Oxfam’s perfect storm, poverty and yet more examples of Christians providing answers

Channel 4 Breadline KidsOxfam are having an interesting time of things this week. Who would have thought that a poster entitled ‘The Perfect Storm’ pointing out a few of the causes of poverty in this country would find them under investigation by the Charities Commission and create its own perfect storm in political circles and in the media? More on that in a bit…

It all started on Monday when Child poverty hit the headlines with the government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission announcing that ‘3.5 million children will be in absolute poverty – almost 5 times the number needed to meet the government’s legal obligation to end child poverty by 2020 – and that the government lacks any credible plan to get back on track.’

The Commission concluded that the government’s draft child poverty strategy 2014 to 2017 is a missed opportunity and falls far short of what is needed. The Commission did recognise there are some good things the government is achieving – such as the extension of childcare support for low-income families and greater acknowledgement of the problem of working poverty – but was convinced that current government plans and initiatives will not be enough to prevent child poverty rising over the next few years, let alone to deliver the large reductions in poverty needed to meet the 2020 targets.

In the evening this talk of child poverty was given flesh through Channel 4 Dispatches’ Breadline Kids, which followed the lives of the children of three families struggling to put food on the table each week. The programme followed the commonly used format of observing families who through no obvious fault of their own have hit hard times and are fighting both their circumstances and a bureaucratic and flawed welfare system that is compounding their problems.

9-year old Cara’s mum is in hospital with a long-term illness and now lives with her grandmother, Lucy who has moved on to a zero-hours contract  with her work in order to look after her. Rosie is eight and lives in Hull with her sister and mum who is so desperate to work that she has turned to ‘adult work’ as a masseuse even though it is causing her to fall into alcohol addiction to numb the disgust she feels. Niomi is 14 and lives in Haverhill, Suffolk with her younger brother and her dad. She has leukemia and her father has left his job in order to care for her full-time. All of these families have resorted to visiting foodbanks when things have got unbearable.

Again on Monday and coinciding with the airing of Breadline Kids, Oxfam, the Trussell Trust and Church Action on Poverty jointly released their Below the Breadline report assessing the impact of foodbanks over the last 12 months. The report is mentioned repeatedly on Dispatches, although it is only referred to as a report by Oxfam. However, as was the case with Panorama’s programme on foodbanks in March, it is Christian organisations that take centre stage on the programme. Each of the families featured attended a Trussell Trust foodbank, but also Rosie attends a free breakfast club at a local church run by Youth for Christ. Niomi’s dad, Tom, is overwhelmed by his loan repayments that had previously been perfectly manageable until he was forced to leave his job. He is seen turning to REACH, a charity, run by the River of Life Community Church. They give him debt support through their Christians Against Poverty advisor as well as giving him food parcels.

At the end of the programme, Lucy describes how it is her faith and the support from her church that is keeping her and Cara going:

“I’m very, very lucky because I go to mass and Cara does the altar service and sings in the choir. They know us, so they’re always asking us, “Are you ok, do you need anything?” Our lives belong to God.

‘Last year was the first time I questioned God and I shouldn’t have done that. By going to church you get people helping you, talking to you saying: “If you do need any help, you know where to come.” Because I’ve been going to church I’ve got this sort of – a little bit of a backbone, a little bit of support other than my everyday life.”

Christians are consistently leading the way in addressing the hardships that hundreds of thousands of families are daily facing whether it be through charitable social action projects as seen in Breadline Kids and Panorama, or reports and advocacy raising awareness such as Below the Breadline. Even the All Party Parliamentary Group
(APPG) on Hunger and Food Poverty, which has been set up with broad cross-party political support,  is being headed up by the Bishop of Truro and MPs, Frank Field, Laura Sandys and Sarah Newton (both Conservatives) who are all Christians.

Not so long ago the media were repeatedly talking about benefits scroungers and the undeserving poor. Now the language and tone has changed considerably. There is a growing awareness that poverty is profoundly affecting millions of people both in and out of work. Tracing this change, it is undoubtedly the case that it has been Christians who are overwhelmingly driving this change and moving the debate forward. There is probably no better example of God’s heart for the poor being put into practice in this country at the moment. This is where Heaven touches Earth and God’s kingdom impacts the foundations of our society.

Whether we realise it or not, this is just a beginning. The explosion of Foodbanks in the last couple of years has given countless families brief moments of relief, but they will never solve the poverty that brings people to them in the first place. If we are to see rates of poverty reduced in any meaningful way it will take an almighty effort to tackle the underlying causes with government, charities and churches working in partnership without prejudice.

The problem as we’ve seen with Oxfam’s ‘Perfect Storm’ poster is that these issues are loaded with sensitivities capable of bringing out accusations of party-political propaganda at the drop of a hat.

