Tag Archives: welfare reform

Lent and Hunger

cupcake

My daughter and I are giving up cakes for Lent – just as soon as we’ve eaten the cakes still in the house! Yes, I know that’s really what pancake day is for, but she was at a cupcake party at the weekend and still has the lovely specimen above to eat! We should be all set by the end of the week for a cake-free Lent!

We’ve made other pledges in the family for this period of abstinence. My son announced on the way home from school yesterday that he is giving up not sharing! Too many negatives there – in other words he’s going to share more between now and Easter, especially games consoles with his sister! And as a family we’ve pledged to join the End Hunger Fast campaign. We’ll be joining in the national day of fasting on 4th April and we’ll be taking the 3-day foodbank challenge at some point during Lent too.

The Christian season of Lent comes from the example of Jesus, who spent 40 days in the wilderness, going without food and focussing on God the Father to prepare for the start of his public ministry. Lent is a time for self-examination before God allowing short-comings to be revealed and then restored. The self-denial of fasting is about shifting our focus from ourselves onto God, and the discipline required means we are thrown onto His strength instead of our own. Lent is about renewing our commitment to God, and this year, some friends have given up Facebook rather than food in order to spend the time in prayer instead.

I think it’s time we had a season of self-examination in the UK. The rising numbers of people using food banks shows that many people don’t have the luxury of choosing to go hungry as a spiritual discipline – it is a part of their every day life. So this year, our fasting is in solidarity with those going hungry in Britain. And we’re joining in with the campaign to draw attention to the issue.

The End Hunger Fast campaign is calling for the Government to examine what is happening and act to bring about change in three areas; welfare, wages and food prices. Over half of those who go to a food bank are referred because of benefit delays, changes and sanctions. Regardless of the political arguments about welfare reform, government debt and affordability, social security should provide a secure safety net to ensure people do not go hungry.  The majority of households in poverty actually have one or more adults in work, but people are still at risk from hunger. Work should pay, and the minimum wage ought to make sure it does. The campaign also calls for support for the Living Wage, which I have discussed before. Meanwhile, food prices continue to rise, even ahead of inflation and way above wages. And the poorest often end up paying more for their food, or having to buy cheap but unhealthy processed food because of a lack of access to supermarkets and fresh food outlets. The campaign calls for a full review of British food markets to find ways to make them healthy, affordable and sustainable.

So, what are you giving up for Lent? Would you choose to go hungry to stand in solidarity with those who have no choice, even here in the UK? 20 charities, including Church Action on Poverty, and a number of public figures have signed up. There are lots of ways to join in and pledge your support, and there will be media moments during the campaign too. It started this morning outside the Houses of Parliament – you can see pictures on Facebook and follow the campaign there.

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Who benefits from benefits?

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It’s time to tell a different story about where public money goes and who benefits from benefits. We need an alternative to the current narrative from the government about “hardworking people” who “do the right thing”, who end up paying for those who aren’t working. However, the chart above shows that the spending on people on the edge of society who are working hard looking for a job is a very small part of social security spending. And the changes to Job Seekers Allowance means that it can be very hard to do all the right things required of you to avoid a sanction. (I took the chart from this blog and the information in it comes from this government paper on page 57).

Huge amounts are spent on pensions, but I’m not going to go there…

Four times as much money is spent on housing compared to unemployment benefits, and the housing benefit bill has been steadily rising. Housing benefits pay rents which people would otherwise not be able to afford. But this safety net means that rents can rise as they are not held back people’s ability to pay. This is the logic of capping housing benefit, so that it doesn’t continue to fuel rent rises. But who suffers the most with this policy? Those who can’t afford to pay rents. This takes power away from the already pretty powerless, and cedes more power to the powerful. Those with little power or money have little choice and are at the mercy of uncaring landlords providing poor accommodation. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money is being paid to wealthy private landowners, making the rich richer, as this article explains.

Capping rent not benefits would cut the benefit bill but this time the change to the balance of power would be in favour of the weakest. I don’t believe that we should kneel before the altar of the market, but if we want to use market forces, a better way of reducing prices would be to increase supply, especially as rising prices can’t diminish demand of what is an essential rather than a luxury good. This means building more houses, which would also increase employment. And as it would be a good idea to make sure these houses were affordable and not susceptible to soaring rents, why not let them be council houses?

We need to join the dots. Giles Fraser writing about why the church should be angry about welfare policy, says that homelessness in London has risen by 60% in two years. We do have choices, and I believe we need to make choices which don’t just make economic sense, but choices which protect the most vulnerable in our society. So in this case, that is the tenant and not the landowner.

And while we’re on the subject of public money going to already wealthy private individuals, lets join some more dots up and widen it out to private companies. Take another look at the chart above and the figure paid out to families and children. Some of this will be child benefit, a universal benefit. There are good reasons to keep benefits universal, not least so we all have a stake in our society, but that’s another subject. The rest includes child tax credit and working families tax credit. This is paid as a “top-up” to ensure low-paid families can still afford a reasonable standard of living, and tries to ensure being in work pays more than not being in work.

This is somewhat at odds with the government’s narrative. Hardworking families who are doing the right thing still need to claim benefits, because they are not earning enough. Maybe this is to do with working part-time because of issues around childcare. Or maybe because there are only part-time jobs available (I talked about underemployment in my last blog). But plenty of these benefits are paid out to people working full-time but still considered to be earning too little for a decent standard of living. How can this be? How can it be that it is possible to work full-time and still not be able to afford to pay the bills and feed your family? Surely that’s why we have a minimum wage? But sadly, since its introduction in 1999 its value in real terms (taking into account rising prices) has been declining since 2010. An independent body calculates the hourly rate required for someone working full-time to earn enough for a decent standard of living, and this is know as the Living Wage.

Meanwhile, non-Living Wage employers are paying minimum but inadequate wages, which need to be topped up out of public funds. Some of these employers may be small businesses struggling themselves, which is why the Living Wage is a voluntary scheme. But plenty of these businesses are large firms making large profits. Supermarkets are a classic example. A quick scan of the list of living wage employers did not reveal any supermarkets to me, and yet they are posting huge profits. Profits built on low-paid workers subsidised by public money.

I don’t know what difference my little blog will do. But we need to talk about these things. We need to challenge anyone who says we cannot afford our welfare bill. Protecting the vulnerable is a key function of a civilised country. Our spending needs reform, but reform should protect the interests of the weak not the powerful. We are all stake-holders in a system which protects us when times are tough. The powerful have the capacity to protect their own interests, and they are doing very nicely at this thank you very much (Church Action on Poverty estimates tax dodging costs the UK at least £45 billion a year). A lot has been said this week about the morality of welfare reform. The Bible is full of exhortations to support the poor and the weak, to be a voice for the voiceless, especially the Old Testament. But I came across this the other day. Right at the heart of his plans to spread the message about Jesus, Paul says this: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:10, NIV)

Real Life Reform – Report 2

Real Life Reform – Report 2

I’m finding it impossible to blog at the moment due to preparing for Christmas and a house move all at the same time. So I thought I’d share some wisdom from other people for you to read instead. This report is part of a long term study aiming to track the impact of benefit changes on people in the North of England