The UK government has announced a range of cuts in welfare benefits and public spending generally. These have largely targeted the most disadvantaged or vulnerable in society.
For instance, the removal of the mobility component of disability living allowance from about 60,000 care home residents will mean that many cannot afford the powered wheelchairs or adapted vehicles which allow them to get out and about in wider society. In future, they will stay segregated from their neighbours.
Simon Heng, a Community Care columnist, wrote that "this move effectively imprisons the most disabled in their institutions, with little hope of ever accessing the local community. How do I know? For six years, that's how I lived, and this small benefit was a nugget of independence."
Many of the government’s cuts will intensify divisions in society, excluding some people from opportunities that others enjoy and making it less likely that people from different backgrounds will mix.
For instance, removal of the education maintenance allowance and increased tuition fees will prevent many young people from poorer backgrounds from entering higher education. Housing benefit changes will result in many tenants who are unemployed or in low-paid work being forced to relocate to other areas, along with their children. Welfare benefit cuts will leave some disabled and jobless people struggling to cope on even lower incomes, or destitute. Legal aid cuts will deny many people access to justice in the courts, even sometimes where errors by the state have harmed them, which in some immigration cases may mean that people are unjustly denied the right to stay in this country.
For Christians, while it is most obviously the needy who will suffer, the damage is wider. If Christ can often be found in the hungry, stranger, sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25.31-46), then their neighbours too may be cut off from fellowship with the source of love and life, especially if they fall for the government’s attempts to justify its harshness and end up hating those in need.
While of course all levels of society include their share of rogues and villains, including the poor, the levels of hatred and contempt stirred up against disabled and unemployed people not only harms them but also those who hate and despise their neighbours. As 1 John warns, those who do not love their brothers and sisters risk spiritual death (1 John 3.10-18).
Devaluing what matters
The cuts also devalue what some might think deserves to be celebrated. Many people who are economically disadvantaged have shown great resilience in the face of hardship, and contribute to society in ways that are not always recognised.
For example, some of the unemployed people who may be forced to do community service like petty criminals, worked long and hard before being made redundant. Many now help care for their grandchildren or other relatives, do small services for their neighbours and in other ways play a part in society, even if they do not get paid for it. They do not deserve to be publicly shamed.
Housing benefit cuts will force some unpaid carers, and low-paid careworkers and personal assistants, who may be regarded as friends by those they assist, to live long distances from those for whom they care. In some cases, relationships of trust and care will be broken: for someone with dementia or autism for instance, the one person around whom they feel safe and nurtured may no longer be there. This may seem trivial to the government, but not everyone has the same perspective.
Likewise, some of the services that will be closed down as a result of the drastic cuts in local government funding have made a major difference to the communities served, including their most vulnerable members.
Educational cuts are likely particularly to hit the arts and social sciences, so that subjects like history are run down. But adding to knowledge and understanding of human society, even if this does not bring an immediate profit to business, can be of great long-term value.
Meanwhile, military expenditure continues to eat up huge amounts of the UK’s resources. Yet warfare brings misery to many lives and causes massive destruction, and many Christians – even those who are not pacifist – would question the state’s priorities.
The role of churches
Many Christians and several church leaders and organisations have already spoken out about the cuts and many are involved in action alongside their neighbours of all faiths and none. Some church members are of course directly affected or trying to support family members in this position.
In months to come, church involvement in resistance to the cuts is likely to intensify. Some people will take a very practical approach; others may more radically challenge the economic perspective of those in power and seek a deeper transformation. The Bible and church tradition offer rich resources for those who wish to delve deeper into the causes of poverty, along with the fruits of current research.
Church networks can be extremely important in sharing information and insights about the facts and figures as well as the human cost of what is taking place. This can help to counter the misinformation in some media, as well as enabling more accurate and helpful news and personal accounts to be shared.
In all this, reflection, prayer and worship are likely to remain of key importance, and help to keep hope alive. There are hard times ahead, but in the end justice and mercy will triumph.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia Associate. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice.