Tag Archives: Poverty

Asking the right question

Great stuff goes on helping people in extreme poverty to transform their lives, but we still haven’t eradicated poverty. Why? This fascinating article suggests it might help if we asked better questions, so that we get better answers to the problem.

Using design thinking to eradicate poverty creation

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Food Banks and Society

Food banks are never far away from the news, not least because it’s hard to believe that so many people are reliant on their provisions in one of the richest countries in the world. Despite the Government failing to respond to this growing scandal, Frank Field and the Church of England launched their own inquiry, and this week the resulting report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group, Feeding Britain, was launched.

Interestingly, the authors of the report say that this: “our first and most important point is that we want to call all people again to consider how we want to live together as members of this society and how we can encourage one another”. In the light of the report, and in my experience working as a debt advisor and with a food bank, I’d like to offer my considerations.

I think we need to live together in a society which values and respects people in work. I do not think this is the case in a country where people are working, sometimes several jobs, and are still not earning enough to pay the bills. I’d like to see a society where people are not exploited for their labour, where zero-hours contracts are a happy adjunct to busy lives for a few and not a systematic way of keeping costs down while people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. I’d like to see a minimum wage which rises as the cost of living goes up. I’d like to see national and local government encouraging the implementation of a Living Wage for their own staff, contracted staff and through their procurement and tendering procedures, as well as ways to encourage other businesses and organisations to pay a Living Wage. I’d like to see protection of the rights of workers and strengthening of Unions, rather than a steady erosion of terms and conditions in the name of “flexible working”. I’d like to see a society which values people above profit, where money and growth is the means to an end and not an end in itself.

I think we need to live together in a society which values and respects people who are not in work. I do not thinks this is the case in a country which has become so focused on the very few who play the system that it has forgotten to take care of everyone else. I’d like to see a social security system which is a genuine safety net for those who are struggling and going through a tough period in their lives. I don’t want to live in a society where a man with learning disabilities who is trying hard to live independently after he lost his Mum and his job in a Remploy factory has his income taken away for four weeks because he struggles to read the letters sent to him from the Job Centre, and where he finds himself in debt because no-one took the time to explain to him that benefit changes mean he has become liable for part of his council tax bill which has previously been fully covered. I don’t want to be part of a society which counts and celebrates the number of people in work, and counts the number of people on benefits, but where those people who are not in work but have been cut adrift from the benefit system become people who no longer count. I want to live together in a country where we understand that our contribution to the state through tax and national insurance funds the way we share our responsibility for the well-being of all. I don’t want to be part of a country which is driven by an ideology which believes state spending should be as small as possible, and in the pursuit of this goal fails to protect the vulnerable and leaves all of us in fear of crashing through the gaping hole in the social security safety net if anything should happen.

I think we need to live together in a society which recognises the responsibility of Government to invest in the welfare of its citizens. I don’t believe we need to pursue austerity at all costs. I don’t believe that continuing to cut, not just benefits, but the services we rely on to help us navigate through life and Government bureaucracy, is the way to build up our common life. I believe that people want to share in our collective responsibility towards one another and would be happy to contribute. I think that there are people at the wealthier end of the spectrum who could shoulder a bigger portion of this responsibility. If we really need to tackle the deficit (though if Government borrowing is so cheap at the moment, perhaps it is not the imperative we are told it is) then increasing income is just as valid an alternative to reducing costs. Serious effort should be applied to closing tax loopholes and increasing transparency so we can collect the billions in taxes currently being avoided by multinationals operating in this country. We could introduce a “Robin Hood Tax” like our fellow citizens in Europe are doing, so that we benefit more as a country from the enormous financial markets in the City of London and so that there is at least a small application of the brakes on damaging speculative short term trading.

The Feeding Britain report makes other suggestions about benefits, tax credits, access to credit, energy and water bills, access to the internet and mobile phones. All these things are key to easing the financial squeeze faced by poor households. It also suggests something which it calls Food Bank plus. The theory is once some of the measures above are put in place, households with a short term crisis will not need to use a food bank, freeing the service up to offer more support to those with longer-term needs. The report identifies that the issue of food, being such a basic physical and social need, means that people have come for help who are otherwise “hard to reach”. With a more joined-up, co-ordinated approach, Food Bank plus would offer a portal to provide better support for these people, including debt advice, benefits advice, help for mental health issues, access to credit such as via credit unions, back to work programmes, help and advice around cooking and nutrition.

I can see what they are saying. I recognise that people came to the food bank I worked for who were very suspicious of anyone from the council or social services or the job centre, but were reassured by the staff and volunteers who made them a cup of tea, listened to their problems and gave them a bag of food. But… food banks cannot become an institutionalised part of our welfare system. We must be a country where the state takes responsibility for its citizens. If people are going hungry, the system is broken and needs to be fixed. If the appropriate funding was invested in job centres and advice staff, then people would have access to the advice they need and the benefit system would be navigated successfully. If mental health services were accorded the value and funding of their physical health counterpart, then people would have confidence in the services that were offered. Likewise for social services.

