Creating an Industry from Inequality

This article appeared in the Evening Telegraph: 18/03/2019 [Online], Available:  [Accessed: 2019, Mar 19]


Working with people in poverty is painful and powerful. I recall being vomited on, screamed at and, on one occasion, peed on (by an infant) but other experiences make the painful encounters feel worthwhile. Like when a mum, told by her GP she is too malnourished to breastfeed her six-week old, gives you a bear-hug after spotting the extra formula milk you quietly slid into her parcel before she left the foodbank.

Food poverty, as it is commonly termed, is an area I have spent the majority of my life and it has got under my skin. Therefore, I appreciate opportunities to attend events and engage with others exploring efforts to eliminate it. That is, unless the event is run by a commercial company charging me hundreds of pounds to attend.

The last food poverty event I attended was in Glasgow last November and cost only the price of a train fare but, on 27th March – within 48 hours of the present deadline for leaving the EU – the current affairs publication, Holyrood magazine, is running an event in Edinburgh entitled Tackling Food Poverty in Scotland. The (reduced) cost for a charity with an annual income of less than a million is £145 excluding VAT.

One of the speakers, Polly Jones, from Menu for Change told me the event is aimed primarily at local authorities. She said: “Any effective strategy to address food insecurity must recognise the role local authorities can play.” She is right, but the challenge for local authorities who have just seen millions cut from their annual budgets is that participation, at the even higher cost of £300 per head, is prohibitive.

A woman from London who tweets under the pseudonym, Benefit Blues, recently drew attention to the cost of an event hosting the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty. She told me this week: “I don’t even have the £5 concession charge in my bank account. These events are a symptom of a bigger illness which is expert-driven policy-making and the exclusion of those for whom these events are set up to assist.”

I spoke to one organisation who withdrew from the event, an individual who turned down an invitation to speak and a Scottish Government spokesperson who said: “Ministers will not be attending.” All concern was directed at the issue of the cost or lack of availability of concession options for those on a restricted income.

Darren McGarvey, in his sobering book Poverty Safari, writes: “Success in the poverty industry is when there remain just enough social problems to sustain everyone’s career.” My concern is if poverty becomes the preserve of the privileged, and excludes those whose input is most important, we are in danger of inventing an industry out of inequality and perpetuating the very problem we seek to prevent.