Are Benefits Caps Evil?

Are Benefits Caps Evil?

It’s fair. It’s popular. It’s moral to ensure that families in which people are unemployed but able to work should not get more in benefits than the average family can earn.


It’s arbitrary. It takes no account of the differences in rents and standards of living in different parts of the country. It’s immoral to force vulnerable families out of their homes.

This is how the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson summed up the current debate over the government’s plans to put a cap on benefits in the UK. I am uncertain why this particular (small) part of the swinging cuts which are already in place, have suddenly hit the headlines (many other other cuts have affected many thousands of poor families too!). According to Robinson, even if this plan does come into effect, it only saves about £290M from a total budget of £192B and would only affect 1% of all claimants. It’s critics are saying that it is particular damaging because it would make a lot of people homeless and make poor children even poorer by cutting family allowances. The government is coming back by saying that they would put measures in place to avoid this and to ensure a smooth the transition to the new system. (What exactly that gobbledygook means, they have not yet made clear!) I have written on this blog before about the UK benefits system. You can reread it here.

What makes this topic more intriguing to me is that Bishops have now entered the fray to stand up on behalf of the poor and downtrodden. They oppose the measures on the ground that it punishes poor people who have larger households. As I write this, the government has been defeated in the House of Lords. One of it’s most outspoken critics, Rev. John Packer, gives his reasoning for opposing the plans. He said child benefit was

 “a universal benefit” and it was “wrong to see it as being a welfare benefit. It’s a benefit which is there for all children, for the bringing up of all children and to say that the only people who cannot have child benefit are those whose welfare benefits have been capped seems to me to be a quite extraordinary argument.”

Enver Solomon, policy director at The Children’s Society, said it was “delighted” with the results of the vote, arguing it was,

“totally unfair that a small family with a household income of £80,000 a year receive it, yet a large family with a benefit income of £26,000 are excluded”.

So, what should the Christian perspective to this debate be? Who is right and who is wrong? is it even as simple as all that? The media loves a good argument and so they are doing their best to stir up a storm which I think is just unhelpfully polarising what should be a rigorous and serious debate. The Opinionated Vicar offers some sage words here on this particular point.

I am not an economist but £26K a year seems like a good amount of money to me. I think somebody has worked out that in reality you have to earn 35k per year to walk away with that amount in your pocket. I would say that 95%+ of workers in my congregation don’t come close to earning that much money per annum, and yet still manage to run households with small children. I have other friends who work two jobs and still don’t come close to matching that figure. If you want to see how it compares to the national weekly average earning then check out the statistics here.

How have we gotten ourselves into a situation in our country when a government bill to lower the receipts of benefits to a rate still higher than the national weekly wage of a working person, causes outrage and screams of unfairness? It is little wonder that this plan has widespread support amongst the working classes in the UK. Yes, we need to look at the family allowance situation, but I don’t think the church should be getting involved in demonising those in power who are seeking to tackle a social security system that has been a cash cow for generations of families who have absolutely no intention of getting a job in their lives!

Let me be clear that I agree with the bishops when it comes to ensuring that any laws passed do not make the lives of the young and the helpless any more difficult than they already are. Children must not be penalised because their parents do not work. But, I work in a context where the morality underpinning much of this debate (and often overlooked) needs to be broached without the fear of being thought of as some sort of right-wing, poor hating, Capitalist oppressor. In evangelical Christian circles the poor and the oppressed are big business at the moment (rightly so), but too often we can tend to leave God admonitions out of the equation. Many people in our scheme will not work and that is the bottom line. The Bible has a lot to say about laziness, slothfulness, and idleness, and none of it is complimentary (Prov. 15:19; 19:24; 22:13; 26:13-16). God has said, “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). One who is too lazy to work or who otherwise refuses to provide for his family “has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).

Laziness, fuelled by our benefits culture (amongst many other things), has reached epidemic proportions in UK housing schemes (and elsewhere). Too many are simply unwilling to even consider getting a job. On the other hand, when you are in receipt of a benefits package in excess of most monthly salaries, why would you want to? In my observations and personal experience, children in families who are long-term benefits claimants are growing up in a culture where ‘making your own way’ is not exactly a family motto. Many of them are not taught to contribute in the home with household chores, nor even to take responsibility to be good and contributing citizens. They are not given duties and responsibilities. They are not shown how to function, nor are they instilled with a sense of pride in a job well done. So, in my opinion, this debate should be about much more than simply finances. It should be about working hard, taking personal responsibility, providing for the family, helping out your neighbour and seeking to serve the poor and protect the defenceless (children, in this case).

