Poverty, it seems, is now a hot political potato – not least in the light of yesterday’s news that the ‘headline’ rate of poverty has increased by almost one million during the first year of the Coalition.
More that 300,000 children slipped into poverty during the year – in spite of the fact that virtually all of them being brought up in a family with someone in work. Children living below the poverty line are now twice as likely to come from working families than those without employment.
In spite of that fact that Church is traditionally loth to enter such a febrile and politicised public debate, church leaders are to be congratulated for being increasingly willing to speak out on these issues.
The Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches and the Church of Scotland took a bold move earlier this year by publishing a powerful report ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty.’ The report seeks to counter the
“systematic misrepresentation of the poorest in society is a matter of injustice which all Christians have a responsibility to challenge.”
Its 32 pages unpick, line by line, six key myths that are common in public and political discourse: ‘They’ are all lazy and don’t want to work; ‘they’ are addicted to drink and drugs; ‘they’ are not really poor; ‘they’ are on the fiddle; ‘they’ have an easy life and ‘they’ have caused the deficit. As the Churches argue, these myths, reinforced by politicians and the media, are convenient because they allow the poor to be blamed for their poverty, and the rest of society to avoid taking any of the responsibility.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, speaking at a conference on the ‘Catholic Response to the Poverty Crisis’ yesterday, echoed the concerns raised in our Walking the Breadline report ten days ago, that Government cuts had undermined the basic principle that the state should provide a safety net to prevent hunger and destitution.
“A social safety net that leaves people without life’s necessities is not worthy of the name.”
Last week, an alliance of Churches representing Christians from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland wrote to the Prime Minister asking for an apology on behalf of the Government for misrepresenting the poor.
Church leaders, including Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, and Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford, pointed out that in recent weeks senior members of the Government have given out misleading and inaccurate information about people on benefits. Outlining the inaccuracies, they asked for them to be corrected and for an apology to be offered to those who were misrepresented.
“We are concerned that these inaccuracies paint some of the most vulnerable in our society in an unfavourable light, stigmatising those who need the support of the benefits system,” the letter states. “No political or financial imperative can be given to make this acceptable.”
In the end, poverty is not a matter of statistics, myths and stereotypes. Increasingly, as the impact of austerity and cuts start to bite, poverty is the daily struggle to make ends meet, to heat or to eat. Or in the words of Lorna, a working mother from Tower Hamlets, who was interviewed for our recent Walking the Breadline report: