Poverty Sunday and why foodbanks are not the answer

Church Urban FundThis Sunday (June 22) has been designated by the Church of England as Poverty Sunday; a day to pray and reflect on issues of poverty in this country and how churches and individual Christians respond.

This year, churches are being urged to renew efforts to tackle deprivation. To coincide with the day, The Church Urban Fund (CUF), which was set up by the Church of England to work in deprived and impoverished areas, has released a resource which reveals the levels of poverty in every parish in England. The Poverty Look Up Tool reveals the number of adults with no qualifications, poverty among working age adults and child poverty based on official government statistics

Take for example Rev. Giles Fraser’s parish of St Mary Newington in Southwark. Giles often talks about the level of deprivation around him in his Guardian articles and looking at the figures you can see that he’s not wrong – his church is in the top ten per cent most deprived areas with high levels of child and pensioner poverty.

The Poverty Look Up Tool isn’t going to solve anything, but it is a helpful resource allowing you to gauge an understanding of the situation geographically around you, and even if you live in an affluent place, chances are that you won’t have to travel too far to find areas of poverty if you look hard enough.

The Bishop of Manchester, David Walker has called for prayer and a pledge to act in support of the Poverty Sunday campaign:

“The widespread effects of poverty can be felt in every parish in this country. Whether it’s struggling with benefits and having to rely on foodbanks, or coping with isolation and low self-esteem, the church has a vital role to play in addressing the needs of so many in our society.”

The Rev Paul Hackwood, Executive Chairman of the CUF, added:

“Poverty Sunday is an opportunity for the Church to reflect on one of its primary callings, to show compassion to the poorest in society.’ All Christian people are called to take poverty seriously and we hope that these resources will equip the Church to effectively reach every community to tackle poverty.”

This is one of the main reasons why the Church exists – to serve and care for those who do not have enough to get by on their own. ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress’ (James 1:27a). We could apply ‘orphans and widows’ to those who have fallen through the holes of the state’s welfare safety net, but this is a narrow definition of poverty that focuses too much on income. The government has been making noises about changing the official definition of poverty, although it is having trouble deciding what it should encompass. Perhaps the Church Urban Fund’s would help them. It defines poverty under three broad areas:

  • Poverty of resources – when people lack sufficient resources, such as income, skills, qualifications or health, to achieve a good standard of living. Where resources are limited, so are people’s choices and opportunities.
  • Poverty of relationships – when people lack the strong and supportive relationships on which individual, family and community life are built, resulting in loneliness and isolation. Where relationships are under pressure or where communities are fragmented and hostile, it is difficult to thrive in human terms.
  • Poverty of identity – when people lack a strong sense of self-worth and a belief in their own ability to respond to challenges. Where these are missing, it can lead to low self-esteem, a lack of well-being and aspiration, poor mental health and even drug and alcohol misuse.

This gives a better understanding of the nature of poverty. These issues are complex and closely interlinked, trapping individuals and whole communities. The CUF considers this in detail in their Web of Poverty report. An example of this interconnectedness was given on Wednesday in the government’s Education Select Committee report that found that poor white youngsters are ‘consistently the lowest performing group in the country’.

For anyone in teaching this will come as little surprise. I’ve taught enough children from this group  to know that a significant number have little interest in educational attainment or the value of their education and often their parents will encourage that attitude. They may be financially poor but when a poverty of ambition and aspiration is coupled to this, the chances of them working their way out of their situation will be minimal without a change of mindset, even if their financial circumstances improved through increased welfare support.

There was an interesting article on the BBC website a couple of months ago about Labour abandoning Gordon Brown’s methods of attempting to deal with child poverty. Merely redistributing money to nudge people over a statistical line so they are no longer classed as impoverished will not solve many of the other problems associated with poverty and can lead to an over reliance on the state with a mind-set of expectant dependency. The piece asks the question as to whether too much compassion in the welfare state could hurt the very people it is supposed to help. In a recent speech Ed Miliband drew on the ideas of a sociologist – Richard Sennett – who has written that: “Charity itself has the power to wound; pity can beget contempt; compassion can be intimately linked to inequality.”

