I’ve been following with interest the reaction to the new report “Emergency Use Only” from the Church of England, Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group and the Trussell Trust about why people need to go to food banks. I read one blog here on the Church Action on Poverty site, talking about different aspects of poverty and the church’s response to it. The blog ends:
“[This shows] why the Church has such a vital and on-going role to play. Food banks and Night Shelters are run by the Churches because material poverty needs to be addressed. Authentic faith always has a social impact. But the Church also has unique resources to address the poverty of relationships and identity.”
I find myself torn in my response to this statement. I haven’t quite finished reading “Emergency Use Only”, which details the circumstances of some of those using our many and growing food banks. But the stories in the report reveal the difficult situations some of our neighbours find themselves in and the tremendous amount of need there is. Of course people in the church (and others) will be motivated to help and to try to meet some of this material need. And yes, the church does have unique resources to address the poverty of relationships and identity. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the church should have an on-going and vital role to play meeting material needs, and even possibly relationship and identity needs.
The welfare state and the NHS were born out of the devastation of the second world war. People looked at the plight of their fellow citizens and wanted to make a response to ensure all those in need would be cared for. A collective, country-wide response to ensure there could be no gaps for people to slip into. The desire to help those in need was there, and those who were able provided this help through their national insurance contributions. The NHS and the welfare state became the agencies which act on our behalf to meet the needs of material poverty and ill-health.
This is not a matter of the state taking over our individual responsibility, but a rather a collective, organised response to the needs of society. We must continue to take responsibility by ensuring we participate in the democratic process and hold our governments to account. We all contribute to each other’s welfare through our taxes (direct and indirect) as well as national insurance contributions.
I’ve had conversations with people who feel that meeting material need should remain the role of the church. But at its best, this could only be a piecemeal response to need, dependent on the finances and social inclination of a particular church in a particular place. A nationally organised health service and welfare provision ensures that everyone can access the help they need. This is the agency through which the church and all its members are able to provide for the needs of others by virtue of being citizens. Looked at this way, we all remain collectively responsible for each other.
Churches will continue to respond to unmet need. I cannot criticise this. But I can and will question why that need exists in the first place. After the war, people wanted to make sure that no-one was left behind. It is quite clear now that many people are being left behind. Left behind to struggle with bereavement, ill health, chronic low wages, poor housing, relationship breakdown, redundancy among other things. The agency, which we (as in our predecessors in the 1940s) commissioned to help them, now fails to do the thing it was designed to do.
Is the rise in the numbers of people accessing food banks attributable to changes in the administration of benefits? The “Emergency Use Only” report says it can’t prove this either way. Are people being let down by a system of welfare support that is supposed to help them? Clearly the answer is yes, as the many stories detailed in the report attest to. There are many more untold stories from food banks around the country. How many of these stories do we need to tell before those responsible for administering our welfare state are prepared to act? The safety net which the citizens of the late 1940s created for the benefit of all now has far too many holes in. The holes need to be fixed, because right now, people are crashing straight through onto the rocks below.