Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty
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Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty

Foucault in the Food Bank

Christian Möller

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📖 eBook - ePub

Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty

Foucault in the Food Bank

Christian Möller

About This Book

This book offers a unique discursive perspective on the rapid rise of food charity and how food poverty has emerged as a symptom of deeper problems requiring psychological intervention.

Christian Möller explores how new anti-poverty programmes and advice cultures are psychologising poverty by locating causes and solutions inside the mind rather than in the outside world, and considers the political stakes in citizens becoming subjects of charity. Drawing extensively on Foucault alongside feminist and critical theory, the book puts forward an overdue challenge to the pervasive effects of a psychology, which limits our thinking about poverty with promises of development, happiness and resilience, but leaves social inequalities intact. Möller argues for returning critical psychology to praxis to address social injustices and inequalities. Challenging common assumptions about food charity as a symptom of a retreating welfare state, he shows howpower is exercised and knowledge is produced in these spaces of care and community. Also featuring direct applications of concepts to the real-world example of food banks, the book helps set out practical guidance for students and researchers designing empirical projects in critical psychology.

Drawing on original research and interviews with managers and volunteers, this text is fascinating reading for students and academics interested in critical psychology, and the relationship between charity, poverty and social exclusion.

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1 Introduction An essay in refusal

Following over a decade of austerity and welfare cuts in the UK, the rapid growth of food banks is widely regarded as symbol of a failing welfare state and food charities have since become a lifeline for families affected by government failures to provide a safety net in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of lockdown, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN, 2020b) has been collating distribution data from 83 of its food banks which showed a rise of 110% in the number of food parcels distributed between February and November 2020 compared to the previous year. The Trussell Trust (Weekes, Spoor, Weal, & Moffett, 2020), the largest national network of around 1,200 food bank centres, reported an increase of 89% in the number of food parcels given out in April 2020 compared to the previous year, while food banks introduced new measures like electronic referrals and new delivery models. In November 2019, the State of Hunger report (Sosenko et al., 2019), hailed as the “most authoritative piece of independent research into hunger in the UK”, showed that two-thirds of food bank users reported at least one health issue in the household and over 50% were affected by poor mental health. The report identified inadequate benefit payments, ill health or adverse life event and a lack of informal support networks as the three key drivers for food bank use. In May 2021, an update to the report (Bramley, Treanor, Sosenko, & Littlewood, 2021) also identified personal debt as a key referral reason, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) becoming the most common creditor and advance payments for universal credit accounting for 77% of debt owed to the DWP.
Even before the pandemic, there has been a substantial body of research documenting the growth of food banks and other charitable provision in the UK, mainly focusing on the causal factors for increased referrals. There is a wide consensus within this literature built around a narrative of welfare retrenchment and state retreat (see Caraher & Furey, 2018; Dowler & Lambie-Mumford, 2015; Lambie-Mumford, 2018) to explain the rise of charitable food aid, while other largely quantitative designs seek to test hypotheses for these links between welfare reform and food bank growth (Loopstra, Flederjohann, Reeves, & Stuckler, 2018; Loopstra et al., 2015; Power, Small, Doherty, Stewart-Knox, & Pickett, 2018). Further expansion of food banks is then seen predominantly as a distraction (Caraher & Furey, 2018) from failures in government and shifting of responsibility, hence positioning food banks as merely filling an existing gap in service provision. Lambie-Mumford (2018, p. 10) has argued that “state welfare retrenchment and increased conditionality were found to play an important role in driving need for food banks” in the UK. This notion of welfare retrenchment is well established and upholds a strict distinction between state power and private charities that are merely responding to new gaps left by austerity policies. What it overlooks, and often obscures, however, is the active role of charities in producing new knowledge of crises and negotiating dominant discourses about poverty in their everyday practices.
A briefing paper by the British Psychological Society (BPS, 2020) released in July 2020 painted an equally bleak picture of an estimated 14.4m people in the UK living in poverty and presented a case for understanding the “psychological impact of poverty and the ways in which psychological research can help to effectively reduce it” by increasing the effectiveness of existing interventions. With an emphasis on building ‘community resilience’, improving prevention and early intervention “in protecting local areas from the worst impacts of economic adversity and experience of poverty”, psychologists are offering their expertise in the fight against poverty. Entitled “From Poverty to Flourishing”, the campaign already envisions psychological transformation under expert guidance and tasks psychologists with gathering evidence of ‘what works’ in order to inform policy. There are some clear links with community psychology and positive psychology in the imperative to support ‘flourishing’ by creating neutral and objective knowledge which only needs to be put into practice for families to ‘flourish’. What the campaign does not appear to engage with is the historical role of psychology in informing and legitimising austerity measures and punitive ‘workfare’ programmes (Friedli & Stearn, 2015), or the influential role of behavioural scientists in designing and legitimising workfare (Cromby & Willis, 2014; Gane, 2021) and disciplinary welfare regimes, such as the infamous ‘Behavioural Insights Unit’ and its impact on UK policy.
As laudable as the recognition of systemic and structural determinants of poverty by the BPS is, the psychology of neoliberalism cannot be separated from the neoliberalism of psychology (Adams, Estrada-Villalta, Sullivan, & Markus, 2019) and its long history of individualising and essentialising inequalities. Instead of asking ‘what works?’ or how policies can be improved through psychology to merely ameliorate the impacts of austerity and capitalist crises, this book aims to problematise psychological explanations of poverty and seemingly common-sense behavioural interventions by food charities. Through an analysis of power relationships and subjectifying practices, assumptions about naturalised categories of vulnerable ‘clients’ in individualised crises can then be challenged and make way for historically and theoretically grounded understandings of how subjects of food charity are produced. My ambition here is to offer one such possible analysis of food charity, which people can use, refute, or draw on as an instrument in the discursive struggles yet to come. I offer no easy answers but an essay in refusal (Foucault, 1988c) as invitation to think differently about how food poverty is problematised and governed by an expanding network of charities, business partners and a growing advice industry.

