Why do I keep banging on about poverty? Good question – and one I have been asked several times recently in relation to this blog and other writings.

One answer goes back to that haunting verse in Proverbs (31:8) that formed the title of a book many years ago about the failure of the German church in the 1930s: “Open your mouth for the dumb.” In other words, give a voice to those who have no voice, or whose voice is silenced for some reason or other. To not give such a voice is not to be neutral – it is to silence a voice that needs to be heard.

Hence the banging on about welfare cuts and their effects on the lives of individuals, families and communities.

So, last week, as part of a deanery visit, I met the director of a Children's Centre. The biggest concern: increasing numbers of families going hungry and needing help from diminishing food banks.

This is civilised Britain in the twenty first century. Increasing numbers of people – families – needing help with basics such as simple food. The demands are becoming greater than the supply. We used to associate organisations like Save the Children with Africa; now they are being associated with here.

During our conversation last week I heard about the impact of deprivation and the welfare cuts on:

  • Food banks
  • Families who are being caught in the 'bedroom tax' trap
  • Families who live in 'deprivation postcodes' in otherwise prosperous areas
  • Families which, now that the last laundrette has closed and washing machines don't count any longer for emergency provision, work out how to keep themselves and their children clothed, clean and dignified.

I also heard how those who tried to live on £1 per day during Lent (with Christian Aid) found it increasingly hard to eat anything good. Cheap biscuits fill the stomach when an apple cannot be afforded.

This is the real human cost of austerity. Churches and other organisations are resourcing individuals, families and communities with food and other material aid: the question is why this should be necessary in an affluent and civilised country.

 

It does, indeed.

Cutting services and access to things that make individuals and communities thrive runs the risk of saving money from one pocket while thereby ensuring that more will be paid out from the other pocket in order to address the consequences of the former.

I haven't been writing much lately. This is because I have been working morning, noon and night on other matters since returning from the Bermuda gig. These 'other matters' include: (a) following up observations on the need for excellent broadcasting that interprets the world and human experience through a religion-shaped lens; (b) convening a meeting of Muslim leaders to discuss serious questions arising around the sexual grooming phenomenon and its implications both locally and nationally (including challenging the elision ethnicity with religion); (c) spending a day in a rural deanery, discovering more about the effects of austerity and other pressures on rural communities and parishes; (d) attending a dinner aimed at raising awareness of the work of the Church Urban Fund in turning round the lives of troubled people; (e) convening a meeting between Christian leaders and civic leaders in Bradford, aiding mutual understanding of some of the remarkable work done under the radar in supporting people in tough communities; (f) visiting an excellent Cancer Support centre and hearing about the funding pressures on local charities; (g) meeting with a local councillor and the Child Poverty board in Bradford to discuss some of the heroic efforts to support children for whom austerity brings undeserved misery.

And all the time I was up to this stuff (these are just the highlights of a demanding couple of weeks) Bradford celebrated the nationally-televised Bollywood Carmen (capping some great and positive recent media coverage of the place) and faced a serious threat to the future of its National Media Museum.

Pic. BBC Radio Leeds

The cord that runs through all this has at least two threads: money and human need.

Wherever one stands on the government's welfare cuts, it is clear that the choice of what to cut is not neutral. Nor is it obvious. Billions can be magicked up to save the banks – whose culture seems not to have changed a great deal subsequently – but the poorest in our country must pay the highest price at every turn. Local authorities have had their budgets cut to the extent that, all the flesh having been cut away, there is only the bone to begin to hack into. Councillors have been in tears as they make decisions they know will damage children and families and vulnerable people.

Choices, as always, are rooted in ideological assumptions about who matters most in our society. It would be no different if another party were in power; but, it does no harm to state the truth about the ideological motives that always lie behind economic priorities.

Local evidence sees a huge increase in demand from food banks – including from the 'working poor'. We see increasing numbers of children and teenagers arriving at school in the morning without having eaten. Some schools are hiding the real costs of this because they feed their children from their base funding, thus reducing the funds available for 'education'. I discovered today that if an eligible student stays on in a school 6th form, he/she is eligible for free school meals; if he/she transfers to an FE college, this eligibility disappears – which clearly distorts access options and raises other questions. I also hadn't realised that whereas the benefits system is operated by the Department of Work and Pensions, the funding of free school meals to needy children is the responsibility of the Department for Education – which seems both odd and not-very-joined-up.