We are back to discussing the kind of society we want to live in, how we want to live together. The report speaks of a lack of social glue holding society together. I don’t think it is possible to say this is all down to government cuts. However, I do believe that the way the Government is behaving is symptomatic of the reason for the lack of social glue. Business, politics, economics – it is all driven by the pursuit of growth. It is all about the bottom line. We are all here to be efficient economic units – efficient in production and insatiable in our consumption. The value of people and the relationships between friends and neighbours are sacrificed on the altar of growth. But I want to be part of a society which values people above profit. Where government policy is decided on in the light of its impact on people and communities. Our trust in one another is eroded when inequality rises, when our status is under threat, our jobs are insecure and the social contract between a government and its people is broken. We could hope that civil society will do the job of government, will pick up the pieces and look after those in need. But I thought we’d moved on from that. I thought we’d decided as a society that we would like our collective responsibility to one other to be fulfilled through the instrument of the state providing education, health and welfare equitably and justly for all of us throughout the country, regardless of status or background. Otherwise we’ll end up like the Post Office, complaining now that it has been privatised, that it is not profitable to run services in remote areas for the same price as everywhere else. We surely knew that before it was sold, that’s why it was nationally owned. As a metaphor for the current regime, the Post Office debacle tells us pretty much what we need to know.

If you’d like to read more, some great work exploring the real lives of food bank users can be found in the Listen Up report and in the Emergency Use Only report.

Other interesting comments on the Feeding Britain reports can be found below

Joint Public Issues: Feeding Britain

The Safety Net: in urgent need of repair

A Way Forward on Food Banks

As Children Starve, Where’s the State?

And if you want to read some books about growth, equality and the creeping reach of market capitalism I can recommend these:

The Spirit Level by Richard Wilson and Kate Pickett

How Much is Enough by Robert and Edward Skidelsky

What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel

Telling Stories

“Poverty is at its most deadly when we no longer notice, we no longer care, we no longer even question it.” (Fogg, A. The Guardian, Dec 1)

http://www.theguardian.com/…/poverty-deadly-evidence-auster…

Worth a read.. Shocking statistics about the increases in poverty that haven’t even been broadcasted to us! The UK is by no means over the recession we must not turn a blind eye to it and those in need! ‪#‎challenging

This is the most shocking thing I have read this week. Not the article, I’ve already read or read about most of the reports cited in it. No, I was shocked by this Facebook comment, which came from a friend of mine. Where’s he been? He’s clearly not been reading my Facebook page!

But it is unfair to be too critical, because as the article says, these stories are not making media headlines. The reports, stories and figures are there if you know where to look, but they are not the hot topics of conversation.

On Saturday I joined over 100 of others to talk about poverty in Sheffield, and in particular the impact of benefit cuts on people in Sheffield. We heard from Nick Waterfield talking about foodbanks, including telling us about the foodbank in Nottingham which has closed its doors because it has become part of the problem, not part of the solution. We heard from the “Sheffield academics” who have described the devastating impact of welfare cuts on people in Sheffield. And we heard from Jane Perry, the author of “Emergency Use Only”, the report published by the Church of England, Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group and Trussell Trust.

On Saturday, Jane was talking about a different piece of research, which I’ll come to in a moment. But before she presented her report, she had this to say. Policy makers can’t know the impact of policies unless we tell them. Even people in churches won’t know unless we tell the stories of those who have been affected. This is what needs to happen, so that my friends know the stories before they read articles in the Guardian. So let me take some time to tell some of these stories.listenup

I’m going to share some of the stories from “Emergency Use Only” and from the other research Jane was involved in. This project was called “Listen Up!” and enabled church members to take time to interview and listen to members of their own communities struggling with welfare cuts. I’m not going to comment further, just tell some stories, and hope that they speak to you and that you will speak them to others.

Kath lives with her three teenage sons. Her youngest son has several serious medical conditions and requires intensive support. After her partner left 4 years ago, Kath gave up work to become his full-time carer. This left the family finances in precarious financial position:

‘We live very close to the edge… we don’t have many things. My 17-year-old needed a passport to get a part-time job and I had to say no. My youngest, who’s 14, has never been on a school trip, and I can’t afford the art supplies my other son needs for his course.’

The family were just about managing when their Child Tax Credits were halved without notice. Kath had arranged her finances so that she relied on her tax credits to pay for food and other daily necessities, so the effect was catastrophic.

When Kath contacted HMRC, she was told her credits had been cut because she had failed to tell them that her two older sons were staying in education. Kath says she did update them. She was assigned a case worker and given a number to call, ‘and that’s where the problem started’.

‘I called them every day all day and couldn’t get through. And every time I got put through to the answer machine we got charged. It was awful. I’d go back to the helpline and say “I can’t get through”, and they said “Well, that’s the number”. They didn’t help at all. It went on for eight weeks.’

Kath was horrified by how she was treated. ‘When our money was stopped, there was no compassion, there was no way to get support.’

Meanwhile, she was getting into more and more debt: ‘We got behind on all our bills; everything just got swallowed up, and my direct debits were bouncing.’