Lucy explained with a great deal of clarity how her zero-hours contract, which is highly unpredictable, makes budgeting a nightmare for her. Food prices have increased by 43 per cent in the last 8 years and domestic energy prices by 37 per cent in the last three years, putting increased pressure on low-income families who devote significant proportions of their income to these. Niomi’s family had to wait months to receive the social security payment they were entitled to for her illness. 58 per cent of those who have had sanctions applied to their benefits have successfully appealed, but in the process have been left without income for weeks.

This is not party politics, but the facts. Sadly so much political engagement works through blame. As soon as words are written that imply that poverty has increased as a result of the government’s austerity drive and policies, certain Tories’ natural instincts are to cry foul. The result has been a stupid argument over a poster that could have, but probably hasn’t breached Oxfam’s charitable remit, whilst the real issue is lost in the furore. When you speak up for the poor, as the bishops found not so long ago it’s hard to avoid being accused of political interference.

Maybe Oxfam would do well to be a little bit more careful with their choice of words, but is it not far more important that we work together to find solutions? If the amount of delays and mistakes made in assessing the Employment and Support allowance for disabled people (which the government admits is in a mess) and dealing out benefit sanctions were significantly reduced, that would be massive progress. Introducing a substantial increase in the minimum wage, which George Osborne is in favour of, has widespread support. Hitting the payday loans sector hard to stifle their aggressive tactics and exorbitant rates whilst invigorating credit unions will make a huge difference to those who regularly find that money is tight.

These are workable steps before we move on to more challenging societal issues such as poverty of aspiration, over consumption through credit and family breakdown (all the families in Breadline Kids were single-parent).

It’s easy to criticise and apportion blame, but it’s much harder to get stuck in and do the right thing. In the meantime, thank God for foodbanks and for those who are sacrificing themselves to address the poverty that continues to blight so many lives in our nation today.

Categories: Benefits & unemployment, Children & families, Faith in society

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10 replies

  1. Great blog, thank you.

    Just one minor correction: It’s not accurate to say that Oxfam are “in hot water with the Charity Commission”. They have been reported to the Commission by an MP, but the Commission have not announced the results of any investigation yet.

    In our opinion (and based on past experience of similar situations), Oxfam have clearly done nothing wrong, and the Commission will acknowledge that.

    Liam Purcell, Church Action on Poverty

  2. Thanks Liam. I’ve edited that bit to make it clearer.

  3. To me it was definitely a step into the political, and in a way that Oxfam should not have done.
    4 of those 5 are very definitely ok to have, but declaring benefit cuts to be in it is what takes it over the line. It’s what takes it from being a commentary on the issues that affect those in poverty and changes it to become a critique of a political party’s means of trying to bring the country back to a place where it can afford to pay out for all in need of benefits. They might as well have said that reducing national debt is part of what makes “the perfect storm”, given that that is the reason why the exchequer cannot currently afford to maintain benefits at previous levels. But if they said that then they would be both promoting the Labour policy of borrowing and declaring that it is ok to go into further debt to pay for current debt, both of which would clearly be wrong for Oxfam to do. So instead they declare that benefits cuts are to blame (along with some other things) because it’s a line that the public have swallowed as Labour have pedalled it, because there is still a feeling of entitlement to First World luxuries that should be the first things to go before you start looking to the government for more money (seriously, who in their right mind believes that keeping an Xbox, widescreen TVs or any number of other non-essentials is the right thing to do when you are struggling to provide food for your family?).
    I am not saying that benefits and those seeking them are wrong, I spent 12 months on jobseekers allowance in 09/10 and am very grateful for it’s existence, and I am certainly not saying that I want to see a permanent cut in benefits in all the areas that the government has done so (although some areas did need to be cut back). But to declare that a government action (benefits being cut) as a way of trying to get the country back on a good financial footing is what is causing poverty is definitely a step too far in my eyes.

    • It’s a tricky one. No doubt there are more people who find themselves in poverty (as we define it) because of reduced benefits. It’s then whether you take this and say that it’s the government’s fault that they have reduced them or whether with the state of our national debt, they have had little choice. Oxfam and Trussell Trust as far as I know have not explicitly said that benefit levels should rise and have also been careful not to single out this government for blame – they have also blamed the previous government too.

      The problem comes with this poster as a method of grabbing attention. It can give the impression that it is saying it is all the government’s fault. Impressions matter and depending on your views either agree with it in that context or take offence at it. Being political animals to at least some degree we naturally will read things into it, maybe more than was intended.