From a Christian perspective the concept of too much compassion being detrimental is something that appears counter-intuitive and un-biblical. The Bible talks about God being gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Christians are repeatedly told to be continually generous to others and especially to the poor.

Instead of talking about deliberately limiting compassion, perhaps a better term would be ‘intelligent compassion’. Genuine compassion is surely something that we can never have enough of, but there is a potential for both good and harm to be done as a result depending on the way it is implemented. Sometimes our well-meaning actions can have unintended and undesirable consequences. For example, overprotective parenting, which is rooted in the care and safety of a child has the potential to stifle their development and ability to think and act independently.

Churches have limited resources and it is still amazing how much they achieve through their members to bless and serve others. There is widespread poverty in our towns and cities and many churches are already doing a great deal to address this. Calls to renew these efforts run the risk of turning action through compassion to action through guilt and pressure, which is always demotivating and leads to resentment. Where churches need to consider moving forward is going beyond addressing immediate needs as is the case with foodbanks, to include work that aims to help those in poverty to improve their situations.

The saying goes, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. Churches have a role to play reaching into the places where the state can’t or only does so with limited effect. For churches to do this well they need to apply intelligent compassion. Churches aren’t in a position to fix people’s financial needs long-term, but there is certainly more that can be done of benefit than giving out a handful of days worth of food.

The rise of foodbanks has been an incredible and timely phenomenon. In many ways this is the churches working at their best. However, sticking just with foodbanks should never be seen as the church’s great response to poverty in the UK. With God’s strength and wisdom, the energy and obedience that has caused the rapid spread of foodbanks needs to be turned to ways of bringing people out of poverty in the wider sense of the word. We’re seeing this already in many places with debt counselling, jobs clubs and other initiatives. This is about quality more so than quantities. Jesus deliberately didn’t visit and preach to everyone. He did what he could and what he knew to be right. Churches need to hold on to that same attitude; allowing the compassion that ultimately comes from God to drive their work whilst at the same time using the resources available to have the greatest impact on the lives of those they engage with.

Categories: Benefits & unemployment, Church, Poverty

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13 replies

  1. JK Galbraith:
    “The modern Conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”

    Galbraith could be quoting Isaiah 31: the knaveries of the knaves are evil; he devises wicked devices to ruin the poor with lying words, even when the plea of the needy is right.

    That you acknowledge the existence of food banks is a major plus – unlike your party who don’t – why is that incidentally?

    Rather than knavishly attacking the poor, why not attack the system that requires inequality to generate the profits your party leader believes is holy? Your party (using tax payers money) are engaged in fighting the Robin hood tax which the EU is keen to implement, are supporting the TTIP agreement which will (almost certainly) ensure American style health care takeover of NHS so that, as an American commenter reported, a husband shoots himself when he finds he has a long term illness rather than drive his family into bankruptcy for his health care.

    The fault is not the poor.

    • “why not attack the system that requires inequality to generate the profits”

      You really don’t understand how capitalism works, do you? Consider the present experience of China, where wage rates are rising at 20% a year in the most prosperous areas: see http://www.economist.com/node/21549956 The fact that some get very rich doesn’t detract from the reality that ALL are getting richer, and that absolute poverty is disappearing at a remarkable rate both in China and across the world.

      Now there is a problem in the West, where protection meant that jobs which were non-viable were retained in existance until the protection needed to keep them going finally gave way. The result has been a growth in poverty in parts of the west, exaccerbated in the case of the UK by immigration that has prevented the ‘trickle down’ of prosperity that is seen in China working because the new migrants have prevented unskilled jobs’ wages being bid up,

      The allegation that TTIP could undermine the single payer / free at point of demand principles of the NHS is pure scare mongering. It might force the privatisation of the supplier side of the NHS – but given that that is heavily privitised already (most GP surgeries are private partnerships) and that being public sector hasn’t prevented the recent scandals in the NHS, there’s no reason to be committed to that as the means of provision.

