Should Christians support a benefits cap?

Over in the US, according to much of the press that has filtered this way, if you’re a proper Christian, you’re supposed to vote Republican.  Of course things are far from that simple, but the politics of faith does appear to be much more polarised than here in the UK.  I’m glad that I live in a country where I have friends who support different political parties and are still able to get along together quite happily despite our differing views.

Having said that, one of the most divisive political issues I come across with Christians is the issue of welfare and how those at the poorest end of society should be supported by the state.  For some the Government has a huge way to go to look after those who are struggling to make ends meet.  Cutting benefits only increases the suffering of many who are struggling to get by.  The rapid increase in food banks giving out food to eat is an obvious example of the way that poverty is still an everyday occurrence for hundreds of thousands in this country.  Others will argue that we can’t keep handing out benefits and expect people to sort their lives out.  Active intervention and job creation are more important than throwing more money at people, with poverty of aspiration seen as being far more damaging than financial poverty.  Others still focus on the need to drive our country’s huge debts down and get spending under control in order to ensure we can keep paying the bills in the future.  Cutting the size of the state is an inevitable consequence of this.

In fact I believe all of this to be the case and that’s why I’m not surprised that Christians come at these issues from a range of angles.  Our life experiences, knowledge and understanding of these problems will lead us to approach them differently.  What encourages me is that Christians so often care about the lives of others, especially those on the margins of society.  God’s love and compassion drives us to be bothered, whether it affects us directly or not.

The Children’s Society which is closely connected to the Church of England produced a press release ahead of today’s vote in the House of Commons over a one percent cap of benefits and tax credits until 2015.   This is part of it:

If introduced, this hardship penalty will hurt millions of families across the country. Families already struggling to pay for food, fuel, rent and other basics, will see their budgets further squeezed.

Nearly half of teachers say they often see children going hungry. And shockingly, six million households are struggling to afford to heat their homes. 

As the cost of fuel, food and housing rise again, we can expect to see these problems become even more severe and widespread.

This hardship penalty is not an isolated cut. It comes on top of a raft of cuts being introduced this year. This includes freezes to Child Benefit and Working Tax Credit, and cuts to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. These changes will hurt both working and non-working households. 

The government must make sure that increases in benefit rates at the very least reflect rises in cost of living. Otherwise this toll on Britain’s parents, workers, people seeking work, on our sick and disabled people, our homeless, and on our children, will deepen inequality and increase poverty. Not acceptable by anybody’s standards.

An article in The Independent takes this further by suggesting that increasing numbers of children are likely to be taken into care as a result of these benefit changes.  It all makes for grim reading.

Unfortunately much of this has come about by our country’s governments’ addiction to debt and overspending in a way that was never going to be sustainable.  If there are sins that have been committed by politicians in recent times, then this is surely one of them.  We’re now paying the price by having some painful choices to make.  If welfare spending isn’t brought under control then we either increase out debts further or find another way to pay for them.

A consequence of all of this is that it is making our country increasingly divisive.  A blame game has set in, either targeting those who have created the mess we’re in or those who aren’t seen to be doing their fair share to get us on an even footing.  This week’s changes in Child Benefit rules have been criticised by Christian charity CARE for punishing large numbers of middle-income families and parents who stay at home to look after their children.  In reality we’re all being punished.  Certainly there’s an ongoing debate that Christians should be involved in about how we move forward in the best way and different people will have different solutions, most of which we’ll only know if they were the right ones when we come out on the other side.

Christians need to be fighting for the poor and vulnerable, it’s our job, but we should also be fighting for governance that is just, fair and brings stability.  We need to be generous with what we have and not be jealous of those who have more than us.  We should set an example to others by living within our means as best we can and look to support others who are finding life a challenge.

So back to the initial question; should Christians be supporting a cap on welfare?  If it were an easy question then I wouldn’t be asking it.  My personal view is that on balance, it’s an acceptable policy.  I know there will be others that disagree with me and I ‘m happy to debate it if people want to.  Perhaps, maybe the question the question should be, ‘If people end up struggling because of this bill going through, what as the Church are we going to do about it?’  In the past the Church has stepped in where the State has failed.  To its great credit, it still does in many ways, but the need is particularly pronounced at this time.