She became unable to meet the family’s basic needs. ‘It was freezing cold, there was no wood for the fire, I was on the emergency on the meter and I knew the lights were about to go out, and I had no food.’ To attempt to make ends meet, Kath had to rehouse a much-loved family pet, a decision which she described as ‘heart-breaking’. But this was still not enough: ‘I had no money to get my children to school… I was desperate.’

To compound their problems, her youngest son’s conditions mean he needs to eat healthily, which Kath found challenging on a small budget. ‘He can’t eat fast food; he would have ended up in hospital.’

Kath and her family survived with the help of donations from her local Citizens Advice Bureau and food bank. It took eight weeks for the decision to cut her Child Tax Credits to be overturned.

She said of her experience: ‘I thought the system would protect me. I never thought I would be completely ignored. I feel I was let down hugely. My benefits are my safety net – if they’re removed, how are families like ours meant to survive?’ Emergency Use Only

Before her car accident, Abby described herself as being on a “living wage” of around £150 to £200 per week. The sick pay she currently receives through being unable to work because of her injuries has halved that element of income to £85 per week, leaving her much more dependent on tax credits and benefits paid for her children. After bills are paid, she is left with £20 for other things. Abby’s accident compounded difficulties caused by estrangement from her family and the loss of her baby to cot death, leaving her with ‘re-occurring depression’. And yet she retains an impressive sense of personal resilience, saying “I might be little but I’m mighty”. She expressed a certain sense of inevitability about having to be, as she described herself, “like iron”, based on perception of having little choice but to cope alone. When asked who she turned to in a crisis, she responded “to the mirror”.  Listen Up!

A woman seeking money advice had been receiving Income Support on the grounds of ill health and failed to qualify for ESA. Payment of her benefits had stopped towards the end of December 2013, leaving her with no income whatsoever. She suffers with diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and arthritis. When seen at the food bank in early February 2014, having lived without income for over a month, she was visibly struggling to stand, even supported by a walking stick. The client had phoned the DWP in January and said she wanted a mandatory reconsideration of the decision. In late February, the client received a notice that her request had been refused. The next day CPAG assisted her to complete an appeal form which was submitted to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS). HMCTS confirmed to CPAG that it had sent acknowledgement of receipt of the appeal to the DWP eight days after it had been posted. The welfare rights adviser called the DWP the same day (12 days after the appeal had been posted) and explained that HMCTS had received the appeal, and asked for ESA to be reinstated pending its resolution. As the section of the DWP dealing with the issue had not received the acknowledgement at that time it refused to reinstate ESA. Three days later HMCTS finally agreed to send an email to the DWP confirming that the appeal had been received. CPAG also faxed the DWP the copy of the client’s letter from HMCTS confirming an appeal had been lodged. The DWP refused to act on this evidence. In late March, some 26 days after the appeal had been posted, CPAG received the papers for the appeal from the DWP (meaning that they must have received confirmation of the appeal from HMCTS). The client was finally paid ESA in early April (35 days after the appeal was posted to HMCTS).  Emergency Use Only

Upon investigation by the welfare rights adviser, it emerged that a woman had been sanctioned for ‘failure to attend work programme’ three separate times by different decision makers in three different offices:

  • Feb 2014 – decision made by Wellingborough Labour Market decision makers but reversed as client had been attending a job interview when not at the work programme.
  • March 2014 – decision made by the Watford Labour Market decision makers, reversed as the claimant had been ill on that date and had phoned to explain this to the work programme provider.
  • April 2014 – decision made by Cosham Labour Market decision makers, reversed because the claimant had had a meeting about rent arrears with her landlord at the time she was supposed to be attending, and had told the Jobcentre in advance.

There appeared to be confusion within the DWP regarding this case. In particular, sanction periods should not have overlapped as they did. However, from the claimant’s perspective, the multiple decision makers meant any phone calls and correspondence had to be with three different offices. It was also incredibly hard, even for a welfare rights adviser, to obtain accurate information regarding the case. It took in excess of ten hours of welfare rights adviser time to resolve these sanctions and ensure the client was paid, given the difficulties of obtaining information and the need to correspond with so many different parties. The client meanwhile, despite the fact she had obtained hardship payments and still retained her Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit during this period, had had to take her child’s Christmas presents to Cash Converters in order to pay for fuel. On redeeming these when she was finally paid she had to pay more than she had received.  Emergency Use Only

‘There should be more discretion for individuals with the bedroom tax. I’m on the list for a bungalow, but I realise that means someone else has to die for one to become available. But I’ll still have to pay bedroom tax, because sometimes my daughter has to stay the night when my mobility deteriorates.’  Woman in her 50s with disability, Listen Up

Raja lives in a small flat which he rents from a housing association. He worked as a nurse until 2008 when he was hospitalised with mental health problems; at this time, Raja also lost his home. He made a gradual recovery over the next few years and lived in a series of hostels. He was eventually re-housed to his current home and was able to start work again in 2011.

After losing his job again in 2013, Raja applied for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). His claim took eight weeks to be processed. During this time Raja had to use the food bank for the first time, as he did not have enough money to buy food. His benefits were stopped at the beginning of 2014 because he could not access the system to complete the required job-search activities.