      • Sorry, so how does Capitalism work? It’s truest nature is more evident in the past than today, I’ll grant you that, but only because it’s more violent nature has been tamed in the first half of the 20th Century, but is now being let loose again by the elites, hungry again for more blood at their altar to Capitalism. In the past it could kill (at least) 2 million Africans to service the Slave trade; gun running (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/historians-reveal-secrets-of-uk-gunrunning-which-lengthened-the-american-civil-war-by-two-years-9557937.html> ) ;Drug dealing (East Indian Trade Company)..

        No, I think I know how Capitalism works.

        Its truest nature is all about violence to both people and planet; it justifies its actions with the help of economists – a priesthood in reality – which one professor of said priesthood opines is more hocus pocus than anything resembling a science – a priesthood that has to buy its Nobel status; that recently awarded a Nobel prize to two mutually contradictory studies; is never accountable however wrong they are (financial crises are always unforeseen-why?)…a more knavish profession its hard to imagine!

        If it is to this ‘profession’ you are appeal to reason – all are getting richer!? – I have severe doubts. Herman Daly – of Steady State economics – says that current economic growth is in any case “uneconomic growth” or cancerous growth meaning it will kill the host- planet and people. China’s economic marvel is at the expense of their environment – farm land is so toxic they are having to appropriate land overseas (mostly Africa); where on increasing number of days it’s not safe to breath…

        The Astronomer Royal, gives us a 50% chance of surviving this century partly because of increasing global inequality along with terrorism and climate change. Your vision of increased prosperity for all is at best just wishful thinking.

  2. JK Galbraith:

    You really oversimplify things. However, if you want to start somewhere…..

    The best predictor of family poverty is divorce.


    • Don’t confuse our leftist brethren with embarrassing facts like that – they’ll only get sniffy and accuse you of being judgemental.

  3. As ever, a highly partai and largely secular analysis of the problems, rather than an attempt to see that the church needs to do its real job – which is to call people to repentance – in the belief that if they start to live as true disciples of Jesus, they will tend to sort themselves out. Instead we prefer to be ‘non-judgemental – and are then surprised when the sticking plaster leaves the wound uncleaned. Of course the real problem is that the leadership of the CofE doesn’t really believe that God will make a difference in lives, but needs some excuse to continue in their exalted status – so they find fashionable topics to pontificate about to give themselves a sense of being ‘relevant’.

    Of course there is a problem with social exclusion – which is generally correlated with poverty – but the idea that a few more man inspired programmes will make a massive difference should treated with great suspicion. Church history makes it clear that it’s when a nation returns to God that it’s economically deprived people are most likely to get sorted out – but saying that makes church leaders unpopular with the people they want to impress…

    • Meanwhile God still calls us to feed the poor, give the thirsty something to drink, and clothe the naked.It’s not a matter if either… or…, but both…and.

      • Matthew 25 is an interesting chapter; we only ever hear the parable of the sheep and the goats, but the same punishment is handed out to those who are unprepared with oil and fail to develop their talents. It is easy to do the politically correct, right on stuff like feeding the poor and campaigning on the latest fashionable issue (this week: people trafficking, last week climate change, before that jubilee campaign etc.) The reality is that many churches do zero evangelism because they are so caught up in other stuff. Both / and is good – but it seldom happens.

  4. Unfortunately David Cameron would like them to be the answer to poverty. His government’s policies have created so much poverty,& Food Banks would save them putting right so much of the damage they have done.