Here’s a final thought from Jesus that is a big challenge for me:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)



Categories: Benefits & unemployment, Government, Justice

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19 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and exhorting us Gillan. Received as today’s first email it dovetails so well with what came next from Jarrod Cooper – He Will Uphold You. (You may wish to read this at http://wp.me/pXnHx-cn)

  2. To me, the issue is fairly straightforward: it could be me facing a crisis and needing state support; or if not me, a member of my family or one of my friends — or, to put a specifically Christian spin on it, it could be Jesus. In fact, if we take Jesus at his word, the way we treat those in need is the way we treat him, and he will hold us to account for it.

    We’ve just celebrated the mystery of the incarnation, a mystery that highlights the problem with those calling for cuts in benefits and welfare: they do not live incarnationally. David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and, sadly, most politicians live in another world detached from the reality of everyday people: they’ve never needed state support and they are simply incapable of placing themselves in the shoes of those who do; and there’s an irony here, for these very people proposing reductions in state payments draw their own salaries and claim their expenses from the state.

    This disconnect between the power brokers and the people whom they theoretically seek to serve — a blinkered vision that only sees problems to be solved rather than people to be served — lies at the heart of many of our nation’s, indeed the world’s, economic difficulties.

    Can any disciple of Christ reading truly envisage telling Jesus that they’ve decided to cut back on his income? Because that is what this government is proposing; to go along with it is, it seems to me, blasphemy of the highest order.

    • I seem to remember that John Major was unemployed for a while. You are right Phill that most politicians have very little understanding of what it means to rely on state support. This is one of the major faults with our political system. The house of Commons does not reflect the broadness of our society. Even today with the serious decisions being made that will affect millions of people’s lives, it was frustrating, as is usually the case, to see politicians playing games with each other about who is the best and why the other side is wrong. If politicians spent more time thinking about themselves as genuine servants of the people perhaps they might being to earn a bit more respect.

  3. Oh, and as for what we can do about it: in some small measure, we can play our part. Please allow me to introduce 5 Quid for Life, A Mental Health Safety Net, a project I launched in 2011, when the likely impact of the government’s changes to the benefits system hit home for me.

  4. “Active intervention and job creation are more important than throwing more money at people with poverty of aspiration is seen as being far more damaging than financial poverty.” If this is a true position to hold then the government is NOT doing this. Has NOT done it. Will NOT do it. Thus this is NOT a position to be able to hold.

    Capping makes sense. But fairness and honesty and especial equitable access to benefits are the propositions the government should be charged with. So far this government and the last few governments have NOT done their duty to the people.

    A point[s] to remember. The government are the servant of the people. I am not a lackey to Cameron, Osborne, Clegg or IDS. The government is paid by the people through the taxes it takes from the people. If social benefit payment is considered throwing money away then so is paying the ministers in government for their obtuse and adverse actions. Both must be scroungers [I do not think that those on social welfare are, but as for Cameron et al, well…] as both fail to work!

    • There was a grammatical error in that sentence which is now corrected. The last government’s method of reducing child poverty was to increase benefits to families. That worked, but it wasn’t sustainable and hasn’t improved things in the long term. I doubt that drawing up these policies is an easy job and if politicians are genuinely making these decisions for the right reasons then they should be given credit for attempting to fix things, but so often it appears to be about numbers rather than people.

  5. Jesus taught private charity, not welfare statism. Let’s not confuse the two. Read 2 Corinthians 9 but especially: ‘Each of you must give as you have mind up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’. 2 Corinthians 8 – ‘They voluntarily gave according to their means and even beyond their means’. New Testament does not command the state to give people money; but individual Christians as charity.

    • I agree with this, but I have a feeling that Paul is referring more to the church and individuals. Christians should be giving to charity, but what about the rest of the population?

    • To say “Jesus taught private charity, not welfare statism” is anachronistic at best: the welfare state as we have it today wasn’t even a concept in Jesus’ day. What Jesus taught was love, for neighbour and for enemy: the welfare state emerges out of that, out of the realisation that “private charity” isn’t sufficient for the need that exists; we must all contribute. The welfare state is a pooling of resources on a grand scale, that has the potential to lift the whole of society out of poverty, a recognition of the underlying truth that we are all in it together.

      We have yet to implement it.

  6. Is this as bad as it seems? What’s being capped are benefits related to working age people.

    The BBC tells me it’s Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Elements of housing benefit, Maternity allowance, Sick Pay, Maternity Pay, Paternity Pay, Adoption Pay, Couple and lone parent elements of working tax credits and the child element of the child tax credit.

