The autumn marks the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of Church Action on Poverty, and the need has never been greater. In the face of an economic crisis, unprecedented in any of our lifetimes, the prospects for those struggling to make ends meet are bleak.
‘Anne’ is a single parent directly affected by the Government’s austerity programme and planned benefit cuts. She recently sent us a copy of a letter she has written to her MP, which illustrates the graphic impact this will have on her family. “I am a full-time parent with a child just three years old, and I am claiming benefits as a result of a marriage breakdown. I have always intended to seek employment as soon as Joshua starts school, but after doing some basic calculations, the cap on benefits will leave my family an astonishing £80 a week worse off. This huge sum of money would have a negative effect on our family if it was just once a month, but alarmingly it is every week. The only possible cut I could make would mean having less than £10 per day to feed and clothe a family of six including myself: this is without the addition of essential household items as well.”
But Anne is not alone. Over three million UK households are now at risk of slipping into poverty as a result of spiralling living costs, shrinking incomes and welfare benefit reforms. Britain’s biggest food-bank network, the Trussell Trust has reported a doubling in the number of emergency food parcels issued over the past year and is opening new food banks at the rate of two a week.
Over the past three decades Church Action on Poverty has achieved much in terms of educating, energizing – and at times prodding – the churches to take seriously the reality of poverty on our own doorstep. We have lobbied – and in at least some cases convinced – Government to take action to tackle loan sharks, to invest in Credit Unions, to end the enforced destitution of asylum seekers and to tackle tax dodging..
But possibly the most important thing that Church Action on Poverty does is to give a voice to people who are themselves struggling to make ends meet. In the words of Wayne Green, a speaker at CAP’s first ever ‘National Poverty Hearing’ held in Westminster Central Hall 1996: “What is poverty? Poverty is a battle of invisibility, a lack of resources, exclusion, powerlessness… being blamed for society’s problems”
Over the years, we have sought to work alongside people to tackle their sense of powerlessness and exclusion, by enabling them to speak out for themselves – both locally and nationally. In 1997, we helped found the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty, with the express aim of enabling people in poverty to share their stories, hopes and aspirations and ideas for tackling poverty directly with MPs and Ministers. More recently, we have supported local groups in Manchester and Salford, Bradford and Barnsley, Stockton and Newcastle (and many places beyond) to speak out on the issues that matter to them. And people powered change works.
In the words of Sarah, a participant in a community leadership programme we ran in Salford last year, “I have overcome barriers which previously prevented me from taking part in local decision making. I have developed a new interest in politics and found my voice! I am much more assertive. I am better organised. I feel educated, engaged, enthused, empowered” Sarah is now not only making change happen in her own community, but helping to train others to do the same.
Across the country in Stockton on Tees, Kath and a small band of committed community activists who are part of our local ‘Thrive’ project have recently succeeded in winning major concessions from a high cost lending company, Buy as You View, who they felt was ripping them off. These concessions will not just benefit folk in Stockton, but more than 100,000 customers nationwide. With our support, Thrive is now working with Buy as You View to negotiate a Code for Responsible Lending with other major high cost lenders.
Our task for the coming years is to equip, train and support hundreds more like Kath and Sarah across the country, to become effective agents for change in their own local communities and nationally. Indeed, there has never been a greater and more urgent need to build a powerful movement rooted in local churches and communities across the UK, to challenge injustice, tackle inequality and bring about positive and lasting change for those struggling to make ends meet in this age of austerity.
And this task would not be possible without the on-going involvement of members and supporters within churches across the country. In the past year, the Methodist Conference, United Reformed Church, the Quakers, the Church of Scotland, Church Urban Fund, the National Justice and Peace Network, Vincentians in Partnership and Caritas Social Action have enthusiastically signed up as partners in our Close the Gap campaign. Only last week, I was delighted to welcome the President and Vice-President (literally) on board for the launch of the Tax Justice Bus Tour at the Greenbelt Festival. We hope to welcome many more church leaders, politicians and ‘ordinary’ supporters will come aboard with the Bus Tour over the next seven weeks – as it tours the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland, promoting the simple message ‘Tax Dodging Hurts the Poor.’
In the face of the global economic crisis, the causes of poverty in the developing world and on our own doorstep are increasingly hard to distinguish. The Tax Justice Bus Tour itself is just the first stage in what we hope will be a growing partnership between Church Action on Poverty and Christian Aid over the coming years.
As we are reminded, it is better to Kindle a Flame than to curse the darkness. So in our 30th anniversary year, Church Action on Poverty is extending an invitation to churches across the UK to partner with us in Kindling a Flame, by giving, acting and praying together for the next phase of this vital work. A Kindle a Flame resource pack, including specially commissioned prayers, worship resources and fundraising ideas can be downloaded from the CAP website (www.church-poverty.org.uk) or ordered free of charge from the Church Action on Poverty office (2 Dale Street, Manchester, M1 2HF, tel 0161 236 9321).
I hope you will join us in the task!
This is an edited version of an article appearing in this week’s edition of the Methodist Recorder.