According to Investor Today child poverty costs the UK £29bn a year. In other words, what is saved on 'welfare' is paid out again in addressing the consequences of cuts on the very people affected. Is this not weird?

And this is where the threat to the future of the National Media Museum comes in.

Not only is this one of three national museums in the north of England (the Railway Museum in York and the Science Museum in Manchester being the other two), it also offers free access to people who are being deprived at every other turn, and stimulation/education in the vital areas of science, industry, communications and technology. The National Media Museum is unique; it is not a luxurious frippery riding on the back of a cultural surplus in the north of England. It is unique. It's loss would be a national cultural and educational loss, not just a loss to Bradford and its local economy.

This threat emphasises and fleshes out the growing north-south divide. Noting the growing economic divide, health inequalities and life expectancies between people living in the north and the south of England, the Archbishop of York has commented:

I was shocked to hear of the cuts that our museums are facing. It is simply incredible that we are now considering cutting back on funding which benefits the whole community – investment which not only helps to educate future generations, but which also gives them a sense of their cultural heritage and identity… We need to recognise that our cultural heritage is an important part of our country’s history. A country which forgets its heritage becomes senile.

Increasingly it seems there is a growing economic divide between the North and the South. Too often we are seeing communities across the North of England bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. We need to see a level playing field. Whether we are looking at transport investment, education, employment, health or about where our children and grandchildren learn about what made our cities the fantastic places they are today, we need to put wellbeing at the centre. Everyone deserves the opportunity to blossom and flourish, regardless of where they were born.

No wonder, then, that Bradford is campaigning hard to ensure the future of the National Media Museum here. This museum contributes £24m per annum to Bradford's economy, provides 103 full-time equivalent jobs, and generates Gross Value Added of around £3.7m. The city is the world's first UNESCO City of Film and a Producer City that makes science and technology the foundation of its future. Local businesses are committed to this development. Bradford contributes £8.3bn to the UK economy and this is expected to grow. It is also the youngest city in England outside London.

Is it remotely conceivable that serious consideration would be given to closing a London museum of national importance? Why, then, are northern museums considered an easier target?

This all hangs together. Ultimately the decisions taken will speak eloquently of our national communal priorities. These will betray our ideological as well as economic assumptions. And underneath it all will seethe a pile of questions about our anthropology, our fundamental philosophy of the common good, and the gap between our words of 'social solidarity' (for example, “we are all in it together”) and the reality we fear to face.

And, one way or another, it will cost us.

 

Having a brief holiday, I thought I'd give my blog a miss for a week. Then I belatedly saw the Daily Mail's front page judgement on the appalling Philpott story.

I rarely get shocked by anything. In various life and work contexts I have seen and heard and read too much. And I can't bring myself to do 'mock shock'. But, this I do find shocking.

The Philpott story is dreadful. But, to use it shamelessly to categorise and damn people who receive from the welfare state is in itself shocking. Why? Because we have seen this sort of generalising categorisation before. I remember reading it in Der Stürmer. Even those who think the welfare reforms are right and justified should be worried about the language and approach of the Mail and the new direction it takes us in: generalised categorisation and vilification of certain groups of people.

Try this from the headline: 'Vile product of Welfare UK'. So, the welfare system produces utterly corrupt people – without distinction?

Or this: 'Man who bred 17 babies…' – as opposed to non-welfare recipients who 'have' children rather than 'breed' them? Animals breed…

Philpott's lifestyle is indefensible. His morality is damnable – although people not in receipt of welfare might also share some of his values. Yes, there are people who take welfare for a ride. Yes, the system needs reform – as does the system for rewarding the wealthy at the other end of the scale. But, something deeply corrupting is going on in our culture if the language of Osborne and the Daily Mail become common currency.

The Mail follows George Osborne's division of people between 'strivers' and 'skivers', shamelessly categorising people without for one minute questioning the basis for it – most welfare recipients work and work far too hard for the good of themselves or their families.