More than Food and behaviour change

Partly in response to increasing recognition of the insufficiency of food aid for addressing long-term problems around poverty, the Trussell Trust has developed the MTF pilot programme with initial funding by philanthropist Martin Lewis, founder of Money Saving Expert, and other corporate partners. In addition to providing ‘emergency’ food parcels, the MTF programme aims to provide more ‘holistic’ care and support through money management and cooking courses, budgeting and debt advice. Despite various shifts in the PR strategy of the Trussell Trust and its recent rebranding as an ‘anti-poverty charity’, MTF and the development of community hubs remain part of the long-term vision of the Trussell Trust even after bringing an end to the need for food banks. While not all food banks within the franchise have adopted the MTF model, most will share the ambition to deliver additional support in partnerships with local advice agencies. More funding, better links between food bank and advice services with increased efforts to signpost ‘clients’ onto other services are frequently presented as ‘upstream’ solutions to poverty. In a 2017 update to the ‘Emergency Use Only’ report (Haddad, Perry, & Hadfield-Spoor, 2017), the authors build on previous recommendations to demand making “job centres efficient and supportive” along with expanding advice and support services, claiming that “independent advisers co-located in foodbanks would make the most difference in reducing foodbank referral numbers”. Lambie-Mumford and Dowler (2014, p. 1420) similarly praise the ‘non-food related support’ as perhaps the “primary contribution charitable help offers”, while Haddad et al. (2017, p. 39) endorse the expansion of advice services where “ideally, people should be seeing advisers before they go to the food bank”.
My interest in MTF was sparked during my first interviews with food bank managers who all, to my surprise, pointed to the limitations of material food aid and the need for more long-term solutions. Although they frequently highlighted problems with the UK benefit system and the introduction of universal credit in particular, it was the individual targeting of ‘problematic’ clients, their skills, lifestyles and attitudes that intrigued me. The turn to behavioural factors and emphasis on individual skills training seemed to be in sharp contrast to much more transactional and well-established food charity systems in countries like Canada, the US or Germany. The declared need for MTF, and the underlying imperative to diagnose and treat poverty subsequently became the focus of my PhD on which this book is based. Today, behavioural interventions and designs, medicalised language and concerns with psychological ‘assets’ and prevention strategies are integral parts of a therapeutic discourse at work across food charities in different countries. In Reinventing Food Banks and Pantries, Katie Martin (2021) has proposed a popular template for reforms to food charity in the US, guided by the MTF model centred around individual training and ‘wraparound services’ “to connect the family with community resources that will build their self-sufficiency, such as job training, skill building, and education”. The turn from material food provision to MTF then has to be explored within a wider cultural turn to behavioural explanations for social problems, development discourses and new expert authorities and treatment regimes. My aim with this book is not to offer a normative critique or evaluation of the effectiveness of MTF, but to contribute to a critical ontology of food charity today in an attempt to make visible again the power effects of these discourses and consider what is at stake in the psychologisation of poverty.

