I did my PhD from 1998-2001 comparing welfare reform in Buffalo, New York State to Sheffield in the UK.
When asking to explain how the two systems were different for the lone parents experiencing them and which was more successful my short-hand was that the mandatory US system was better at moving lone parents into work, whilst the UK voluntary system of the then New Deal for Lone Parents was better at lifting lone parents out of poverty. So really, it depended on what your end game was.
I attended welfare-to-work programmes with mainly Black and Hispanic single mums in Buffalo to see what support was really on offer and interviewed them about their lives, and visited many of the organisations delivering programmes (one of whom went bust during my research after switching to a payment-by-results model, having served the community for over 30 years before that). In Sheffield I sat in on lone parent interviews at the Employment Service (before the launch of Jobcentre Plus), went to local support groups and interviewed lone parents in their homes.
There was no doubt that poverty was experienced by lone parents in both cities living and bringing up their children under very different systems. I remember well interviewing a lone parent in her home in Shire Green in Sheffield who was in tears describing being left with only a potato to feed her children with for the last two days before her next benefit giro, and having to rely on neighbours to give her food. But one of the most concrete signs of the absolute poverty experienced by the majority of lone parents in Buffalo was the existence of Food Stamps that were a core part of the benefit system and the network of Food Banks that served them.
I visited many of these in Buffalo and saw the impact they had on the parents who used them - both a lifeline and a source of shame. The fact that many of the working poor relied on them showed a system that wasn't working - the mantra 'any job is a good job' on the walls in the welfare offices failed to recognise that low wage work did not pay enough for a family to survive.
The existence of food banks in the US system was another short-hand I used at the time to explain to interested friends and family the difference between the way people were treated between the two countries. I have, therefore, watched with increasing concern over the past few months as press coverage has shown the rise in the use of food banks in this country.
Families should not have to rely on food banks to survive. We need to look at how to make the broader system work better; so that people are helped into work that lifts them out of poverty and supported adequately when they are claiming benefits. Food Banks are not the kind of social innovation we need in response to the challenge of the current economic situation and the impact it is having on families surviving on the margins. Let's not let food banks become a permanent sticking plaster.