“Over Christmas for three days I didn’t have access to universal job match, as I didn’t have access to a computer as everything was still shut, my local library was shut. The day I went to sign on I found I had been sanctioned. It went on for four weeks. It’s not at all reasonable. I’m not just talking about myself, but so many people are sanctioned. I didn’t even have electricity whilst I was sanctioned as I couldn’t afford it, and I ended up at the food bank.”

Raja survived with the help of a crisis payment from Citizens Advice Bureau and food parcels from the food bank. His housing association also supported him in his efforts to find work.

Raja found the Jobcentre to be very unhelpful: he experienced a lack of empathy and support and a lack of information, particularly about whether the JSA sanction would have a knock-on effect on his Housing Benefit. When he tried to question the sanction he was referred to a helpline based in Newcastle, but the advisers were not able to help with his case.

“I don’t think we get enough help from the Jobcentre itself with applying for jobs. My local housing association do help me; they give me a one-to-one and they let me access computers.”

Raja remained positive about the future, and was learning new IT skills at college and applying for low-paid jobs.

“I think I’ve now got a part-time job working as a night receptionist so I’m very happy. Working is good for your health; it’s good to be doing something. I want to get off benefits. Even though it’s minimum wage, I can’t wait to get off them. I was on more money when I was a senior nurse but I think anything is better than dole money.”  Emergency Use Only

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.

It’s not fair!

blogactionday I’m posting for Blog Action Day today, when bloggers all over the world are writing about inequality. Inequality is a theme I often return to, but despite thinking about it for weeks, I’ve been wondering where to start. So, instead of having a beautifully crafted post, lovingly edited over several days, I’m actually bouncing off the things I read on Facebook yesterday. To be fair, that’s how I write most of my stuff!

I started with an infographic from http://realbritainindex.org/ . Since 2006, the consumer price index shows prices have risen by 26%. But when this is broken down to reflect what people actually spend their money on at various income levels, prices for the poorest 10% of households have risen by 32% because food and energy prices have risen by 40% and 73% respectively. We’ve all felt the impact of rising prices, but the impact has been greater if you are poor.

Then I came across an article about how Brighthouse is doing so well that it was able to open a new shop every fortnight last year. This is a shop which enables people who can’t get credit elsewhere, often due to very low incomes, can buy large and/or expensive household goods at small weekly payments. “Where a washing machine that costs £399 from Currys ends up costing almost four times that amount from BrightHouse: £1,560.” This is known as the poverty premium – you have less to start with, and then your essentials end up costing more because you can’t get the discounts that people who can pay up front or by direct debit can get. Energy bills and a TV licence are other classic examples. Or try this headline from the Guardian – “Food, clothes, transport, beds, ovens: the aid schools are giving UK pupils”.

I’ve also just been invited to an event in Sheffield which will revisit the report produced by the Sheffield Fairness Commission. This report used the 83 bus route to illustrate inequality in Sheffield. “The bus starts at Millhouses, in Ecclesall ward where female life expectancy is 86.3 years. By the time the bus has travelled down Ecclesall Road and into the city centre, female life expectancy has dropped to 81.6 years, and by the time it makes its way into Burngreave ward just 40 minutes from the start of the journey female life expectancy is only 76.9 years. This means that a baby girl born and who lives her life in one part of the city can expect to live, on average, almost 10 years longer than a similar baby girl born and living her life about four miles away, by virtue of nothing more than the socio-economic circumstances and area she was born in to.”

How did we get to this place? To a place where goods and services actually cost more if you are poor. To a place where the burden of our economic recovery is falling most heavily on the people with the least resources to cope. To a place, not only where families are living in homes without a bed or food, but also to a place where schools are stepping in to fill this gap because society’s safety net has too many holes in it. To a place where I can get on a bus at the bottom of my road, and within 40 minutes be somewhere where the women I meet can expect to die 10 years earlier than me. But more than this, why are we letting it happen?

I’m not asking about which economic policies have led to rising child poverty instead of falling child poverty, though these questions need to be asked. I’m asking every one of us in this country: why are we not all shouting “It’s not fair!” Because it’s not fair. Where is the mass movement to protest against the inequalities which are increasing in Britain? Where is the anger, where is the rage?

I’m left to draw the conclusion that people think it is fair. That we have swallowed the tale that families living off benefits at the expense of those who are working is what is really unfair. That it is fair to say that people get what they deserve because they make bad choices. We have been deceived into believing that this is the way things have to be while our economy recovers while we turn our eyes away from the individual misery and suffering and sheer bloody unfairness of it all.

There’s an old verse to “All Things Bright and Beautiful” that we don’t sing in church anymore “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, each to his own estate.” We don’t sing it any more because we don’t believe inequality is God-given or in any way inherent or inevitable. It’s not fair, and I’m going to keep saying it until we can find a better way. So I’m glad to add my voice to others calling out the unfairness as part of Blog Action Day.