Do the Mail journalists take any responsibility for the remaining children of the Philpotts who, presumably, will now have to continue to live with the stigma generated by this reporting? Haven't they already suffered? But, the current onslaught against 'welfare' pays no attention to the children, making them suffer for the sins of the parents the children didn't choose. 'Suffer the little children', said Jesus; it looks like we read that wrongly and will make damned sure they suffer.

One day we shall be ashamed of this period in our history.

(Having written this, I then read the Guardian's intelligent and apposite editorial and Zoe Williams' excellent and pointed response to the Mail.)

… but you have to go though Friday first.

(In the absence of time to write anything fresh, here is the text of my March letter to the Diocese of Bradford.)

I read an article recently about how electronic communication is speeding up the world and making us more impatient. As the technology improves, so do connections run quicker and our tolerance of delay diminishes. I don’t know about you, but it sounds about right to me. It is hard to stop and wait and enjoy the gaps between words and activities.

wpid-Photo-10-Apr-2012-1307.jpgI say this because Lent is leading us slowly towards an ending that will, in turn, become a new beginning. Lent beckons us to stop, to slow down, to force ourselves to step off the treadmill and make space for reflection and self-examination. Attentive consideration of God, the world and ‘us’ opens up the slow possibilities of repentance (literally, a change of mind), renewal and hopeful living. It is an invitation that is easy to decline – after all, it will involve us in walking with Jesus and his friends (and enemies) to the rubbish dump where a cross haunts the horizon, awaiting its terrorised victim.

I grew up in a church community where it seemed we tried to get from Good Friday to Easter Sunday as quickly as possible. We celebrated the cross as God’s victory… instead of learning to live the story of God’s apparent failure or absence. We just couldn’t stay there as the world falls apart; nor could we live through the sheer emptiness of loss, bereavement and world-ending fear that is Saturday: the dead Jesus in the tomb and the world collapsed. No, we want to get to resurrection and make it all happy again. We escape the painful darkness and embrace the brightness of resurrection day.

But, this is problematic. If we don’t stay with Good Friday and live with the appalling emptiness of Saturday, then Easter itself will be meaningless. We are not supposed to just entertain ourselves theologically with Easter; no, we are supposed to live it, experience it, cry through it, search through it, long through it for hopeful resolution. And when Sunday comes we are to be surprised, bewildered, shocked even.

As a church we are called not only to live the story in our worship and contemplation, but also to use it as a lens for looking attentively at our society and world. The massive increase in food banks, the enormous injustices that are enshrined in our economic systems, the poverty that destroys the lives of ordinary people: all these things (and others) represent for those afflicted by them a long ‘day’ of crucifixion – a slow death of potential, health, esteem, hope. There are people in every parish who might find themselves here.

Berlin August 2010 027Yet, the Christian community is not simply to shout at the darkness or rage against the sinfulness of such a situation. No, we are called to speak the truth about the things that corrupt, that nail godliness to a cross, that destroy hope and potential; and then we are called to offer a glimpse of what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’. This means enabling people to be surprised by Sunday when Friday and Saturday seem so endless.

May your Easter be blessed as we celebrate the resurrection light that confounds the darkness and opens up new hope for God’s world. Let us together light a candle of resurrection in protest at the mock powerfulness of the dark… and then go where the light shines in order to make an Easter difference in the places where God calls us to stay awhile.

It’s a weird world. I posted on 21 February stuff related to the concerns that prompted 43 Church of England bishops, backed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to sign a letter to the press. Published today in the Sunday Telegraph, it has caused a bit of noise.

Clearly, the substance is not the issue, or it would have hit the headlines some time ago. It is the fact that a pile of bishops has signed it that makes it a story. And that’s good.

Let’s get one thing straight: this letter is not anti-government or anti-Cameron; it is pro-children.

wpid-Photo-9-Feb-2013-1604.jpgAnd another thing: read some of the comment threads on this story on news websites and a repeated (outraged) question has to do with the competence of bishops to dare to voice concerns in this way. Who are they to speak? Well, (a) we are people who participate in civil society, (b) we also have a voice with others in the democratic process, (c) we have people in every community in the land and are probably closer to the ground than most politicians, (d) it is our responsibility to speak truth without fear or self-regard, (e) if we can make a voice heard, then we have a responsibility to do so, and (f) such questioning is just silly and simply distracts from the issue at hand.

