More still to do among church members to counter myths of welfare

More still to do among church members to counter myths of welfare

When Iain Duncan Smith made his notorious speech in which he compared his welfare reforms to the abolition of slavery, he was assumed to be referring to the TV programme ‘Benefits Street’ when he spoke of ‘ghettos’ as evidence of all that is wrong with the welfare state.

This was rather ill-judged from a Secretary of State. Perhaps Mr Duncan Smith was unaware of the damage the programme has done, with residents rehoused after receiving death threats, and children who live in the street being bullied at school. And while rather surprisingly, given his previous statements, the Secretary of State said that people should not ‘disapprove’ of those on benefits, he then went on to justify cuts to tax credits with the familiar refrain ‘the money that they get often goes in quite negative ways, drugs, alcohol’.

Mr Duncan Smith seems unable to comprehend that bad parenting and inadequate incomes are two separate things, and should be regarded as such. It would be highly desirable to provide help to every parent who has an addiction problem, nobody could argue with that. To use their addiction as an excuse to leave their family income below an acceptable level is simply wrong.

And a man in Mr Duncan Smith’s position must know that with an agenda and a camera crew, a production company could make anybody look bad, and expose unattractive behaviour in any community, although in the stockbroker belt it may be less telegenic. Insider dealing and tax evasion does not make such entertaining viewing as shoplifting and petty crime.

And Mr Duncan Smith also surely knows that with a different agenda, a very different programme could have been made on the very same street. It could have portrayed working families struggling to survive as their benefits are cut, or the private landlords enriching themselves by receiving Housing Benefit for homes that are not fit to live in. It could even have focused on a former Conservative candidate, a millionaire who is a landlord on that very street, and whose tenants are paying £250 per week for a home that is unheated and extremely damp. But that would not have suited the production company’s agenda, and it would not have suited the Secretary of State’s either. So we didn’t see it.

Benefits Street is just one more example of the constant negative propaganda against the poor which has been used to justify Mr Duncan Smith’s policies, and the churches have been working hard to counteract this. It would seem they have made some progress, as a new report from Theos suggests that people who regularly attend Church (frequent attenders) have a much more positive attitude to the welfare state.

According to the report: 

‘Frequent-attenders’ were more willing to countenance the government spending more on welfare benefits for the poor even if it leads to higher taxes;

 ‘Frequent-attenders’ were more likely to disagree that most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one;

 ‘Frequent-attenders’ were more sceptical concerning the claim of people dole-fiddling;

 ‘Frequent-attenders’ were more likely to disagree that “if welfare benefits weren’t so generous, people would learn to stand on their own
two feet”;

 ‘Frequent-attenders’ tended to believe that cutting welfare benefits would damage many people’s lives;

 ‘Frequent-attenders’ were more likely to think that “the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements”.

But the report also suggests that people who identify themselves as belonging to the Church of England are more likely to vote Conservative than people belonging to other denominations. The ‘Tory party at prayer’ view of the Church of England still seems to have some basis in reality.

Prior to the last General Election, with David Cameron’s message of compassionate Conservatism, vote blue go green, and the Big Society, it was perhaps understandable that people with a concern for the poor and marginalised could see a Conservative vote as a reasonable option. Many people involved in charities and community work were quite excited by the Big Society idea, and the opportunities they believed it could offer.

What they did not anticipate were the swingeing cuts to council budgets which made the provision of some local services almost impossible, and punitive benefit sanctions which would send people to the Citizens Advice Bureau and foodbanks in huge and growing numbers. They probably now find themselves in the same position as the Doctors, who believed that there would be ‘no top-down reorganisation of the NHS’ and that a little bit more power would be given to them, whereas they now see power flowing into the hands of private companies and competition lawyers.

But now we do know what the coalition government has brought us in terms of increased poverty, the virtual abandonment of many sick and disabled people, and the dismantling of the NHS, it is difficult to understand how anyone concerned about social justice and fairness can endorse this.

So it may be a surprise to some that a Church of England curate, the Reverend Daniel Critchlow, has been selected as the Conservative Party candidate in the Sale and Wythenshawe East by-election triggered by the sad death of Paul Goggins. It may also have come as an unwelcome surprise to the Bishop of Manchester, who has been outspoken in his criticism of government policies, saying: "For those who they hit hardest, which are most often the disabled and the children of poor families, they are sufficient to plunge them literally below the bread line and through the doors of the parish foodbank.

"They may sound sensible from a background of stability and privilege but are on a different planet from the lived experience of families struggling to make ends meet day by day."

Mr Critchlow says that the Conservatives are the party to deliver a strong economy: but one has to ask, why must it be delivered on the backs of the poor? There are many ways to raise money without taking it from the poorest in society, but by standing in this by-election Mr Critchlow is endorsing, among other things, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax, sanctions, and the Lobbying Bill which churches and charities believe will silence their voice whilst leaving rich corporations free to exert as much influence as ever.

Organisations like Church Action on Poverty -- of which Paul Goggins was a co-ordinator -- and the Joint Public Issues Team have done great work to counter the myths and stereotypes being used to justify making the poor poorer, but it seems that there is much work yet to be done, even among fellow Christians.

* More on welfare from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill

* Truth and lies about poverty, benefits and welfare: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18086

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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