    • The point about benefit cuts is not a matter of conjecture or opinion. People working in food banks have seen a huge increase in people going hungry, directly because of benefit cuts, changes, delays and sanctions. When we see real suffering being caused by a policy, we have a reposnsibility to speak out and tell those stories. If we don’t, who will?

      • Except that it is a judgement on a government policy that is targeting long-term growth, rather than short-term easy living. Based on my experiences with some people who struggle to make ends meet they also tend to have better quality household goods than I do. We are talking the latest games consoles for the kids, high quality TVs, Sky, good quality broadband and so on. And this is because society has become used to a particular quality of lifestyle that it struggles to give up. Whilst I am not saying that those who are truly in need should not be provided for, many of the less-well-off in society really do need to get their house in order.
        And the reason that I mention this is because it is directly related to how Labour have said that they would have dealt with things (and also how they will deal with things if they are elected). Labour say borrow now for an easier today and let the future take care of the debt. This is an ideological stance on dealing with the problems that the previous (Labour) government left the country in. It is based on the idea of maintaining a lifestyle above dealing with the issues head on. Now sure, it may work out in the end. And if they get the chance and it does then fair play to them. But equally it must be recognised that the Conservative/Coalition approach is to get rid of the debt as soon as possible. This means cutting in as many areas as is possible, which has meant cutting benefits in some areas. It is an ideological method that aims to get rid of the debt so that rather than the country earning money and sending most of it to pay off debt for longer the country will see the benefits sooner and the country will (so is the intention) be on a surer footing for the future. To declare that benefits cuts (and please note that this is all benefits cuts, as it does not specify which ones) create poverty is to declare that the Conservative ideology, which aims to bring financial prosperity to the country (and thus all it’s people) sooner than the Labour method, is at fault, thus taking the side of Labour against the Conservatives/Coalition. Whether intended or not, it is a political statement against the government that should not be made by a charity in this way.

        • Your own political prejudices are showing when you talk about people having games consoles and big TVs. That’s a myth which is repeated every day by papers and politicians, but none of the available evidence supports it, and it bears no relation to the lives of the people we work with.

          In any case, the specific problem we’re highlighting in the joint work with Oxfam is actually around benefit delays and sanctions. It’s nothing to do with the relative levels of benefits, in fact – it’s about people being left with no money whatsoever for months at a time. It’s not party political to say that there needs to be a safety net in this country to -protect people from destitution.

          If you want to see what we’re actually saying rather than making judgements based on two words in a tweet, you can read the report at http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/breadline

          (And I also recommend reading the church report ‘Truth and Lies About Poverty’ at http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/truthandliesaboutpoverty/, to find out just how false your assumptions about the lifestyles of people in poverty are.)

      • Liam, I am a youth worker who works in an area of huge poverty, East London. I work a lot in the local community, know many families and individuals that are on benefits and yet also have a lot of things that ARE luxuries, rather than essentials. You say that I am showing my political prejudices, but I tell you that you can shove that comment because I am speaking PURELY from experience! It is no myth, it happens! Families where both parents are on benefits who spend money on things like games consoles (I know 1 such family who have more than 1, all of which are the latest editions), tablets, mobile phones (the kids are no older than 12) and TVs that are better quality than my own. They wear brand clothes, they go out for treats regularly and they eat well. This isn’t fictionalised to make any political point, this is a situation that I am working in every week and it’s not the only one!

        Regarding the specific issue, if you are talking about “people being left with no money whatsoever for months” and that it’s “nothing to do with the relative levels of benefits” then you should not use the term “benefit cuts” as this has a VERY clear understanding to the general public. As such it is a very clear comment, to anyone that reads it, on what the government are doing with reducing or removing benefits. If you are suggesting that this was an accidental inference then I would like to suggest that your communications officer needs sacking, as it is a primary school error! Just accept that the inclusion of the term was ill-judged, remove/correct it and carry on. It’s not a hard thing for Oxfam to do, surely!

  4. Oxfam don’t have to say that benefits levels should rise, as the implication of “benefits cuts” is that they should. And this is why it was a step too far. It’s all very well blaming the Labour govt for what they did, because their borrowing definitely did help to put us in the position that we are now in, but to do that when they have already taken issue with the current govt’s actions to try and deal with the problems that were caused means that any comments about the past come across more as lip service to being even-handed, rather than actually being even-handed.
    To be honest, they should have stuck with the first 2 and any other issues that are in the control of the private sector, rather than those that are either under govt control or more nebulous and unclear as to who ultimately controls things. Unless the govt is doing something that is clearly deliberately against a particular group of people (and let’s face it, no matter how much a person might dislike the current govt I am sure that they would recognise that they are trying to do the best for the whole population, even if they might not agree on their methods) this sort of advertising should be left to the opposition parties, not respected charitable organisations that are supposed to be above politics.

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