Work, poverty, and Christianity

By Bernadette Meaden
December 7, 2016

“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin” wrote Charles Darwin. (Journal of Researches, 1836.)

For the past six years the government’s approach to poverty and welfare reform has been based on the mantra that work is the way out of poverty. The benefit cap, benefit sanctions, and even cuts to disability benefits, have all been justified as a way of ‘incentivising’ people to find employment, which we are assured will lift them out of poverty.

But a report out today for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), written by the New Policy Institute  shows that actually, work is by no means a certain route out of poverty, and that for millions of working people, poverty persists. In fact 55 per cent of people in poverty are now in working households, more than ever before. And worryingly, poverty is becoming increasingly linked to disability – half of those in poverty are either disabled or living with a disabled person.  

Much of this can be attributed to the welfare reforms and cuts implemented in recent years. As the report says, “Increasingly, the social security system does not cover the full cost of essentials for those on low incomes, such as rent and council tax.” This was vividly illustrated by an interview on Radio Four this morning with a mother who is working but still needs to use a foodbank. She is on Universal Credit (the whole point of which we were told is 'making work pay') but her income does not cover her outgoings, and she faces mounting debts.

It's important to note however that much media coverage of the JRF report seems based on the premise that in-work poverty is somehow more unacceptable than out-of-work poverty. The implication is that those who aren’t working, for whatever reason, are the undeserving poor, whilst those who are working are deserving of help. This needs to be challenged. If people cannot work because they’re sick, disabled, caring for an elderly relative or young child, or are simply between jobs, should we find it in any way more acceptable that they and their children live in poverty?

In his conference speech last year, Iain Duncan Smith seemed to suggest we should. He told disabled people, “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, I say to them, you will work your way out of poverty. That is the pledge we make to those who need our support.”  This was tantamount to saying that if a  person wasn’t working, then it was acceptable for them to be in poverty, and this seems to have characterised the government’s approach to people reliant on benefts.

In contrast, I’ve recently been reading about early Christian communities and how they dealt with these issues. “There were no needy persons among them. From time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need ” (Acts 4:34-35). When asking the Corinthians to contribute in this way, St. Paul explained, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.” (II Cor. 8:13-14;)

The Church Fathers reflected this approach, making statements which would now be considered very radical. St. John Chrysostom (344-407) said, “Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.” St. Basil of Caesarea (330 to 379) said, “If every man took only what was sufficient for his needs, leaving the rest to those in want, there would be no rich and no poor.”

For early Christians, radical sharing was considered an act of justice, returning to the poor what in God’s eyes was rightfully theirs, but had been denied them by an unjust human system. In Catholic social teaching this view is referred to as ‘the universal destination of goods’, and is explained thus: “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity" (Gaudium et Spes, 69).

Mrs. May, the daughter of a vicar, has said that being a Christian influences her approach to her job. If that is the case, she might want to urgently reconsider her government’s approach to poverty in the UK.

* Read the report Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion here

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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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