We need a social security system that protects those who really are in need and not just props up the lifestyles of those who view the current status quo as something that is owed them rather than as a stop-gap in order to ensure they move on to gainful employment. Lord Carey agrees. He spoke to the BBC this week (read his statement here) and said,

The welfare system is “fuelling vices and impoverishing us all’. And he said the welfare system, originally designed to tackle “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness”, had become an “industry of gargantuan proportions which is fuelling those very vices and impoverishing us all”.

As a church slap bang in the middle of a housing scheme these are very much live issues for us. They have been for decades and they will continue to be so once the media storm has died down and Middle England has had its say. We need a long-term plan and not a short-term fix to save a few quid. As a church we need to be prayerfully thinking and considering what our responsibility is for our community and how we work out a biblical compassion that is not just limp wristed, hand wringing on the one hand or heavy-handed blame shifting on the other.

The evangelical church has a responsibility on this issue at a local, congregational level as well as offering a national voice. It would be nice to know where the Christian community stands on these things before we offer a cogent alternative to current government policies. As usual on here I am thinking it through, chewing it over and asking hard questions of myself, the Bible and my own attitudes.


    John Humby

    Thank you for the time and thought you have but into this, it has helped to understand this hole subject better.


    Lots to get into here Mez, but a couple of thoughts:

    – A lot of the argument has been around excluding child benefit from the cap, as that would extraordinarily penalise larger families. I think most people who agree with this exclusion and there would be less fuss as a result.

    – During an economic downturn (putting it mildly) is not the time to try and completely change a social security system or impose massive cuts on it. If there aren’t jobs available to try and get people off benefits, then change won’t work – it’ll just make some families poorer and even more resentful of the system. However, successive governments have completed failed to change the benefit culture during periods of economic growth so that when we enter a downturn, there’s not a lot that can really be done.

    – The church in the UK, on the whole, is middle class, so doesn’t really know or has the experience of what’s going on in schemes around the country. A generalisation perhaps, but I’m not sure we can properly respond without really understanding the cause and effect of the current benefit culture.

      Jon Gleason

      Hi, Matt. The government proposal is that the cap wouldn’t apply to anyone getting the child tax credit. I’m not sure the details, but I think you’d only need to work 10 hours a week at McDonalds to get that tax credit. So child benefit for people who have minimal work would not be affected. The cap also doesn’t apply to any household where someone is on disability.

      So it would only apply to those who aren’t working at all and aren’t disabled. And it would provide a strong incentive for those in such families to get into some kind of work, if only very part-time.

      I don’t know income details, but I would be surprised if any family in my church has more than £26K net income. It is hard for me to see why they should be paying tax to provide benefits in excess of that to anyone who isn’t working at all, and isn’t disabled, whether a large family or not.



        There’s a difference between child tax credits and child benefit though, isn’t there? I’m not 100% sure of the details, but I am fairly sure that one of the main arguments this week has been that by including child benefit within the cap, it is punitive for larger families. This would apply to people who aren’t working at all (for various reasons).

        Most people (me included) would agree that there is a certain injustice in asking people to pay taxes to fund benefit up to a level greater than their own net income, but by applying the generality to everyone could unnecessarily impact some families.

        If you didn’t watch it, try and catch “15 Kids and Counting”, which was on Channel 4 on Tuesday evening. It features a family with 10 kids at home – some of them taken in – who are struggling to support everyone on a meagre income. The father of the household had just lost his job of 20 years and they were squeezing into a 3-bedroom house. My wife and I found it heartwarming that they were trying so hard to bring up the family in the right way, despite their circumstances. It’s people like that which may be hit hardest by the proposed cap – can’t prove that, but it would seem to be the case.

        Jon Gleason

        Hi, Matt. Yes, there is a difference between the tax credit and the benefit. The point is that anyone who is working (except high income workers) gets the tax credit, and if you get the tax credit, the cap on the benefit won’t apply to you. So larger families won’t be affected unless there are no wage earners at all in the family.

