Church agencies involved in social care and promoting social justice say the chancellor's autumn statement places the burden of austerity heavily and unfairly on the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.
Church Action on Poverty responded swiftly after George Osborne's statement earlier this week.
CAP's Niall Cooper declared: "In capping benefit increases – for working families as well as those out of work – the chancellor has decided to shrink the deficit by squeezing the incomes of those who are already struggling to make ends meet."
"Families reliant on benefits will be six per cent worse off in real terms by 2015, and cumulatively loose a staggering £3.7 billion at a time when food and fuel bills are rising fast."
A policy worker with another anti-poverty action group told Ekklesia: "The message of Jesus had a bias to the poor, seeking justice through levelling. Current government policy appears to have, in its effect, a clear bias against the poor."
Political economist Ann Pettifor, who also advises churches on economic and environmental issues, noted that, in addition to further slashing public spending, "this week the Chancellor added £70 billion of bank bailout debt on to the balance sheet of today's and future UK taxpayers. Not an eyelid was batted."
"There is much talk of 'sharing the burden' of economic stringency. But in the real world most people live in, the assertion that those at the top and those at the bottom are being hit equally hard suggests a misleading equivalence between these groups," said Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia.
"The reason why it is misleading is well summarised in a famous post-war election poster showing three men standing on a ladder. The one at the bottom was chest high in rising water. The one at the top was well clear. The message was 'let’s all take a step down together'. It does not take much imagination to figure out why the impact on those who are most vulnerable to calamity far outweighs the marginal sacrifice of those who are nowhere near it."
Meanwhile, the Catholic charity Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN) described the autumn statement as "unwise and unjust".
Caritas CEO Helen O'Brien said the measures the coalition was adopting in welfare and related areas risked undermining the safety net for people on the edges of society.
She explained: “The social security system absolutely must provide individuals and families with enough to meet the fundamental costs of daily life. Increasing benefit payments at a rate so far below rent, food and utility prices is both unwise and unjust."
"It risks leaving people without enough for their essential needs, jeopardising their health and wellbeing, whilst generating long-term costs that our communities will have to face further down the line,” said Ms O'Brien.
Cathy Corcoran, who heads up the Cardinal Hume Centre in Westminster said: “Many significant welfare restrictions are already set to come into force early in the new year. Breaking the link between inflation and benefits before the effects of these changes have even been assessed, is a potentially disastrous move that could cause unsustainable hardship for many people who are already struggling to get by.”
Kevin Flanagan, director of St Antony’s Centre for Church and Industry in Manchester noted: “We are already seeing increasing levels family poverty and homelessness, any further real-term reduction of benefits will only worsen this situation.”
Just before the chancellor's autumn statement, some 30 church leaders from the Yorkshire and Humber Region signed an open letter to the Prime Minister warning that spending cuts and welfare reforms are having a “scandalous” impact on communities in the north of England.
Bishop Nick Baines of Bradford said: “The Government needs to know how its proposals are impacting on people who live outside London; they're not just dealing with figures in Whitehall, this is having an impact on people every day and the poorest are paying the highest. In Bradford we have 38,000 children living below the poverty line. Welfare reforms mean the poorest people are getting poorer, while the richest people are getting richer – and that’s a scandal.”
* Cuts and welfare changes having a “scandalous” impact, say church leaders - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17558