On being counter-cultural

It’s often said that following Christ is ‘counter-cultural’. But mostly it doesn’t feel like it. My life feels much the same as everyone else’s – shopping, cooking, watching TV, wasting time on Facebook, worrying about which school the kids will go to. I try to make some ethical choices, like recycling or buying Fair Trade. I guess praying and spending Sunday morning in church mark me out a bit, but generally I don’t feel much different to the people around me. Then I come up against someone who really doesn’t get the choices I’ve made. Why did I leave a perfectly good career? Now I’m tentatively looking for a job, why would I choose to look for a job with a charity in a city 35 miles away when there must be plenty other jobs in the city where I live? And then I see that it is my motivation that is counter-cultural. Perhaps not explicitly Christian, but not the wisdom of the world to reject ambition, money and status and instead be seeking a better society based on social justice, equality and peace.

Which brings me back to the other question that spins round my mind, on the match up between Christian values and ‘Universalism’ values as discussed by Common Cause.

Actually, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few weeks about values, especially British values. And whenever someone comes up with a set of values, someone else is guaranteed to say that the values are not British because they are important to other people too. So, let’s approach this from the opposite direction. I’m not looking for values which are exclusively Christian – I’m not sure there are any. But I do want to consider the values that Christianity espouses and those it rejects, and to see where they fall on Schwarz’s values circumplex (sorry it’s hard to read).

values circle
Schwarz values circumplex, from The Common Cause Handbook 2011

And what brought all these thoughts together was the service at church last week on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Here, surely, we have it laid out before us the full extent of Christianity’s counter-cultural-ness. And as good a place as any to see the values considered important to Christians and compare them to Schwarz’s universal human values.

The Beatitudes

Jesus said:

3  ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4  Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.

5  Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.

6  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.

7  Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.

8  Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.

9  Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.

10  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

[NIV]

I’ve never studied theology, and make no claim to be a theologian, though I will tell you I’m a linguist. So, I can only offer you a discourse analysis and not a theological point of view. The first problem is pinning down the meaning of the word ‘blessed’, so I’m not going to do that. Suffice it to say, for the purposes of this analysis, if something is blessed, we can assume that it is considered valuable, and therefore these qualities are the ones that are important – to Jesus at least!

The second problem is working out what is meant by ‘poor in spirit’. Most people I know will work with a paraphrase ‘spiritually poor’, meaning their life of faith and relationship with God could do with some work. But I have read commentaries from others who suggest a meaning more akin to identifying with the poor – being with them in spirit if not in reality. Interestingly, there is another version of these words in Luke, which has Jesus saying “Blessed are you who are poor” and later “Blessed are you who hunger now”, making the whole thing much more about a physical status than a spiritual one.

Leaving these questions unresolved to one side, it is still possible to consider the things which are described as blessed in order to see which values are given value by Jesus, and which are not, and to map these if possible to universal human values as described by psychologists.

It’s not straightforward though! Let’s start from the bottom up! Verses 10 to 12 describe us as blessed when we are persecuted, insulted and lied about. This doesn’t look like a value in itself, but it is clearly opposite to values like ‘preserving my public image’ and ‘social recognition’. The verses say that being persecuted is a sign of blessing because it aligns us with the ancient Hebrew prophets, who said uncomfortable things to the rulers of their day. The prophets spoke about how people and rulers had turned away from God, and time and time again, this was a call to social justice – this brilliant report from Christian Aid explores this in more detail. So I suggest that ‘social justice’ is being lifted up here, but this might be stretching this passage a little.

Next to be considered blessed are the peacemakers – this can be fairly easily translated to the value ‘a world at peace’. Then we have the pure in heart, not so straightforward. One of the features of Jesus’s teaching was the idea that is not just what we do that matters, but what we think as well (see later on in Matthew chapter 5 talking about murder and adultery). Motivation matters – the inward motivation should match the outward expression, should be ‘pure’ rather than ‘mixed’. I think the value ‘inner harmony’ comes closest to expressing this kind of idea, being at peace with ourselves in that what we do does not come into conflict with what we believe about the world.

Being merciful is considered important next, which looks like a match for ‘forgiving’ in the ‘Benevolence’ sector. Hunger and thirst for righteousness could be two things, depending in how ‘righteousness’ is understood. At face value it looks like a straightforward match for ‘social justice’ – wanting to see the right thing done. But this is a human/social understanding of righteousness. If righteousness is understood to mean being right before God, then it could be a better match for ‘inner harmony’, or ‘a spiritual life’ in ‘Benevolence’. Going back to the things that made the Hebrew prophets hot under the collar (eg social structural inequality), then I think a case can be made that to seek righteousness before God also includes seeking righteousness in society. Therefore, placing importance on having ‘a spiritual life’ and a right relationship with God includes placing importance on ‘social justice’. There is also a sense here of a desire to know what is right, possibly a seeking after ‘wisdom’.

Understanding the value of the meek seems easier to follow as a negative – it is clearly opposite to ‘social power’ and ‘authority’. I did wonder whether the value ‘accepting my portion in life’ was appropriate here, but this doesn’t fit with the second part of the verse; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. While they may not be seeking after power, being meek is not the same as just accepting what comes along, because, in the fullness of time, much more will be due.