    When public sector pay is capped at 1% and average pay rises are running below inflation is there any reason why these benefits should not also be restrained?

    I’m all for a well functioning benefits system being the bedrock of a welfare state as but it has to be relative. I suppose all of this forms part of a much larger raft of reforms which the more I become aware of the more I find my views changing. It does become easy to try and get a unified view over everything but it doesn’t work.

    I always like to think of Clem Attlee’s comments on the welfare state with regards to charity:

    “A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice.”

    But that does lead to the question regarding the similarity of today’s ‘benefits system’ to the original concept of the welfare state. Your quote from Luke should make us all think. Yet so should the words of Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 ” Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.””

  7. A job that pays a living wage and affordable bills ( particularly housing ) are the two things which encourage independence self respect and dignity. The private sector is yet to provide adequate employment and state jobs cost the tax payer. A scheme could be introduced linking low rent housing with paid jobs perhaps through job creation trusts some of which could generate profit.. It may be that the Church could have a role in these areas. What is your incentive to work if your inflated rent is paid for you by the state and any work you may do does not cover the basic living costs.The devil then finds work for idle hands. People then might move into the black economy or are vulnerable to exploitation in the sex and drug trade. We also need to support and care for those people who do not fit into the box. People with physical and mental health problems, low confidence, poor education and skills. We often pay more for them indirectly in extra crime health and benefit bills anyway. There must be a benefit cap in the current situation because we are deeply in debt but we all need to rethink how we live, concentrate more on what we need rather than what we want and urge voluntary giving to those in real poverty. The rich ( myself included as i have a job ) are rarely close enough to the poor to look into their eyes and see the effect unemployment has first hand,to hear their actual story ,they resent paying tax toward what they perceive as idleness. Perhaps we should all be happy to pay extra tax if it secured a job for someone else and a more decent society.

    • Chris and Graham, I looked at some of this in this article: https://godandpoliticsuk.org/2012/01/26/deserving-vs-undeserving-poor-what-the-bible-says/
      A lot of people who receive benefits are deserving, in that they are doing the best that they can. The debate I’d like to see much more of is what level of financial support is reasonable to expect from the state and how should this be distributed? There is a conflict between lifestyle expectation and need at all levels of society and it’s always hard to cut back irrespective of where you were before. We need to be realistic about the situation our country’s finances are in and try and make the most of what is available without being selfish.

  8. Here, my friends, is the grim reality: All I have to say today is here …

    NB: Prurient readers may be offended by the blog’s title; please try not to be – it’s a red herring: read the post.

  9. The title is the least thing we should be offended by. Many of us are just a job loss or a relationship breakdown away from the scenario that Phil has linked to, particularly if you have no savings as a cushion. In desperation and frustration people often behave in ways that others find offensive and we are all maybe one situation away from a mental health problem. It IS possible to organise society in a different way so that we scoop up the least of these but it requires ”sacrifice” by people who create wealth and are comfortable. Is never ending economic growth so important as to diminish our quality of life. A job and cheap housing would be a great start.

    • “Is never ending economic growth so important…”?

      Seems to me you hit the nail on the head with that question, Graham, and the answer is blindingly obvious to me: No! We have only to look around to see that in life, in nature, in our own bodies: what is unrestrained growth? It’s cancer; and it kills. Even trees stop growing at some point, and those that grow too tall, that become overgrown, have to be pruned.

      What we need isn’t growth: it’s stability. Please, any MPs reading this: wake up! See that post I’ve linked to as a wake-up call: that is what your endless banging on about growth is leading to — lives ruined and destroyed.

  10. As to the argument that many employed are having their wages capped below inflation, wages, as they should be (except perhaps for the sick ad disabled) are still much more than benefits. Job seekers allowance, income support allowance, even employment support allowance (for those too ill to work) are far from generous. A cut in wages is hard but with budgeting people can manage. A cut to benefit can mean going from just surviving to goIng under. I do not support this one per cent cap

  11. I am sure god would believe that there should be fairness in a benefit cap, that it applied to all taxpayer funded benefits for rich and poor. That’s what Andrew George MP seems to be suggesting here in his question to the Prime Minister recently: http://www.andrewgeorge.org.uk/pmqs-the-prime-minister-should-be-more-consistent-with-tax-payer-funded-benefit-cap/

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