Niall Cooper: Stand with the destitute
As we enter another “deep midwinter”, thousands of our fellow citizens continue to struggle to afford the basics. If not you, then potentially your neighbour, fellow church member or others in your street, neighbourhood or wider community will be facing the choice of whether to heat or eat this winter.
The “cost of living crisis” is an increasingly important political hot potato – but that doesn’t mean it will be resolved without sustained pressure on politicians, regulators, business leaders and others. Thankfully, there are real signs that many in the churches are starting to wake up to the scale of the crisis, and are increasingly willing to speak out on the issues.
The harsh truth is that there are increasing numbers of people who are destitute in today’s Britain. The phenomenal growth of foodbanks has happened not because there is “infinite demand for free food,” as Lord Freud put it last July, but because thousands of people have recognised something needs to fill gaps left by our creaking benefits system.
Without foodbanks, families are starving. Low wages, zero-hours contracts, outrageous interest charges by doorstep lenders, benefit cuts, benefit delays, “sanctions” on jobseekers – all these and more contribute to a Britain where many are locked out of what the rest take for granted. And there are plenty who are not destitute, but teetering on the edge – “just two pay-packets away from homelessness” is how many feel.
As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported in December, there are now more working families living in poverty in the UK than non-working ones for the first time. Of the 13 million people living below the poverty line, some 6.7 million come from working families. While the number of pensioners living in poverty has hit a 30-year low, 4.7 million of those living below the poverty line are working age adults without dependent children – the highest number on record. The Foundation concluded that households across the board have been hit by a sustained and “unprecedented” fall in living standards. Yet the political agenda continues to be dominated by talk of further cuts to the welfare budget, extending as far as 2017.
The ripple effects of the current round of welfare cuts are spreading far and wide. One of the country’s largest private landlords, Fergus Wilson, who owns nearly 1,000 properties in Kent, made headlines in January when it was revealed that he had sent eviction notices to 200 tenants who had paid some of their rent with welfare payments. He said: “If I am heartless, all the other landlords are heartless, because we’re all doing the same.” At the same time, Wilson admitted to feelings of guilt about the people he was evicting: “It is very, very sad,” he said. “Particularly, I feel sorry for battered wives who have come to us because we are very much consigning them to go back to their husbands to be beaten up again, but the situation is it cannot go on.”
In the Old Testament, we see an emphasis on social duties and community obligations: The periodic jubilee under which property debts were wiped out, the importance of supporting the widow and her children, of providing for the stranger and the refugee. In the New Testament, Jesus demonstrates grace in the stories of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son. These biblical approaches are a world away from the current fixation with driving a wedge between the poor and the comfortable in our land.
In spite of talk of “economic recovery”, 2014 looks like it will be another tough year, and one in which we must all redouble our efforts towards closing the gap between rich and poor in the UK. To paraphrase what Martin Luther once famously said: “Here we stand, we can do no other.”
Niall Cooper is director of Church Action on Poverty and convener of the Inner Manchester Network of the United Reformed Church
This article was published in the February 2014 edition of Reform.