Twelve social justice points for Christmas

By Bernadette Meaden
December 24, 2017

As homelessness, rough sleeping, child poverty and destitution grows, there are repeated attempts to shift responsibility from government policy and economic injustice, and on to individuals – as if suddenly, large numbers of people have simply become unwilling to feed their children, or to pay their rent – and this just happened to coincide with the impact of huge cuts to social security. So forgive me if, before the end of the year, I take the opportunity to repeat some points which seem to occur again and again.

Social mobility is not the solution to poverty. As long as we have jobs which are vital to society but undervalued and underpaid, the people who do those jobs will be unable to lead a decent life. And if all the people who did those jobs became ‘socially mobile’ and moved on to better things, society would grind to a halt. Only by making sure that every job, no matter what its social status, pays a real living wage, and those who are temporarily or permanently unable to work are provided with a decent income through social security, will we solve poverty. Social mobility is a distraction.

For people living on a very low income, budgeting is rarely an issue. They will often know to the exact penny how much money they have got, and what they need to spend it on. They simply haven’t got enough money. That is the problem, not budgeting.

Work is no longer an automatic route out of poverty. Two thirds of children living in poverty have a working parent.

Some people have NO money. They’re not on a low income, they’re not ‘just about managing’, they’re not having cash flow problems. They have no money. And this is due to government decisions and choices. The choice to make Universal Credit a poverty-producing machine, the choice to make benefit sanctions harsh, prolific, and unreasonable, the choice to rip gaping holes in the safety net which used to keep people from falling through. Growing numbers of people simply stop trying to claim support because the process has become so stressful, humiliating, and difficult. Pre-welfare state destitution is back, thanks to welfare 'reform'.

A family can’t live on porridge if they have no fuel and/or cooking facilities. This year a political commentator said a family could get a bag of porridge for £1 and it would last them all week. She was apparently unaware that foodbanks now regularly prepare ‘cold boxes’  for people who either have no cooking facilities and/or have no money for fuel. Unless of course we are now suggesting that a family living on the equivalent of cold gruel is an acceptable option.

Putting on an extra layer of clothes may keep a healthy adult warm in a cold home, but it doesn’t work like that for people who are undernourished or have a chronic illness. No matter how many jumpers you wear, you’re still breathing cold air, which is what makes people ill. 

Just because someone looks well, that does not mean they don’t have a disability or severe illness. There has been so much negative propaganda around sickness and disability, to facilitate the cutting of benefits, many people now feel as if they are living under a permanent cloud of suspicion. If a person with cancer, or MS, or ME, has a good day and manages a shopping trip or other outing, that doesn’t mean they’re a fraud. They may be bedbound for the rest of the week. Please don’t ruin their one good day by looking askance at them for using a disabled parking space to save their energy, or a disabled toilet because they really need it. Trust people.

In economically deprived areas, fast food is often far easier to access than fresh food. And again, access to cooking facilities or a fridge is a big issue  for some people. Unhealthy eating is often much less of a choice than it may appear.

A Work Capability Assessment or PIP assessment is not a ‘medical’. It is a functional assessment which treats people like machines, often ignoring the opinions of a claimant’s GP or Consultant. A person with a severe mental illness may be assessed by a physiotherapist, for instance. Two companies which have been paid hundreds of millions of pounds to carry out these assessments employ four doctors between them. 

A mobile phone or smart phone is not a luxury, it is practically essential, and often cheaper than paying rental on a land line. Most jobs, and especially those which are zero-hours or casual, require people to be quickly contactable. Universal Credit is digital by default, and requires an email address. Libraries and Jobcentres are closing, so being without a phone is effectively being cast adrift from employment opportunities, support, and society in general.

Much of the social security budget goes to people who are relatively wealthy, e.g. billions of pounds in housing benefit goes to landlords, and in-work benefits allow businesses, often very profitable ones, to employ people on poverty pay. People actually reliant on social security to live do not have a comfortable lifestyle.

Government policies which deliberately produce child poverty, apart from being cruel and immoral, are effectively squandering the nation’s future human capital, and are equivalent to a farmer eating his seed corn.

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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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