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)