        The press will always find someone who is going to suffer anytime the government changes anything. But I can’t watch the show because I have no telly. Life is better without the monster. 🙂 I know this — if I’m in that situation, I’m working 10 hours a day. My job? To look for any kind of work that will pay at least enough to get that tax credit working again. And I’d do anything legal that wasn’t inconsistent with my faith.

        Here’s the real question — what should we be teaching believers to do, if they were in that situation? We shouldn’t be teaching them to object to a cap on their benefits. We should be teaching them to do everything they possibly can to provide for their own responsibilities, to bear their own burdens. If they have to be a burden on others, they should do everything they can to reduce that burden.

        If that is what believers should do, then it is hard for me to see why Christians should oppose the government taking actions to push others in that direction as well.

        The flip side of it is, if we support governmental action on things like this, we need to stand ready to do good to all as the Lord gives us opportunity. Real charity isn’t voting to have the government make other people give money they don’t want to give. Real charity is when we ourselves willingly give.

        As usual, I’m too long-winded.:) I know not everyone agrees with me. I strongly object to the idea that more and more benefits without any limitations or scrutiny is the “Christian” or “moral” view. I know you aren’t saying anything at all like that, so I probably shouldn’t even be addressing my comments to you. I’d blame Mez for starting the conversation, but I wrote about it elsewhere before he did, so I suppose I’m the problem. 🙂

        Blessings to you.


    Hey Matt
    I think you mistyped your first point because it doesn’t make sense 🙂 Read the second sentence back and let me know. As I said I agree that the child benefits need to be looked at separately.

    I think you are wrong that benefits shouldn’t be looked at during an economic downturn. In fact , it makes no fiscal sense in an economy that is struggling to continue to fund a burgeoning social fund that is drawing money from other services. Regardless, in my house we have had to make cuts to our spending and decide what is necessary, what is luxury and what we need to cap in order to balance the books. I don’t consider it anything close to unreasonable to expect those on social security benefits to be asked to do the same.

    The church on the whole is middle class but I speak as somebody who works in schemes and has worked in some of the poorest parts of the world for over a decade. Prior to that I speak as one who received benefits for many years and grew up in a culture where it was seen as acceptable to ‘screw the social’. Now, that does not mean that everybody is at it, nor is it an excuse to further oppress the poor, but we do have to look at what being ‘poor’ actually means in our country in relation to the rest of the world. There aren’t too many starving people on our scheme whether they are in receipt of benefits or not.

    It is a complicated system and we do need to be careful how these things are going to be worked out at a local, contextual level and that is why I advocated serious debate rather than buying into the current media firestorm and finger pointing.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment mate. Much appreciated.


      I think we are broadly on the same page Mez.

      That sentence should have read “I think most people would agree with this exclusion and there would be less fuss as a result.”

      The point I would generally make about trying to systematically change the benefits culture in an economic downturn is that it is difficult to see how it has traction when there are few jobs going around. The jobs need to be there in order to get people off benefits – if there aren’t, then I guess they are more inclined to say ‘why bother trying”.

      I would agree that everyone needs to share in the pain, but there only ever seems to be political will to make a substantial change to the benefits system when the structural deficit becomes so problematic – if there was more will in the good times, then we would be in a much better position when the bad times come. Does that make sense?

      Appreciate that you have far more life experience of this than I do, but the point I was making is that the vast majority of Christians in this country are in the same position as me. Unless we are witnessing and experiencing what the benefits culture is doing in our schemes and to the lower working classes, then any comment made by these Christians on the impact of cuts and caps has to be qualified. Indeed, I would qualify anything I say in that respect – but hopefully you’ll be able to help educate me in due course!


    No worries Matt

    There are huge factors involved in all of this which is why the media’s posturing is sometimes not helpful. As we all know, the solutions are by no means simple. If it was purely a matter of economics then it would be almost easier to manage. Good, rigorous, ongoing debate of this type will help in regards to church people and a more long-term regard to public policies from the government are far better than populist quick fixes they can be guilty of pushing onto us.

    Thanks for commenting mate – v helpful in moving the discussion on.

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