It is hard to know why anyone who is mourning should be considered blessed. Even being comforted in the long run doesn’t necessarily make the mourning easier to bear. But perhaps what is being valued here is the capacity to recognise loss. If loss doesn’t make us mourn, then perhaps we are hard-hearted and selfish. And this could be extended beyond personal grief to recognising the loss and pain in a world where there is suffering. Grieving for our world seems like a good quality to me, though I can’t locate it in Schwarz’s circumplex. But if the motivation for exploring these ideas and lifting up intrinsic values is to change human behaviour in order to tackle climate change and global poverty, then a sense grief for what we have lost seems a good place to start.

Finally, the confusing value of the poor in spirit. A more material understanding, as in Luke, suggests this is opposing the value of ‘wealth’. A more spiritual understanding, suggesting that what is needed is a recognition of our own lack of faith and dependence on God is closer to the values ‘humble’ and ‘ a spiritual life’. My preference is to say that we can understand both meanings, especially as I think our spiritual and physical lives can’t be divided up that neatly. How is it realistic to say we are pursuing a life of righteousness when others around us are hungry (James 2:14-17).

I realise there is much more to say about these verses, as I have barely touched on the second half of each “blessing”. But in summary, let’s look at the values which are promoted and the values which are the opposite of what is blessed. It is important to remember that these are universal human values, which we all consider important at different times and in different circumstances. But the things given value by these verses are not compatible with the values in the ‘Power’ segment of the circle – ‘preserving my public image’, ‘social recognition’, ‘social power’, ‘authority’, ‘wealth’. These extrinsic values are least associated with pro-social behaviour.

Most associated with pro-social behaviour are the intrinsic values in the ‘Universalism’ segment. Some of these values are found in the Beatitudes – ‘social justice’ (twice), ‘a world at peace’, ‘inner harmony’ (twice) and ‘wisdom’. There are also values from ‘Benevolence’ – ‘forgiving’ and ‘a spiritual life’ (twice) – and ‘Tradition’ -‘humble’.

Without analysis, I’ve always felt that ‘Benevolence’ values easily fell within Christian values, but that ‘Universalism’ values, while not incompatible, were not obviously Christian. But the Beatitudes fit best within the ‘Universalism’ sector. There are a few gaps, most notably those concerned with the environment, which may be why it has taken the church so long to wake up to its environmental responsibility. And I don’t think the Beatitudes are an exhaustive account of Christian values, just a representative one. But most stark of all is the comprehensive rejection in the Beatitudes of the ‘Power’ values. It is in the not seeking after power, wealth and status that Christianity finds itself most counter-cultural. The question is, is that what Christianity really looks like?

Radical Mutuality

Palace of Westminster

I was surprised and delighted to be invited by Christian Aid to attend their dinner reception for Christian Aid week (at the House of Lords!). And it was a privilege to sit and listen to Dr Rowan William’s lecture after dinner. It was full of wisdom, rather too much to take in from one listen! It has, however, taken me a while to go back to the lecture to read and digest it further. The full text is on the Christian Aid website, and is well worth a read. In the meantime, these are my edited highlights.

In keeping with the Christian Aid Week theme, the title of the lecture was “Tackling Violence, Building Peace”. Bringing together global poverty and global conflict makes for a vast and complex subject. In the face of a title like this, it’s tempting to switch off and feel there’s nothing an individual can do. But Dr Williams addressed the subject in ways that were inspiring and relevant to individuals as well as to organisations.

The basic premise of the lecture was that our security is bound up in the security of those around us. Dr Williams explained that to feel secure, people need to “feel an adequate level of confidence that they are not at the mercy of unknown others or unseen events to the extent that they must give their best energies to self-protection and forestalling every imagined threat”. Where resources are scarce, or people feel it is difficult or impossible to have an impact on their situation, then they may feel they have nothing to lose by resorting to violence. If my neighbour is not secure, then my own security is compromised by the risks they may take in trying to improve their own situation.

All this means there needs to be a relationship of trust, trust between people, and trust in the systems in place to keep people safe. As Dr Williams put it:

“To be secure, I need to know that my neighbour shares with me both problems and solutions and that it is possible for us to identify these together; that there are dependable procedures for managing conflict or rivalry; that justice will be done to those who have violated the safety and well-being of others; that there is redress for injury and unfairness.  If none of these can be taken for granted, I will be more likely to be tempted to pre-emptive attacks on those I see as rivals, unofficial action to punish aggressors and so on; and the spiral of destruction continues to wind itself around our necks.”

None of this, however, is possible without a serious shift in the distribution of power. People feel helpless and hopeless about their circumstances if they do not have the capacity to make a difference because they have no voice or power. As Dr Williams stated, “Inequalities of power, in the form of radically unequal levels of access to decision-making, process of law, education and civic freedoms, are often described as forms of ‘structural’ violence.” To change this will involve “a shift towards a refusal to discuss and decide in the absence of the poor, a refusal to hold on to unexamined habits of patronage, keeping others dependent – ‘knowing better’.”

