Leave or Remain, we need a preferential option for the poor

By Bernadette Meaden
March 28, 2019

Sometimes, Leavers and Remainers seem like divorcing parents so caught up in the battle for custody of their child, they fail to notice that the child is seriously ill.

In the last couple of days, three sets of figures were released which should have given even the most ardent of Brexit activists pause for thought, but the ongoing drama seems to crowd out all other considerations.

The first set of figures was the result of research into emergency food parcel provision in Scotland. Previously, the only data available on foodbank use has been from the Trussell Trust – but many independent foodbanks operate outside of that network.

For the first time, the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), funded by A Menu for Change, has been able to compile the data from these independent foodbanks, and what it reveals is sobering. In Scotland foodbank use is almost twice as much as previous figures indicated – and it seems fairly safe to assume that if the research was replicated in the rest of the UK, a similar picture would emerge.

However, as IFAN’s Sabine Goodwin says, “Despite showing food bank use to be nearly twice as much as previously thought, these combined food bank statistics still remain the tip of the iceberg as they do not reflect the use of other types of emergency food aid provision nor the scale of people going hungry without accessing help at all.” Basically, however bad we thought hunger and foodbank use was – it’s actually much worse.

Then the government released the figures for the number of people living in poverty, which were also worrying, with 200,000 more children in absolute poverty.  Alison Garnham of Child Poverty Action Group said, “We share a moral responsibility to protect children from hardship and enable them to fulfil their potential, but deep social security cuts for working and non-working families are restricting the life chances of a whole generation.” 

Given this context of destitution, hunger and poverty, the figures released by the Office for National Statistics on life expectancy have something of a grim inevitability about them.  

An ONS spokesperson said: “We’ve found a large fall in life expectancy at birth among women living in the most deprived areas in England…This is in contrast to the continued increases in life expectancy for women living in the least deprived areas. This has led to a significant widening in the inequality in life expectancy at birth in England”

How many red flags do we need, how many alarm bells need to sound, before the whole country wakes up and realises that the course followed by successive governments since 2010 has been disastrous for the health and wellbeing of so many of our fellow citizens?

Austerity and welfare reform combined (basically a systematic way of punishing and taking from the poor to give to the rich) makes people hungry and stressed and ill – and it kills people. And whether we are in or out of the EU, this will remain the case. It is entirely under the control of the government in Westminster.

So, although I would very much like the UK to remain in the EU, I feel even more strongly that whatever happens, Leavers and Remainers need to unite in a determination that the least fortunate people will never again be allowed to bear the greatest burden. We need what liberation theologians call a preferential option for the poor, delivered not through warm words and platitudes, but hard cash in people’s pockets.

As Alison Garnham of Child Poverty Action Group has said, “At this critical point in the UK’s history, we need to step back and ask what kind of country we want for our children.  One in which millions are constrained by poverty or one that puts its belief in justice and compassion into practice when we make choices on public spending?”

In the EU or out of it, those choices will be ours, as they always have been. And if all the people who have marched and signed petitions over Brexit got behind real social justice, then the UK could be a better place for all our children to grow up in.


© 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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