Oxfam 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.