So while there is much here that concerns governments and other organisations, our security is still built on trust between people, between individuals, families and communities. Dr Williams suggested that the church as the body of Christ should be a model of what this community should look like. He used an amazing phrase which has stuck with me ever since, that the community of the church should be based on “radical mutuality”:

“this community is based on a complete and radical mutuality; there is no one who has nothing to give, no one who has nothing to receive, no one flourishes without all others flourishing, all are damaged when one is, all are equipped by the Spirit to be able to make some transforming gift to the life of the whole.”

I love this! What a description of who we should be! That the church could be a model of this, and radical mutuality be the way the whole of humanity relates to one another.

Storm in a tea cup?

Oxfam storm

Did you see the Channel 4 Dispatches programme “Breadline Kids” broadcast last Monday (9th June)? It told the stories of three families which found themselves needing to use food banks so the kids didn’t go hungry. Instead of the programme stoking a (social) media outrage about children going hungry in Britain today, there was a storm about Oxfam’s poster used in conjunction with the programme to draw attention to a new report, Below the Breadline, about food banks produced by Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and Trussell Trust.

Oxfam was accused of attacking the Government instead of helping poor people. But even the way I’ve written that last sentence betrays how the way news is presented changes the way it is perceived. “Helping poor people” casts Oxfam in the role of all-powerful benefactor and leaves “the poor” as passive, helpless recipients. I could have written that Oxfam should have been “tackling poverty” instead of attacking the Government. It is the different ideas about what tackling poverty means that causes the debate.

I read with amazement the comments on Twitter from people no longer wanting to give money to Oxfam because, all of a sudden, Oxfam was too political. What had upset people so much? Suggesting that unemployment, high prices, zero-hours contracts, benefit changes and child care costs all contribute to the crises that cause people to need help like food banks. If people had jobs with reasonable hours and decent pay, affordable child care and a benefit system that provided a genuine safety net, then people wouldn’t need to give money to Oxfam for their work in the UK.

This is the heart of the issue for me. Poverty is political. It has individual causes at times, but mainly it is caused by decisions we (or our elected representatives) make about the way society is run. And its solutions are political as well. “Helping poor people” is only a short-term crisis solution – Trussell Trust will be the first to tell you this. Quite apart from demeaning and diminishing the resources that people have to help themselves, “helping poor people” is not enough. Unless we change the structures that keep people poor, we will need to go on giving money to Oxfam or rice pudding tins to food banks. Children will continue to go to school hungry and worry about whether there will be any meals at home over the weekend.

Charities like Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and Trussell Trust have a responsibility to speak out against the causes of the injustice that they are working to alleviate. This makes what they do political. And if the injustice is a result of the policies of whoever is in power, then charities will speak out against that government. As responsible citizens we can support them and speak out against injustice as we find it. Protest and campaigning is a key part of the struggle against poverty and injustice. Giving money might make us feel better for a while, but it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility or change the fundamental causes of injustice.

The Queen’s Speech

The Government started its new term this week, with the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday. So what gems do we have in store for us before the next election? And what do the plans and policies laid out for this term tell us about the Government’s values and priorities?

This is my review of the Queen’s Speech, attempting to read between the lines to see the underlying values. Inevitably, I’m biased, but my main aim is to look at what motivates plans and policies, not to say whether I think these policies are good or bad.

Reasons to celebrate

Big IF

However, I am going to start with some celebrations! To everyone who joined in the IF campaign, take a moment to rejoice. A plan to establish a public register of company beneficial ownership is in the speech! Who says campaigning doesn’t work? I don’t believe this would have been in this year’s plans without the IF campaign. And sticking with the bias for a little longer, there are a few other things in the speech which I have been campaigning for, tweeting about and generally annoying my friends on Facebook with: legislation to improve the fairness of contracts for low paid workers (zero hours contracts, to spell it out), free school meals for infants, a bill to prevent modern day slavery and human trafficking, legislation on the recall of MPs, a commitment to lead efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict worldwide and a commitment to champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change. The devil is in the detail, of course, and we’ll have to wait and see how far these commitments take us in actually improving things. There’s a couple of other things I like which I didn’t quite get round to campaigning for – higher penalties for employers who fail to pay the minimum wage, and action to reduce the use of carrier bags.

Values

Looking at the speech as a whole, I wanted to see which of the values I’ve discussed in previous blogs seemed most apparent. What seemed to be motivating the policy plans and decisions? The most obvious values in the speech come under “security”. Economic decisions are described as being made to provide stability and security, tax decisions to increase financial security, energy policy is to enhance security. Security is also obviously a motivation for foreign policy plans, mentioned specifically in relation to EU borders and relations between Russia and Ukraine. Valuing health is part of the security segment, and this is given as the motivation for introducing free school meals for infants. The values of family security and social order are seen in plans to tackle child neglect, serious organised crime, and slavery and trafficking. It is probably no surprise that security is the strongest underlying value. After all, if a government has any purpose at all it is surely to establish the security of its citizens.

