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'Binary narratives of good and bad are not good enough' 

Yes, people can try it on at foodbanks - but simply labelling them as skivers is no answer. Society's attitude to those who are poor needs to change, as does public policy which breeds a contemptuous sort of opportunism. By Chris Lewis

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Not long ago, two people presented themselves at our foodbank near closing time. This always makes us suspicious because we’re not wet behind the ears in this game. They claimed that they had been sent by the local Job Centre but had no documentation beyond a list of foodbanks. Our volunteer trustee who was on reception rang the Job Centre and as suspected, the Job Centre denied referring them. There was some verbal abuse, then one of the two claimed she had been demeaned by our treatment of her. Our volunteer said that she had demeaned herself by her behaviour, and then they left.
Yes, they were trying it on. “Freeloaders, skivers!” I can hear people saying, “Well, they spend it all on fags and booze don’t they?” 

But is this ‘striver versus skiver’ narrative really an adequate account of what’s going on?
It is something deeply ingrained in our society. It goes back well before 2010 and austerity. It was embodied in the provisions of the 1834 Poor Law Act that abolished outdoor relief and tidied away the so called ‘indigent poor’ into institutions under more or less harsh conditions, implying that poverty, whether it came by fecklessness or the accidents of life, was on a par with being criminal. 
Austerity and related polices I believe, have had the effect of creating a society that is ever more divided. On the one hand there is a public policy aimed at cutting welfare budgets, using  instruments like the way people are assessed for their fitness for work and universal credit. I don’t see any indication it’s working. Many (not all) feel they are ‘rough handled’ by the system and that it is simply out to get them. Contempt breeds contempt, and within this grows a contemptuous sort of opportunism where getting what you can, trying to work the system seems like fair game.

Binary narratives ‘striver and skiver’ seem to be locking us into a spiral of division. I hope it’s something understood in the increasing number of churches that are trying to do something to meet human need. We need to be ‘wise as serpents and gentle as doves’ not taken for gullible fools, that will only encourage the ones who cry, “Skivers!”
So the next time someone comes to our foodbank without a referral, we’ll tell him or her, quietly and firmly, that they need one. We circulated our referral agencies asking them to make sure people present with one. In an emergency we take a referral over the phone. If one or both of those people with whom this story started comes back with a referral, we will overlook the verbal abuse and provide a package.

But we’re also morally accountable to our supporters, individuals, some not too well off themselves, businesses, schools and churches. Poverty is something we try, so far as we can, to tackle with understanding. Between striver and skiver there are many shades and binary thinking: good or bad won’t do. Strivers can be dishonest too.


Image | Birmingham City Council | Flickr | Creative Commons

The Revd Chris Lewis is a Baptist minister and chair of Swansea East Side Foodbank. Although the Foodbank is housed and operated from Mount Zion Baptist Chapel, it is an independent non-partisan group not affiliated to any religious or political group or party. The Trustee board is made up of local community representatives.


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