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Reform Magazine | May 23, 2017

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Niall Cooper: Blame: a senseless game

niall_cooperAs Julia Unwin, director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has written, we face the prospect of a decade of destitution. Food banks are opening across the country, teachers report children coming to school hungry; advice services and local authorities prepare for the risks attached to welfare reform. There is evidence of a rising number of people sleeping rough, and destitution is reported with increasing frequency.

Who is to blame for this depressing outlook for 2013 and beyond? Some would blame the last government for the high levels of public debt. Some would blame the present government for austerity budgets and welfare benefit cuts. Some would want to blame the bankers, or the Euro, or the global crisis of capitalism. But what is increasingly worrying is the trend towards blaming the victims.

At such times, there is surely an imperative to pull together. Yet worryingly, some politicians and sections of the media are seeking to create division and lay the blame for the nation’s ills at the doors of the very poorest.

An increasingly virulent political rhetoric seeks to divide poor people against very poor people, and increasingly repeats the false notion that people who are poor can readily be divided into the mirage of “strivers” and “shirkers”. This same rhetoric pits working families against those unable to find work, the hard-pressed against the very poor.

This is not to say people in poverty never do bad things. Homeless people can often be their own harshest critics when they look back on the wrong choices in their lives. But a blame culture is not the way to make things better. We can pretend that poverty is somehow a consequence of the moral failings of individuals and families, but that won’t help – and it doesn’t square with the evidence to the contrary.

Counter to all the myths and stereotypes, new research by Tearfund suggests that unemployed people are more likely to be honest and scrupulous than those in work.

A national survey asked 1,200 people if they would keep quiet when given too much change. Fifty four per cent of those not working said they wouldn’t keep quiet, compared with 41 per cent of those in work. The poll also asked whether people would report an error in a bank account, crediting a refund twice. Again, more people out of work (56 per cent) say they would report it, than those in work (39 per cent).

On the plus side, earlier last year, the Evangelical Alliance found overwhelming support (92 per cent) for the belief that it is every Christian’s duty to help those in poverty. A survey of over 3,000 evangelical Christians revealed strong agreement with the belief that “some top people are paid too much” (92 per cent); that “there is an unacceptable level of income inequality in the UK” (82 per cent) and even that “the government should make sure that the richest people in the country pay the highest level of tax” (77 per cent). Almost four in 10 attended a church that supports or runs a food bank – although only seven per cent are in churches that offer help to unemployed people.

But let’s not get all holier than thou. Christians are not immune from seeking to blame poor folk for their own predicament, or from finding others to blame. And how many of us have actually challenged our friends or neighbours, our politicians or newspaper editors (or even members of our own congregations), when they have idly sought to castigate, stereotype or scapegoat?

Jesus was being tested by the Pharisees when they brought him the woman “taken in adultery”. Jesus never said she was blameless. He simply showed that condemnation was not appropriate and would not achieve change. We won’t tackle poverty and homelessness by blaming those who are poor and homeless.

Visit www.actionweek.org.uk to download a flyer or order your free worship and other resources for Poverty & Homelessness Action Week, 26 January to 4 February 2013

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This article was published in the February 2013 edition of  Reform.

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