Thirdly, the question of priorities remains unanswered: we can bail out banks to the tune of billions of pounds, but it’s the poor who have to pay? The government’s language has become increasingly and deliberately disingenuous, lumping people on welfare benefits into the category of ‘feckless scroungers’ who lie in bed watching other people go to work. Yet, they know that most people being hit by welfare cuts and the bedroom tax are low-paid working people. Why is this being done? (See the recent report The lies we tell ourselves – another intrusion by those pesky Christians who really should be silenced…)

Here’s the letter as published:

Dear editor,

Next week, Members of the House of Lords will debate the Welfare Benefit Up-rating Bill.

The Bill will mean that for each of the next three years, most financial support for families will increase by no more than 1%, regardless of how much prices rise.

This is a change that will have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty. A third of all households will be affected by the Bill, but nearly nine out of ten families with children will be hit.

These are children and families from all walks of life. The Children’s Society calculates that a single parent with two children, working on an average wage as a nurse would lose £424 a year by 2015.

A couple with three children and one earner, on an average wage as a corporal in the British Army, would lose £552 a year by 2015.

However, the change will hit the poorest the hardest. About 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

If prices rise faster than expected, children and families will no longer have any protection against this. This transfers the risk of high inflation rates from the Treasury to children and families.

This is simply unacceptable.

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Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support including to Tax Credits, maternity benefits, and help with housing costs. They cannot afford this further hardship penalty.

We are calling on Members of the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill.

I think that when Jesus used the phrase he probably meant something different.

The British Parliament is currently debating what is sexily known as the Benefit Uprating Bill. Basically, this puts into law what the Chancellor announced in the 2012 Autumn Statement: to limit the rate at which most key benefits and tax credits are increased by just 1% for the next three years. This happens to be well below the expected rate of inflation.

Put to one side for a moment the conundrum that never gets addressed, viz why the rich need to be incentivised by keeping more wealth whilst the poor need to be incentivised by being made poorer. (This simply means that society pays for the consequences in other ways.) What this 'benefit uprating' means is:

  • costs of living are expected to rise faster than support increases to cover these additional costs;
  • based on average earnings for their profession, a single-parent primary school teacher, with two children stands to lose £424 a year by 2015. A nurse with two children could lose £424, and an army second lieutenant with three children could lose £552 a year. (Parents affected include an estimated 300,000 nurses and midwives, 150,000 primary school teachers and 40,000 armed forces personnel.)
  • coming on top of a number of other wide-ranging cuts to benefits and tax credits for children and families, (for example, with the 1% cap coming on top of previously announced freezes) by 2015-16 Child Benefit will have increased by just 2% in the course of half a decade.

It is the impact on children that should cause us most concern as this is disproportionate. The Government’s own impact assessment suggests that around 30% of all households will be affected, but 87% of families with children will be affected, including 95% of single parent families. The Children's Society estimates that 11.5 million children are in families affected and notes that whilst the Bill will affect children and families from all walks of life, children in the poorest families will be affected the most. The government’s impact assessment shows that about 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

No surprise, then, that the Children's Society and other concerned parties are urging a re-think – that benefits and tax credits paid on behalf of children should be removed from the scope of the Benefit Uprating Bill. This would mean removing benefits including Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit, and child additions within Universal Credit.

The demand from food banks is increasing alarmingly. Schools are increasingly reporting children beginning the day without having had anything to eat. As I said in response to a request from my local Bradford newspaper:

Child poverty does not just make life a little bit miserable for a child now; it affects the whole of their life, their physical growth, their education, aspiration and life opportunities. This is bad for children, families, schools and society. And it is a scandal in a so-called civilised society. We must ask serious questions about our priorities and government ministers must be made aware of the human consequences of policies made behind desks.

