Christian organisations have warned that the Government’s welfare proposals are based on a lack of understanding of the poor. They argue that constructive reforms are at risk of being lost under a wave of punitive measures and cost-cutting.
The Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland, the United Reformed Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Housing Justice and Church Action on Poverty have welcomed plans for a simplified benefits system, but have raised concerns that the proposed reforms are based on inaccurate assumptions about the poor.
“There is a serious danger that people living in poverty will be stigmatised by government announcements that imply they are lazy or work-shy,” said Revd Alison Tomlin, President of the Methodist Conference. “The Government seems to assume that if people are forced into working they will comply and their lives will be made better. The poor we meet are seeking to better their lives in difficult circumstances. They are willing to work, but face difficulties in finding jobs, in meeting caring responsibilities and in living on the wages offered.”
“People who are long-term unemployed are already struggling to find work in a market place where there is increasing pressure on both the public and private sectors,” added Alison Gelder, Director of Housing Justice. “Some need help to develop the skills to find and keep a regular job. What they do not need are punitive measures such as the proposed cut in housing benefit by 10% after a year out of work. Most of all, they should not be forced to do manual labour in return for their benefits for just £1.73 an hour – £4.20 below the current adult minimum wage.”
The group argues that Government welfare policy needs to be based on a realistic assessment of those living in poverty and what they really need to get back into the work force. They are concerned that policy should not be based on a skewed figures and a misunderstanding of the poor.
Revd Graham Sparkes, Head of Faith and Unity for the Baptist Union of Great Britain said: “We meet people on a daily basis who are experiencing long term unemployment. Unemployment, especially in an area where there are few jobs available, damages a person’s self-confidence, health and ability to survive life’s knocks. The Government needs to understand what people in poverty need in order to return to work. It’s not good enough to just tell people to ‘pull their socks up’.”
Niall Cooper, National Coordinator of Church Action on Poverty, said “We ask that the government to talk to people in poverty and base their policies on combating the problems they face daily. Iain Duncan Smith should come to one of our listening events, where people struggling to make ends meet tell their stories. Simplistic solutions such as benefit cuts, telling people to get on a bus to find work, and enforced labour would face a harsh reality check.”
Christians in Britain today are called to take a stand. Faced with the biggest cuts to public spending for over a generation, it is not enough to retreat into the private ghetto of religious consolation.
As Christians, we are convinced that the actions of the current government are an unjustified attack on the poor. The rhetoric of necessary austerity and virtuous belt-tightening conceals a grim reality: the victimisation of people at the margins of society and the corrosion of community. Meanwhile, the false worship of markets continues unchecked and the immorality of the growing gap between rich and poor goes unquestioned.
We call on the churches to resist the cuts and stand in solidarity with those targeted. We urge them to join the forces fighting back against a distorted ideology. Above all, we commit ourselves not to give in to despair, fear and fatalism. Another world is possible, the world announced by Jesus in his teachings, embodied in the love he took to the cross, alive in the Spirit of his risen strength.
This is, I would argue, the church at its best; confronting power with the Word and a call to action.