Poverty and our collective responsibility

Emergency use onlyI’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.

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4 thoughts on “Poverty and our collective responsibility

  1. Thanks for the article. I thought I would respond as I wrote the blog post that you are referring to. There is loads that I agree with in your piece and I definitely agree that the church should be careful not to be too keen on addressing the immediate needs without asking the deeper questions about why that need exists in the first place. I think the title of your blog sums it up – we should be merciful but also be concerned for justice.

    I did not really address these issues in this post so I understand you raising these concerns but I have done in other posts around food poverty, such as this one: http://resistanceandrenewal.net/2014/01/17/foodbank-politics-faith-community-action-and-social-justice/

    It is similar when it comes to homelessness – our practical efforts to provide shelter for people should lead into political efforts to ensure that there is more affordable housing.

    But despite this, there will always be need which demands a response – we will never get to a point where we have no need of activities and projects which address immediate needs. I hope we do see a decline in the spread of food banks and church winter night shelters but our society will always be improved by the willingness of people to organise themselves to respond to the needs they see in their communities.

    And I think the church has a vital role to play because we have unique resources to share. As with the Micah verse your blog alludes to, I think we our faith gives us resources for both compassionate and merciful actions AND in a concern for justice.

    1. Thanks for your comments – I do agree with you! I think you address the heart of the issue. If there is need then our faith demands that we respond, but there is also the need to prophetic and speak out for justice, to not be afraid to ask the difficult questions. I wonder how much difference writing blogs makes, but it is the least I can do!

  2. I appreciated your comments. I work with clergy on theological reflection, when I am invited by those responsible for their formation and continuing development, and am always stressing the need to move through the cycle of action and reflection by way of analysis which helps us to ask the appropriate questions about the situations we experience and the need to shape our response to address not just the injustice and the poverty we see, but the real causes of it. I do this in the hope that they might cultivate this process with their congregations!

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