New subjects of charity

There is a growing awareness of how subjectivity itself has become the target of neoliberal government (Chandler & Reid, 2016), driven by psychological concerns with the “person as an autonomous being that is entrepreneurially driven towards the external world, but also self-regulating the interiority of personal emotional experience, and even expansively self-constructing the future self” (Kashima, 2019, p. 351). While studies of ‘food poverty’ in the UK continue to reinforce categories of risk and vulnerability in their quest for measuring and documenting food poverty, ‘clients’ as recipients of charitable donations are routinely placed in fixed categories of vulnerability and much research is dedicated to developing ever more complex ‘profiles’ of typical food bank users (Loopstra & Lalor, 2017). With considerably less attention paid to the profile of volunteers, it is predominantly ‘clients’ who are exposed to a constant academic gaze seeking to identify the real reasons for their need, thereby requiring a constant flow of authentic performances of poverty in qualitative case studies and quantitative surveys of food bank users. Clients of charity are thereby tied to strictly delineated positions as worthy recipients who are grateful for the kind help received, openly speaking about their poverty and committed to following expert advice and actively finding their way out of poverty. Assuming that ‘clients’ exist independently of these discursive limits as pre-existing consumers of services fails to account for the new mechanisms, disciplinary mechanisms and categorisations in what Andy Fisher (2017) has termed the Hunger Industrial Complex, a new regime in which charities and their corporate partners are following market logic and increasing their reach, as well as their own benefits.
When a critical analysis of subjectification is extended to the internal rules, mundane practices and autonomous acts within the cultural setting of food charities, it becomes possible to see these positions as constituted through power with subjects taking an active role in their self-constitution (Foucault, 2002e). Despite shifting foci between structures and ethical self-formation in his work, Michel Foucault maintained a consistent concern with a critical ontology of subjectivity founded on a distinct philosophical position which rejects universal truths and humanist notions of the fixed and self-contained subject in favour of “an ontology of ourselves, of present reality” (Foucault, 2010, p. 21). Conceiving such new modes of subject formation as fluid, fragmented, contested and reversible processes of both disciplinary domination and ethical self-formation through freedom has important ontological implications: In response to frequent critiques of Foucault's alleged denial of the subject's existence or agency, Jäger (2002, p. 38) shows that Foucault's own analyses are “not directed against the subject but against subjectivism and individualism”, that is the ways we are made to understand ourselves as subjects and act accordingly within the confines of available discourses. Stressing the influence of Nietzsche, Simons (1995, p. 3) here refers to Foucault's work on limits as the contrasts between the “unbearable lightness and heaviness”, of being caught up between a constraining ‘heavy’ disciplinary pole imposing purposeful individualities on one hand, and the practices of freedom where being denied any purpose would make life ‘unbearably light’ in comparison. To refuse what we are today then first requires an analytical account of how these limits as conditions of possibility are imposed on us through subjection and subjectification. Discourse analysis can identify these discursive limits as the borders of the sayable and hence allows subverting or extending them.
As the ‘client’ of food charity becomes the target of problematisations, my own questions are concerned with how norms for expected behaviour are formulated and imposed, but also freely put into practice. How are responsibilities assigned and divisions between positions drawn and what are the implications at the level of subjectivity? Dominant problematisations, discussed in Chapter 3, are then intimately tied to processes of subjection which set the conditions and expectations for normative conduct and need to be made visible and explicit. The added critical potential of such project should become visible here, as problematisations always “form the conditions of possibility for the present and act as limits on who we are and who we might yet become” (Koopman, 2014, p. 401). Without accounting for these problematisations, we remain blind to their effects on the present and risk missing out on becoming other than what we are today; their critical analysis becomes the foundation of critique and attempts to think differently with a view to reconfiguring the arbitrary limits imposed on our reality. These concerns with subjectification must set aside any universal analysis of food poverty as a social phenomenon, its causes and different solutions in favour of a critical ontology of our present reality, that is how we have come to be divided into volunteers, food bank ‘clients’ and donors. I am therefore not concerned with the quality of experience in itself, but the conditions of possibility for subjectification and how arbitrary limits imposed on reality are lived out. I am also emphasising the involvement of ‘clients’ and volunteers in their subjectification as active speakers in relational interactions with others which goes beyond static subject positions as linear outcomes of discourse (Bührmann, 2012).

Towards a critical ontology of food charity and the psychologisation of poverty

Psychologisation forms the final stage in the biopolitics of food charity where fully psychologised explanation...

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Citation styles for Food Charity and the Psychologisation of PovertyHow to cite Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Möller, C. (2021). Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
Möller, Christian. (2021) 2021. Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Möller, C. (2021) Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Möller, Christian. Food Charity and the Psychologisation of Poverty. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.