Why a conversion ethic is the solution to persistent UK poverty

By Graeme Smith
June 24, 2010

On the morning of George Osborne’s emergency budget, I was visiting a primary school in one of the poorest parts of one of our major cities. The school was fantastic. The staff were inspiring. In an impossibly difficult situation they were caring and creative. If the young children in that school were to have any chance in life then they were going to have it because of the dedication and commitment of the staff.

Yet, despite the remarkable work done by the teachers and their assistants, after only a short time in school you knew that what most of us consider a socially normal life was beyond a good number of these children. All too clearly they lacked the basics necessary for successful, happy, fulfilled lives.

They lacked the stability at home that would allow them to feel safe and secure, emotionally ready to learn and work. Outside of school they lacked structures and routines, something which made it so difficult to cope with the expected timetable of the school day. They lacked positive role models. Absent were the people who would demonstrate the value of good habits. Absent were the illustrations of a life lived assuming the daily round of work and play. And they lacked guidance and inspiration.

There were few, if any guides to the essential value of pain now rewarded by gain later. Too many of these children were being shaped by a context of chaos and confusion not of their own making but certainly one that was making them. Unless at some point in the future, perhaps inspired by some exceptional individual, these children could escape their situation and battle free of the circumstances which were forming their character, then they were going to live a life of welfare and poverty.

It is the adults these children will become that George Osborne wants to shift from welfare to work. And he asked us to judge the fairness of his budget by its capacity to help these, the poorest in our society.

The fairness ethic that the Chancellor’s budget contains is the familiar one of carrot and stick. The Chancellor wants people to work. At the heart of his fairness is the notion that those who can work must work. He seems to have a picture in his head of a band of people toying with the relative merits of welfare or work. His role is to tempt them back into the workplace. Those who chose a life of work will be rewarded financially.

Where the rewards are hardest to discern, amongst the lowest paid, the Chancellor has tried to increase the benefits of employment. So taxes have been cut and some protection offered against pay freezes. The Chancellor is opposed to the waste of talent that is a life dependent on welfare. And he is opposed to the idea of the rest of us paying for this wastage through excessive benefits. This also is not fair. This brings us to the stick.

Alongside the rewards of work come the punishments to be handed out to those who won’t work, the welfare scroungers. Those who can work but claim disability allowance will be sent back into the workforce. Those who live in houses which are too expensive are to have their housing benefits cut. No more luxury lie-ins funded by the state. It is not fair that hard-working people pay taxes so that lazy people can have equivalent or even better lives.

This is the fairness of a capitalist society, the fairness of utilitarian ethics, that what works best for society is its healthy citizens in productive employment contributing to the commonweal. In terms of an ethic the public will accept there is, to refer back to a previous Tory age, no alternative. As New Labour knew, the welfare state can only be defended when it supports the deserving poor, otherwise why would any of us work?

The problem with this fairness ethic is that it assumes all people are in a position to respond to the opportunities to work, should they materialise. It assumes all people have the capacity and the resources to adopt a life of work. It assumes everyone has the character and personality which makes success, however partial, possible.

But for that to be the case for the children I saw, and the adults they will become, then some dramatic transformation is required. They will need to be able to transcend their environment and circumstances, and change their lives. They will need new habits, new hopes, new expectations. In a very real sense they will need some sort of conversion experience.

The Chancellor hopes this conversion in character and life-style will be engineered by his carrot and stick ethic. Those, perhaps more experienced in these matters, know this rarely works. Conversions come about in response to a gift. People change because they are offered a free gift. This gift must be a gift of fellowship, a gift of welcome, a gift of invitation and embrace.

Threaten someone with a stick and they will find a weapon to defend themselves. Offer them an embrace and they may well embrace you back. What is missing from our public life, as illustrated by the Chancellor’s budget, is an ethic of conversion which produces the fundamental changes to individuals so that they can leave behind the culture of poverty. Without this, and relying on the carrot and stick ethic, we can expect the ranks of the poorest merely to grow. More will fall in and few, if any, will be able to escape. With it decades of persistent poverty might at last be tackled.


© Graeme Smith is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Chichester. He is editor of the journal Political Theology (http://equinoxpub.com/journals/politicaltheology) and his most recent book is A Short History of Secularism (IB Tauris, 2008).

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