The figures for Bradford can be seen here. What statistics don't show is the complex of ways in which childhood poverty is destructive of so much and of so many. This isn't just about welfare or 'scroungers' – it impacts on all of us and needs some serious attention. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked on his arrival at Heathrow Airport what he thought of western civilisation; he responded: “I think it would be a very good idea.” If our civilisation is measured by our treatment of the most vulnerable in our society, then we have questions to ask about our priorities.

And, while this reality bites, the government is also thinking of changing the way child poverty is calculated. You can read the Church of England's response here, summarised in this statement by the Bishop of Leicester:

The real issue is committing to, and resourcing, an effective long-term strategy to tackle child poverty, rather than finding alternative ways of measuring it.

 

Yesterday an open letter from thirty church leaders in Yorkshire and Humberside was published. Addressed to the Prime Minister and copied to the Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, the letter aims to highlight concerns about the impact of welfare cuts in the part of England we serve. It was timed to preempt the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement due tomorrow.

The thing about church leaders is that we have people in every community, from every stratum of society, and of a huge diversity of origins and backgrounds. Perhaps we are unique in that respect. Our reach goes deep and wide – and the pictures we build are not fabricated according to ideology, prejudice or even theology.

The letter caught local headlines, but managed to omit reference to a crucial paragraph in which the potential for getting people off welfare and into work is applauded. However, we also have to maintain a concern for those who cannot work, cannot get work or who fall through all the nets. Churches (among others) are currently and quietly providing night shelters for homeless people, running food banks, caring for people (and families) whose life has been radically changed for the worse.

The letter adds the voice of thirty church leaders (on behalf of those who tell us their stories of grassroots experience) to others attempting to inform the Government how its proposals are impacting on people (in our case) who live outside London; welfare cuts are having an impact on people every day and the poorest are paying the highest. In Bradford we have 38,000 children living below the poverty line. We still see the poorest people getting poorer, while the richest people are getting richer – and that’s a scandal.

The letter, accompanying a study entitled Am I my Brother’s Keeper? A Christian Overview of Welfare Reform and Cuts in Public Spending (Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber), reads as follows:

As Church leaders in the North of England, we would like to express our concern over the way that cuts in public spending and reforms to the welfare system are beginning to play out in the communities we serve. We commend to you a policy paper written by the Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber, Am I My Brother’s Keeper, which offers an informed overview of welfare reform and cuts in public spending in the context of the values that have driven welfare since the inception of the Welfare State.

We are concerned that the ideology behind many cuts and reforms serves to undermine fundamental principles of mutual care that are basic to our vision of a good society. We are similarly disturbed that the political rhetoric that is increasingly used of benefits claimants, “scrounger” and “feckless” to name but two, stigmatises welfare in such a way that those who are in genuine need become reluctant to make claims, to the detriment of themselves, their families and the communities in which they live.

We express support for those aspects of Universal Credit which make a genuine attempt to address longer term problems within the welfare system that can act as a deterrent to work. Indeed, we agree that work is the best route out of poverty for many people. However, we would also wish to draw your attention to the need to ensure that full-employment remains a policy aim for the Government in support of a system that sees welfare as transitional assistance for those that are capable of work.

We are especially troubled by welfare reforms that time-limit benefits at a time when structural unemployment makes it impossible for many to get the jobs they need for themselves and their families.

We would also urge care in applying means-testing in an aggressive way that further polarizes the debate about welfare into one in which the independent and self-sufficient think of themselves as being in permanent support of the dependent and “feckless”. Our view of the good society as interdependent and of people as fundamentally of equal worth, makes it impossible to support that polarization.

We wish to confirm our support for:

  • The Welfare State
    • As a mechanism for remedying the worst effects of laissez faire capitalism
    • As a way of addressing social inequality
    • As a safety net for those who are temporarily, or permanently, in need
  • A system of taxation that encourages responsibility among the wealthy to share their good fortune with other members of the society to which they belong
  • A work ethic which encourages all people towards employment and the duty to care for themselves and their own families in the first place, as they are able and when economic life permits
  • Full-employment as a policy goal that allows the Welfare State to function properly

Finally, our experience in the North underlines the need to achieve a better balance in the UK economy between the South – and especially the South-East – and the North. This would enable people in northern communities to deploy and benefit from their skills and abilities and thus contribute to enhancing the productivity of the country as a whole.