Will the church drive a spoke into the wheel of injustice?

By Bernadette Meaden
July 7, 2018

As the school holidays approach, many churches and faith groups will be preparing to feed children who would otherwise go hungry, children whose parents do not have enough income to provide for their most basic needs.

This poverty and destitution is not an accident, or an act of God. It is a direct result of government policies, which in recent years have repeatedly targeted the poorest and most disadvantaged people for the harshest cuts and most punitive measures. This steady stream of cruelty is now culminating in the rollout of Universal Credit (UC), which drives people into debt and causes foodbank use to soar.

Again, this is no accident. And it is not a function of faulty administration, although that abounds. When Universal Credit was designed, numerous decisions were made, on an ideological basis. Somebody decided that people with a very low or non-existent income could be made to wait six weeks with no money. If they couldn’t survive, then they could get an advance. So they start out in debt and their meagre income is reduced further, as deductions are made to repay that advance. If you were trying to invent a way of trapping people in poverty, that would be a pretty effective way of doing it

Somebody also decided that many disabled people would lose money. Somebody decided that disabled children should lose half their allowance. Somebody decided that a terminally ill person, if they couldn’t guarantee to die within six months, should have a meeting with a work coach

When Universal Credit was designed, somebody decided that all of a household’s payment should go into one bank account. Even though domestic violence charities warned that this would facilitate financial abuse and coercive control, this design feature remained. 

There are so many other terrible features of Universal Credit – the two child limit; the rape clause; the Minimum Income Floor; the in-work conditionality;  there is no space to list them all here. But it is a terrible system, seemingly designed by people with no understanding of, or empathy for, life on a low income. How many fundamental design flaws can a system have before it is declared fatally flawed, and scrapped?

Last year a DWP whistleblower told a newspaper, “Turning away those in abject poverty is a part of the job. Those who have worked in universal credit since the early days have become hardened, but it’s very difficult to tell claimants, ‘I’m sorry but we can’t give you any more’ even if we know that children will suffer in hunger for weeks… Claimants who state that they are facing eviction are a penny a dozen…Case managers are well trained to deal with any claimants threatening suicide due to the recurrence [of this situation].” 

In answer to criticism, the government often cites its ‘test and learn’ approach, as if that was a good thing – but what does that mean, in reality? It means that poor adults and children are the guinea pigs in a remorseless social experiment, their lives raw material for the Universal Credit machine to chew up, spit out, and move on. And despite so much painful testing, the learning certainly seems to be kept to a minimum. Over several years, the government has only made the smallest of changes, the tiniest of concessions, the minimum it could get away with.

The reality is that UC, combined with grotesquely unfair disability assessments, continue to make life hell for many of the most disadvantaged people in the UK.

Faced with this reality, Churches and faith groups have shown great compassion and generosity by responding with foodbanks and other practical help. This tireless work should be celebrated. But is it enough?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Is it enough for the Church to bind the wounds of those crushed by government policies – children, disabled people, poor people? Should it not do everything in its power to stop the injustice, drive a spoke into the wheel itself?

Religious leaders have, on numerous occasions, spoken out. Recently the Bishop of Colchester, in an excellent speech to his local foodbank, said that foodbanks are a sign of failure, that the state itself is now pushing people into poverty, and it is “wrong, unjust, inhuman that people should be plunged into such a state of desperation and degradation in the first place.”

The Methodist Church has called on the government to halt the rollout of UC and said "A benefit system which drives families into debt and leaves them hungry is a failing benefit system.” The Joint Public Issues Team has consistently done brilliant work – its report on benefit sanctions would have shamed any decent government into a change of course.

And yet, as someone who has written about these issues from a Christian perspective for years, I’m often asked on social media “What is the Church doing? Where is the Church?”. My reply, that churches are running foodbanks, giving shelter to homeless people, and speaking out, feels increasingly inadequate in the face of such suffering. The churches are binding wounds, but the wheel of injustice keeps turning. And the situation is set to get much, much worse.

At the moment, only ten per cent of benefit claimants are on UC. For the other ninety per cent, three million households, including people with severe disability and mental illness, the government plan is to stop their benefits, and make them apply for Universal Credit. Serious problems with the application process, particularly for vulnerable groups, are well known. Organisations like Mind and Child Poverty Action Group are imploring the government not to proceed with this reckless and irresponsible act, which, even if the application process goes as smoothly as possible, threatens to throw millions of households into financial chaos.

Other organisations, like the UK’s biggest trade union Unite, are calling for Universal Credit to be scrapped completely. The National Audit Office may have said, with grim resignation, that we now appear to be stuck with UC. But the NAO’s remit is value for money, it cannot calculate human suffering. For the church, surely that must be the primary consideration, and would justify it in calling for Universal Credit to be scrapped.

So – the poorest and most disadvantaged people are now standing in the path of the oncoming juggernaut which is Universal Credit. Will the church shout a warning, watch as the inevitable happens, and then apply first aid? Or will the church take action to try to stop the juggernaut? Will it drive a spoke into the wheel of injustice?

Perhaps UK churches could look for inspiration to the Poor People’s Campaign in the USA. It is taking up the baton of Martin Luther King, using peaceful protest and civil disobedience against the injustice of poverty. Clergy have been arrested. The Campaign says, “We must stop the attention violence that refuses to see these injustices …When confronted with the undeniable truth of unconscionable cruelty to our fellow human beings, we must join the ranks of those who are determined not to rest until justice and equality are a reality for all.” 

Some churches may be nervous of ‘getting political’. But Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.

In the last few days, an opportunity for a courageous church to show exactly where it stands has emerged. Charlotte Hughes lives in one of the first Universal Credit pilot areas, and has been binding the wounds caused by this damaging system for four years. Every Thursday she stands outside the Jobcentre - listening, offering comfort, compassion, and food parcels. Last week on Twitter she said, “I want to hold a big memorial service to remember the thousands of people who have died as a result of the governments punitive social security reforms. I have no money and no venue. Any help would be appreciated thanks.”

Such a service would help to, in the words of the Poor People’s Campaign, “stop the attention violence that refuses to see these injustices” and clearly show with whom the church stands. Any church that would like to contact Charlotte can do so by email


© 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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