at one set of figures before health care costs and the other after.