Economic values

There are other values which are apparent from the way language is used and assumptions are made. There is a bias towards private solutions rather than public ones. Media and politicians tell us there is a housing crisis. The solutions given for this revolve around promoting private ownership through Help to Buy and Right to Buy, and selling government land to developers, rather than through public ownership, social housing and renting. One aspect of education policy is to promote more academies, often funded with private money, or run by private companies with public money. Economic values and outcomes are given precedence over the wellbeing of society or the environment (though it is possible to argue one leads to the other). So the planning law will be reformed in order to improve economic competitiveness, not to improve quality of life or to protect the environment. Shale gas is needed to provide energy independence and security, without mentioning that continuing to burn fossil fuel will lead to a reduction in our security in the long term as the effects of climate change take hold. Schools are discussed as places to prepare pupils for employment, rather than places of nurture, learning and social development. There will be help with child care costs for working families, leaving the emphasis on being economically active and not valuing the role of being a parent at home.

The environment

Given that climate change is the biggest threat facing the planet at the moment, there is very little in this year’s legislation to do anything about it. The most specific action is to reduce carrier bag use (by charging 5p for each bag I think). This is good, but feels like a drop in the ocean. The Government’s lack of commitment to tackling climate change is revealed in its presentation of other measures. There will be a scheme to enable new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard, but not make this mandatory. The Government will champion efforts to secure a global agreement on climate change, but even this is not as strong as the plan to lead the way when it comes to preventing sexual violence. I’m proud of the stand taken against rape as a weapon of war, let’s be as determined to lead the way in cutting carbon emissions.

Bias against the poor

The most cynical use of language in the speech concerns spending on benefits. The speech starts by saying the legislative programme will continue to reduce the country’s deficit, although borrowing in April this year was more than in April last year, and national debt continues to rise. So the plans that follow presumably aim to increase income and reduce spending (though some will be decisions about moving spending from one area to another). Promoting growth is given as the reason behind some policies. But cutting spending is only mentioned once. The only area where the Government says it needs to spend less is when it comes to looking after the needs of the poorest members of our society. So the benefit bill will be capped to control public spending. There are no other incidences in the speech where public spending needs to be controlled. There are lots of plans which will cost money which will help the wealthy or better-off. The Government commits to cutting taxes, and increasing the personal tax allowance, which helps everyone who pays tax, including the wealthiest, but does not help the poorest who don’t pay income tax. The freeze on fuel duty won’t help control public spending and benefits those wealthy enough to own a car. Extending ISAs and Premium Bonds only helps those with enough money each month to save. Changes to planning laws and Help to Buy schemes do nothing for those who can never afford to be a home owner. Free school meals for infants will be universal, and help rich and poor. Free child care for workers will be a benefit to all including the low paid.

The one plan to help the poorest which looks like it will cost the Government money is free child-care for disadvantaged two-year olds. The cost of plans to tackle zero-hours contracts and those who don’t pay the minimum wage will presumably fall on the businesses themselves.

Power to the people

The Government fares a bit better when it comes to supporting those vulnerable in other ways than through poverty. The young are supported through plans to develop apprenticeships. There will be legislation to improve the complaints system in the Armed Forces. And, as mentioned before, there are plans to tackle child neglect, slavery and trafficking, and sexual violence in conflicts. It seems appropriate that one of the roles of government is to stand up for those who don’t have power to stand up for themselves.

Another way to help those without power is to give them power, and there are examples of where this has potential to happen. Legislation on the recall of MPs could give this power to the electorate, or it could leave it in the hands of other MPs. Direct elections to National Park authorities also has the potential to give power to the people, and further plans for devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are decentralising power. I’m not sure what the estimates for the public services are, which the Government says will be laid before us, but it looks like a step forward for transparency, which is good for democracy.

Conclusion

I haven’t covered everything here, but I hope I have uncovered the flavour of the speech. Campaigning works, and we can see some legislation coming about because the people have spoken, and there are some signs that the Government recognises the need for and value of increasing accountability and democracy. As I guess I could have predicted, security underlies many of the plans, as I guess that’s what governments are for. Standing up for the weakest is another function of government which we can see here at times too. But the language used in the speech shows the Government is still intent on blaming those on benefits for the deficit, while continuing to spend money on policies which work in the best interests for those who are already much better off. Decisions are made on the basis of economic values. Private is valued above public, and serving financial and economic interests is more important than social values like learning, community wellbeing and protecting the environment. The Government’s commitment to tackling climate change is weak at best or even phony with a green gloss.

I’ll leave you with what I consider to be the most dishonest piece of spin in the whole speech. “A key priority for my ministers will be to continue to build an economy that rewards those who work hard”. Ignoring all the assumptions bound up in the word “continue” (here and elsewhere) this is the biggest piece of nonsense I have ever seen. People like nurses and other health professionals have seen their wages frozen for most of the time this coalition has been in power. Those who work long hours in physically demanding jobs, like cleaners, carers and those in the hospitality industry are lucky if they are getting the minimum wage. Meanwhile, bankers and CEOs are seeing bonuses and salaries rise more than ever before. If I was the Queen, I wouldn’t have read it out.