How IDS measures up to Catholic Social Teaching

How IDS measures up to Catholic Social Teaching

As Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith probably has more influence over the lives of the least fortunate members of society than any other person in the country. His decisions have a life-changing impact on poor, sick, and disabled people: the section of society that has least power and influence.

The DWP has the largest budget of all government departments and is a prime target for spending cuts. As a percentage of GDP, however, welfare spending is now much lower than it was in the 1980’s so the welfare ‘burden’ is not out of control.

As the man responsible for implementing cuts and reforms to welfare, Mr Duncan Smith is obviously dedicated to his job, turning down the post of Justice Secretary in the latest Cabinet reshuffle. Unusually for a member of the Cabinet, he is known for his religious beliefs, and even more unusually, for his Catholicism. This is interesting because through its social teaching, developed over more than a century through various Papal Encyclicals and other documents, the Catholic Church has had much to say on the issues Mr Duncan Smith is wrestling with every day. So it seems reasonable to look at how the Secretary of State’s policies compare with Catholic Social Teaching (CST).

CST really began in 1891 with Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical on Capital and Labour. It was an attempt by the Church to avert the violent social upheaval it feared would be the result of widespread poverty and the gross exploitation of workers. Although written to avert a revolution, its tone and ideas would be seen as extremely radical in today’s globalised, corporate world. This is how Pope Leo described conditions in his day:

"By degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labour and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself."

The Church promoted the dignity of labour, but recognised that having a job was not a blessing if it failed to pay what it considered a fair wage, one that allowed a man(sic) to maintain himself and his dependents in decency. Perhaps the modern equivalent would be the Living Wage.

As his own response to today’s problems, Duncan Smith established the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), which has been influential on Conservative party policy. Many of the CSJ’s leading lights are known for their Christian beliefs and the think tank places a heavy emphasis on work as the route out of poverty. It pays much less attention to the plight of the working poor, and has said little about the fact that more than half of children living in poverty are in working households, and that growing numbers of working families depend on benefits to make ends meet.

Mr Duncan Smith has carried his belief in the primacy of work from the CSJ to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Most of the DWP’s spending goes on state pensions and benefits for working people on low incomes. Out-of-work benefits and benefits for disabled people are a small percentage of the welfare budget, but they have arguably attracted a disproportionate amount of attention. Indeed
the DWP has been criticised for a less than careful use of statistics and language, portraying benefit claimants as workshy scroungers.

Sanctions (having benefits cut or suspended) have been introduced for those who do not fulfill the increasingly onerous conditions placed upon out of work claimants, and even sick and disabled people are now subject to these sanctions.

In 2010/11, 10,300 sanctions were applied to sick and disabled people on Employment Support Allowance.

Christian advocates of this tough approach often quote St Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, "If any man will not work neither let him eat.", but Catholic Social Teaching specifically refutes this. In Quadragesimo Anno, written in 1931 as the world suffered the effects of the Stock Market crash, Pope Pius XI stated "we must not pass over the unwarranted and unmerited appeal made by some to the Apostle when he said 'If any man will not work neither let him eat.' For the Apostle is passing judgment on those who are unwilling to work, although they can and ought to, and he admonishes us that we ought diligently to use our time and energies of body, and mind and not be a burden to others when we can provide for ourselves. But the Apostle in no wise teaches that labour is the sole title to a living or an income.

"To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is labouring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice".
(Quadragesimo Anno para 57/58)

This principle promoted by the Church, that everybody, simply by virtue of being human, and irrespective of work, has a right to a decent life, would appear to be a completely alien concept to Duncan Smith, the DWP and the CSJ. As sick and disabled people and the unemployed face increasing hardship, and feel increasingly stigmatised and pressured, his department really does seem to be wielding a sledgehammer to crack a rather fragile nut.

Another group of people that have attracted much adverse attention are Housing Benefit claimants, with David Cameron in his Conference speech portraying this as a lifestyle choice by people who won’t work but expect to get their own home at the taxpayers’ expense. This is completely at odds with the fact that over 90 per cent of new Housing Benefit claimants are working, but the DWP never seeks to correct this misconception.

Quadragesimo Anno gave an analysis of the imbalance of economic and political power which could have come straight from the Occupy movement. Speaking of a "despotic economic dictatorship" it says:

"This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will.

"This concentration of power and might, the characteristic mark, as it were, of contemporary economic life, is the fruit that the unlimited freedom of struggle among competitors has of its own nature produced, and which lets only the strongest survive; and this is often the same as saying, those who fight the most violently, those who give least heed to their conscience."

To restore social justice under such conditions is a herculean task, but Mr Duncan Smith seems to be confident that he is the person for the job, and Universal Credit, his great project, will be the way to do it. This will be his legacy, and his reputation will rest on it. It is intended to simplify the benefits system and ‘make work pay’.

But under Universal Credit, it is claimed that many more disabled people will be pushed into poverty.

There are some very disturbing features about the treatment of disabled people under Universal Credit. For instance, "A disabled person who uses a manual wheelchair and can self-propel this 50 metres will be treated as non-disabled and will no longer qualify for any extra support under Universal Credit".

Of course it is important not to write disabled people off as incapable, but to ignore the difficulties and extra expense they face in trying to live with their disability is callous.

Chris Edwards, an economist and senior research associate at the University of East Anglia, has published “The Austerity War and the impoverishment of disabled people”, in which he finds that ‘over four years to 2015 the poorest 20 per cent of the 2.7 million households receiving disability benefits will lose 16 per cent of their cash income plus benefits-in-kind. This percentage loss is four times as big as the loss for the richest 20 per cent of households’.

Concern about this has led to the foundation of The Hardest Hit, a coalition of disabled people, their families and supporters, calling on the government, and particularly Mr. Duncan Smith, to reconsider their plans.

Despite everything the government says, all the figures suggest they really are balancing the budget on the backs of the poor, and Mr Duncan Smith is at the forefront of this approach. He seems to spend much of his considerable energy and intelligence on judging and trying to alter the behaviour of the poor, whilst maintaining, in the face of all the evidence, that the last thing the poor need is more money

Unlike the Church’s condemnation of a ‘despotic economic dictatorship’, one rarely hears anyone from the government questioning the morals or behaviour of the rich.

Perhaps this is the crucial difference between Mr Duncan Smith’s approach, and that of Catholic Social Teaching. The Church recognises that to achieve social justice, one must first establish economic justice, whereas the Secretary of State appears to reject this basic principle.

To be fair, many devout Catholics, perhaps the majority, are largely unaware of the thrust of the Church’s Social Teaching. If this is the case with Mr. Duncan Smith, one can hope that at some point he will take a moment to pause and consider his policies in the light of that teaching.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.

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