Getting the poor down from the cross

By Bernadette Meaden
April 19, 2019

Occasionally, amongst all the information we read, something leaps out at us and seems especially meaningful. It can be a whole article, or just a phrase or a sentence. This has happened to me twice recently.  

The first was in a blog by Stephen Crossley,  Learning to be poor?  Poverty and the Troubled Families Programme. Crossley notes that, in 580 pages of evaluations of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP), the word ‘poverty’ did not appear once. This was despite the fact that “around two-thirds of the families on the programme "have a net household income below £12,50…" This means that many of the families on the programme will have been living in severe poverty, yet poverty and its harmful impacts is barely acknowledged in discussions of the programme.”

In a review of the TFP presented to Parliament, poverty was mentioned once – in the case study of a family where four children were sharing a bed. The family was given some recycled furniture and, "the worker gave ongoing support to Mum to help her manage her finances better".

Crossley concludes, “Addressing poverty or material deprivation has never been an intended outcome of the TFP. While one of its key aims has been to get people off ‘out of work benefits’ and ‘into continuous employment’, no consideration has ever been given to the potentially damaging consequences of poorly paid, insecure employment. With 70 per cent of children in poverty now living in a working family, this is a shameful approach. As is lecturing impoverished women about how to spend an inadequate income more effectively. The ambition of the government…amounts to little more… than teaching them how to be poor.”

“Teaching them how to be poor.” This was a phrase which leapt out at me because I feel it sums up the government’s whole approach. Driving people off inadequate benefits and into jobs which pay inadequate wages is not dealing with poverty. Putting great pressure on disabled people to overcome systemic barriers to employment, instead of changing the system and removing those barriers, is not tackling poverty. Forcing people too ill to work through repeated assessments in order to hang on to an income which barely allows them to survive, is not tackling poverty. Instead of tackling poverty, the government is forcing people, on pain of hunger, to adapt and conform to an unjust economy – not tackling that injustice.

The second phrase which leapt out at me was Getting The Poor Down From The Cross which is the title of a book about an influential figure in liberation theology, Jon Sobrino. 

In liberation theology, people who are poor, marginalised and oppressed are likened to the crucified Christ, and it is seen as the work of Christians to stand alongside them to strive for their liberation, and a decent life for all. To bring them down from the cross.

So, these two phrases encapsulate for me what our government’s approach to poverty is, and what a Christian approach would be. People can be kept in a constant state of hardship and stress, as they are now, or people can be liberated through justice – a fair distribution of resources and a compassionate system of support. They can be brought down from the cross. This, I believe, is the task for Christians.

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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 

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.