There was, as usual, a lot of interest in yesterday’s post on the benefits culture in our society. So, here is a re-posting of a blog from earlier this year on the topic. It caused some debate at the time and it is an issue that seems to stir heated emotions across all political divides in the UK.
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 99%+ 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 still thinking it through, chewing it over and asking hard questions of myself, the Bible and my own attitudes.