FOODBANKS and charities have replaced social security and Universal Credit as the last line of defence in the cost-of-living crisis, but the faith and voluntary sectors are themselves in a precarious state, says an 89-page report from the religion-and- society think tank Theos, published on Monday.
In a foreword to the report, A Torn Safety Net: How the cost of living crisis threatens its own last line of defence, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams write that compassion is not running out, but that money is, to the extent that some who have donated to foodbanks are now themselves relying on them.
They warn: “The shocking reality is that this winter, we are likely to see charities being forced to stop feeding the hungry so they can help the starving, cut back on support to the poorly housed so they can focus on the fast rising numbers of homeless, and give up on helping the down-at-heel because their priority has to be the destitute.”
The report was written by Hannah Rich and informed by a series of 48 interviews, conducted between January and August this year, in Cornwall, Glasgow, Wolverhampton, and the London Borough of Newham. It speaks of a real danger that churches and other faith groups will close “because they cannot afford to keep the lights on or find enough volunteers to sustain their social action”.
Housing is identified as a key dimension of insecurity, together with income and employment, food insecurity, and migration status. The proportion of C of E churches involved in supporting a foodbank or similar initiative has risen from 33 per cent in 2011 to 78 per cent in 2021.
The report warns of a social as well as financial recession, and many community groups’ reliance on volunteers who have relatively insecure lives and circumstances themselves. It concludes: “Squeezed personal finances and rising organisational overheads at a time when funders are also tightening their purse strings makes for a perfect storm for charities and community groups.”
Hubs such as community centres, church buildings, and Scout huts are subject to business rates for utilities, which, unlike domestic rates, are not capped. Without concerted action to address these rising bills, the longevity and financial sustainability of the buildings themselves will be threatened, the report warns.
Community spaces are critical, it argues, and it is vital they be sustained beyond this economic crisis. Rising fuel costs are making an impact on the recruitment of volunteers. “The margins of community groups are often small enough that one individual volunteer is the difference between a project functioning and not.”
It recommends changes to the Charities Act 2011, which currently requires charitable organisations selling land or property to achieve the best possible price for it. Churches and faith groups could also explore alternative models of housing, it suggests.
It urges a rethink of how paid work is valued along unpaid work. Changes in the tax code for paying petrol and other expenses could also incentivise this further, it suggests, and recommends raising the rate of Gift Aid on charitable donations, and a concerted attempt to link direct-debit giving with the rate of inflation.
It concludes: “It would be beneficial for churches and faith communities to think about insecurity as a longer term reality, while still working to reduce it, and to consider how it might impact their worship and practice, particularly those for whom it is a newer experience.”