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British Austerity

One Family's Struggle to Escape Poverty in the UK

Although the United Kingdom is the fifth-richest country in the world, 14 million people in the country live below the poverty line. The problem has grown dramatically since the financial crisis -- as shown by the family of Kris Thomas.

Thomas Victor
By und Thomas Victor (Photos)
Friday, 5/31/2019   04:35 PM

Kris Thomas is hungry. It's the kind of hunger that can make people weak and ill -- and ultimately destroy them. The 27-year old is looking for work. He has to provide for two children, and although he has the right to state benefits, that's currently not enough to keep his family fed and clothed in the United Kingdom -- the fifth richest country in the world.

So Thomas heads to the Bridgeway Hall Methodist Church in Nottingham. He walks into the low-ceilinged foyer with an empty sports bag in his hand and sits down at a table with his head down, surrounded by men in tattered clothes.

A woman in a green apron sits down with Thomas and asks, "What's the reason for your visit?" She's a volunteer at Nottingham food bank, a non-profit organization that distributes donated groceries to the needy for free.

Thomas Victor

Kris Thomas at the food bank of the Bridgeway Hall Methodist Church in Nottingham

As Thomas glances up to give her his pink voucher, a tattoo becomes visible on his neck: Stacy, his girlfriend's name. She and their children -- Cleo, 10, and Kaydn, 8 -- are also here. They're the ones Thomas is most worried about.

He says, "The Job Center sanctioned us and cut our payments, even though we had two job interviews." The woman in the green apron shakes her head. "That's a nightmare," she says, adding, "I start ranting when I hear this. Don't get me there."

Thomas nods and says that it makes his blood boil when he thinks about it. Many others are in a similar predicament: Millions of Britons struggle to make ends meet and hunger has become rampant in the country. Over 14 million people -- including workers, the unemployed and children -- live below the poverty line, and more than half of them are food insecure. For them, it's a daily struggle to put food on the table. More than 4 million children are affected.

Thomas Victor

Canned goods at the food bank in Nottingham

Since 2008, the number of food banks has soared from 29 to 2,000. Hundreds of thousands of people use them. Because of widespread malnutrition, children have trouble focusing in school. Parents are more likely to get sick. The old are dying earlier.

It all began a decade ago, amid the 2008 financial crisis. The British government provided 500 billion pounds to bail out the financial sector, and by April 2009, Time magazine ran an article entitled "More Quickly Than It Began, The Banking Crisis Is Over." Profits started rolling in again for financial institutions. Stock prices recovered. Shortly after that, the newly elected Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government pushed through an austerity program and made cuts to the welfare system. The specter of hunger returned.

The woman in the green apron hands a clipboard to Thomas. After he signs it, he is given several bags of noodles, bread and tomato sauce. She's also included a few chocolate eggs for the children on Easter.

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Thomas and Stacy their children, Cleo and Kaydn, pack the food in bags

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Passersby in a shopping street in downtown Nottingham

Thomas and Stacy say thanks and pack the food into bags they've brought along, distributing the weight to make it easier to carry. They lack the money for the bus and have to walk for nearly an hour to get home.

On the way home, Kaydn cruises back and forth on his bicycle and keeps disappearing around corners. Stacy's gaze flickers nervously back and forth. She's been fighting panic attacks for years and busy city streets scare her. She yells at Kaydn as he rides away. Thomas tries to keep an eye on everyone while telling his story.

Things were going well at secondary school for him and he was planning to go to college. But then he met Stacy and she soon became pregnant with his child and was kicked out by her parents. The two of them decided to make a go of it on their own. He got a job at a flagship store of a sports chain and was soon promoted to deputy store manager.

Thomas Victor

A typical English residential neighborhood in one of the poorer districts of Nottingham

But when his little Cleo refused to drink and ended up in intensive care, work was out of the question for him. He found a replacement and took time off, which he thought was the right thing to do. His boss disagreed and reprimanded him. He was outraged, says Thomas. "I had two choices: kill him or hand in my notice." He handed in his notice.

Thomas found a new job in the cafeteria of a large superm

Thomas Victor

Nigel Adams is a co-founder of several food banks in Nottingham

arket. But when the banks began imploding under the weight of toxic debt, Britain plunged into recession and the supermarket laid off staff, once again leaving him without a job.

Over the following 11 months, Thomas found work three times, but once more fell victim to three waves of layoffs. He and Stacy had to borrow money to survive. After landing a job as a municipal garbage man, he twisted his back lifting something heavy. Despite the pain and an inflamed sciatic nerve, he went to work every day -- and still his contract wasn't renewed. Thomas and Stacy didn't know where to turn.

The welfare state was established to give people a helping hand when they stumble, a safety net to keep them from falling too hard and shattering their lives. This net, which was woven by European governments after World War II, is considered one of the reasons for decades of stability across Europe.

But according to Nigel Adams, who helped establish a number of food banks in Nottingham and is the director of Hope Nottingham, life became more difficult for many beneficiaries with the gradual introduction of the Universal Credit reform in 2012 by the Conservative government under David Cameron. Adams emphasizes two of the biggest problems: If someone loses their job and applies for social benefits, they don't receive any money for the first few weeks, and if they fail to show up for an appointment, their payments are cut.

Meanwhile, Thomas and Stacy had another child: Kaydn. Relatives initially helped out, but their kitchen cupboards were emptying. Thomas told Stacy to give the remaining food to the children. "I will be fine," he said. This went on for three days. On the fourth day, he collapsed in a parking lot. Finally, they turned to a food bank for help.