    • ” His government’s policies have created so much poverty”

      Really? How so? The economy was in free fall after 2008. There is a technical debate as to whether it was possible to do a Keynesian expansion to reverse the slump – but the example of France in 1983 should remind us that such a route tends to end in tears. So what policies are you referring to? Cutting welfare? Given that expenditure has increased, that doesn’t really fly. Bedroom tax? Maximum benefit cap of £26,000? All marginal effects. There was a need to cut government expenditure – which is still ridiculously out of line with the tax take. Foodbanks have revealed a problem – but the claim that the cause is government policy is hard to justify – though please do try.

      The core problem is the belief by non-economists that there MUST be a better solution than that offered by the present government and endorsed by the other parties in parliament – that government expenditure must be bought into line with the tax take. It’s always nice to believe that there is an alternative – BUT ITS NOT ALWAYS THE CASE. Sometimes bad things happen and noone can do anything to prevent them; all that can be achieved is an amelioration – as was done by the banker bail out – which left us shareholders largely wiped out, by the way…

  5. And what pray is a Christian perspective? In Pre-Reformation Catholic Europe, the poor were seen as blest by God – ministering to their needs was something that was beneficial for the ‘giver’ – a means of lessening one’s time in purgatory: hence charity had a self-interested element.
    Chalmers in the early 19th century saw poverty as a test from God – and (heavily influenced by Adam Smith) that the very limited state welfare of the time (The Poor Law) as an interference in the Market –his ‘Christian perspective’ was that good moral behaviour generally meant people wouldn’t become poor (an idea echoed by Luke Bretherton at present).
    A Christian Perspective in the USA – particularly the powerful religious Right, is that poverty is likewise often a result of life style choices and the government should not be helping the poor. In the USA there is a punitive welfare system and a heavy reliance on faith-based and other voluntary service – it is also a society with considerable church attendance and a greater voice for Christianity in politics and civil society – yet it leads the Western world in the division between rich and poor (as did Britain in the 19th century when the churches were full and the Bible well known).

    So what is a Christian perspective? If we look at history or the more Christian societies in the world then it is a greater division between rich and poor.

    In reality there is no such thing as a ‘Christian Perspective’, there is, here, Gillan’s perspective by which he is trying to add moral weight by drawing on traditional authority. However the reality is far more diverse. Christianity is what people make it: thus it can be a vehicle for caring for the sick or excusing genocide: take your pick…

  6. Just read this brilliant article which is pertinent to this blog: The grapes of wrath 2011

    3 quotes to get you started!

    “John Steinbeck wrote his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath at the age of 37 in 1939, at the tail end of the Great Depression. Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize for literature. John Ford then made a classic film adaption in 1941, starring Henry Fonda. It is considered one of the top 25 films in American history. The book was also one of the most banned in US history. Steinbeck was ridiculed as a communist and anti-capitalist by showing support for the working poor. Some things never change, as the moneyed interests that control the media message have attempted to deflect the blame for our current Depression away from their fraudulent deeds….

    The working class bore the brunt of the Great Depression in the 1930s and they are bearing the burden during our current Greater Depression. Steinbeck knew who the culprits were seventy years ago. We know who the culprits are today. They are one in the same. The moneyed banking interests caused the Great Depression and they created the disastrous collapse that has thus far destroyed 7 million middle class jobs. Steinbeck understood that the poor working class of this country had more dignity and compassion for their fellow man than any Wall Street banker out for enrichment at the expense of the working class.”

    “The power elite that believe they can control the masses as puppet master commands a puppet should beware. The wrath of the masses can be fierce and sudden. Ask Hosni Mubarak. As Steinbeck realized many decades ago, selfishness run amok, supported and encouraged by the authorities lead to poverty, despair and sometimes revolution. The false mantra of an economy based on self-interest and free markets is a smokescreen blown by the few with wealth and power to obscure the truth that they have used their wealth and power to rig the game in their favour. The have-nots can dream about becoming a have, but the chances of achieving that dream today are miniscule.”

    Worth the read


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