Nigel Adams knows what hunger can do to people. He's heard hundreds of stories like Thomas'. Hungry people eventually lose hope, says Adams, and if they lack a healthy environment, many plunge into depression, stop looking after themselves and their apartments, eventually stop paying the rent and wind up on the streets or, even worse, taking drugs. He says that young men are especially at risk.

Adams knows this because he also made a fateful decision in 2008. A few years earlier, he had started working for a construction company. He was repeatedly promoted and eventually had 30 people working under him. But when shareholders began to put profits over their staff's interests, he resigned -- partly because he had always wanted to serve the church, not from a pulpit, but on the streets, among the people who needed help.

He set up a small soup kitchen and a food bank in Nottingham. At first, it was the same 10 homeless alcoholics who always showed up, says Adams, but when the Conservatives entered government in 2010, things started to go downhill. The Tories changed the basic concept behind the social system, replacing solidarity with mistrust, he says. They no longer sought to support and empower the poor, he says, but instead treated welfare as something you gave out to scrounges, the undeserving poor.

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Staff member at a food bank

The government transferred responsibility for the Social Fund to town councils, but they soon found themselves unable to cope and increasingly sent people to Adams. Experts have repeatedly criticized this cycle: When the food banks jump in to help, the state shirks its responsibility.

Adams now runs 14 food banks in Nottingham alone. He says he distributed 14,000 food parcels last year, a thousand more than the year before, when the number had already increased by a thousand over 2016. The largest food-bank network, Trussell Trust, handed out over 1.6 million food rations, each calculated to last three days, nationwide. Thomas sees to it that he and his family get through a week on one ration.

Tim Lang, a professor at the University of London, researches poverty and hunger in the UK. He founded the Center for Food Policy and has written 18 books and published more than a hundred academic studies. He says that when he started in 1981, the situation in the country was better. Lang says what's happening today is reminiscent of medieval times, not only because of the church meals, but primarily because poor people die on average seven years earlier than rich people, and they have 17 more years of bad health over the course of their lifetimes.

This gap between the life expectancies of the poor and the rich is the result of Conservative policies, he argues. And he says that the gap has been growing over the last 10 years. Lang calls this a disaster -- one that Thomas and Stacy have to endure every day.

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A police officer tells a man to leave the shopping street

Under the Universal Credit program, Thomas and his family received no benefits for the first five weeks. They bridged this period with a loan, then missed a job-center appointment they knew nothing about because they had been informed of it online at a time when they had no money for internet access. The job center slashed their benefits by 40 percent.

This left the family with 480 pounds to cover food, utilities and rent for that month, says Thomas. The British Social Metrics Commission's poverty line for a family with two children is 353 pounds a week, or around 1,400 pounds a month. Without the food bank, the family would have gone hungry.

They hid their situation from the children for as long as possible, but it eventually became so obvious that even one of Kaydn's teachers approached Thomas and asked if she could buy shoes for the boy.

Thomas was always proud of his ability to work and provide for his family. Now that he no longer has work, he has the nagging feeling that he's failing to look after his family. "We are doing everything we can, be we can't help but feel like failures. It's probabyl not the case, but the system makes you feel that way," he says. He's especially concerned about eight-year-old Kaydn.

The boy has difficulties in school. He envies the other children's clothes and toys, and recently started stealing. Thomas sees his son taking a path that ends in prison and death. He's witnessed it often enough, in his personal surroundings and in his neighborhood.

Philip Alston is the United Nations' special rapporteur on extreme poverty. Every year, he selects two countries to visit. Last year, he traveled through the UK for two weeks, speaking with social workers and teachers -- and interviewing women who have to prostitute themselves to pay their bills. In his final report, he warned against the country's current course, citing British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who described "the life of man" outside a functioning society as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

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Passerby in downtown Nottingham

Alston points out that there were alternatives after the financial crisis in 2008. Instead of tightening its belt, the UK could have invested in its own country. As it is, he compares the government's policies to a huge laboratory experiment for austerity measures. And, just like in a lab, the cause and effect of this million-fold human experiment can be closely observed.

Alston argues that the impoverishment of large segments of the population is fueling the ongoing rise of the extreme right, noting that many people embrace extreme ideologies when they see no other options.

Thomas has long since stopped trusting British politicians. He no longer votes. He says that he's not a racist, but supports Brexit because he insists foreigners receive too much money. Research published by the prestigious London School of Economics suggests that poverty and inequality were important factors in the Brexit referendum.

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The Old Market Square in the heart of Nottingham

But men like Thomas could become the big losers of Brexit. According to Alston, the collapse of the British pound following the withdrawal referendum has already increased the cost of living for poor people by 400 pounds a year. To make matters worse, car companies like Ford, Nissan and Jaguar want to relocate some of their production plants to other countries because of uncertainties surrounding Brexit.

Thousands of people stand to lose their jobs.

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

What is the Global Societies series?
The Global Societies series involves reporters reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in a globalized world, societal challenges and sustainable development. The features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts will be appearing in the Global Societies section of SPIEGEL International. The project is initially planned to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Does the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have editorial influence?
No. The foundation exerts no influence whatsoever on the stories and other elements that appear in the series.
Do other media outlets have similar projects?
Yes. Large European media outlets like the Guardian and El País have similar sections on their websites -- called "Global Development" and "Planeta Futuro," respectively -- that are likewise funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Has DER SPIEGEL produced similar projects in the past?
In recent years, DER SPIEGEL has complete two projects with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Journalism Centre (EJC): "Expedition BeyondTomorrow," about global sustainability goals, and the journalist refugee project "The New Arrivals," which resulted in several award-winning features.
Where can I find all stories and elements published as part of the Global Societies project?
All Global Societies pieces will be published in the Global Societies section of the SPIEGEL International website.

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