My letter to you today is much more serious than usual but I’m not going to apologise for that. I am deeply concerned about the situations that some people in this country are facing at the moment and having spoken to a Methodist minister, who is also in the House of Lords, recently it would seem that the situation is likely to become very challenging indeed this year. It could affect any of us at any time.
We will all have noticed that times are tough for many families at the moment. The economy is struggling, jobs are uncertain, costs are rising. Some people are struggling to hang on and provide for themselves and their families.
Christians Against Poverty have been undertaking some research about scapegoating*. When times are tough, it’s a very human thing to look for someone to blame for our woes. It isn’t a very attractive trait but it’s all too easy for our attitudes to be subtly affected by the language that is used by politicians and the media. The problem is that the group that is being blamed for the countries problems at the moment already have the hardest time of all. It would seem that the most vulnerable people in society are being used as scapegoats.
Stigmatising people on benefits is popular at the moment, but we have to ask ourselves – is it fair, or right and what will the long term effects be? CAP believe it will make Britain less generous, less sympathetic and less willing to listen to the plight of others. It will reduce the ability of the most vulnerable members of society to participate in society and make it more difficult for them to help themselves.
Everyday, people who are struggling to make ends meet are demonised and blamed for their poverty; they are called scroungers and skivers. There is an underclass developing who are looked down on and negatively judged by the rest of society. They end up despising themselves, sinking into depression, feel powerlessness and drained of energy. Now no one is disputing the fact that some people have abused the system but it has been proved that this is a very small number of the total claiming benefits. A survey showed that people think that 27% of claims are fraudulent however the actual figure is 0.7%. There is a much simpler reason for the unemployment situation – that is that there are simply not enough jobs and the ones that there are do not always pay a living wage.
People claiming disability benefit are struggling particularly at the moment and are humiliated by having to demonstrate their ability to people who have a check list which doesn’t even begin to cover their problems. Only one in five have disabilities which aren’t visibly obvious. How much would they love to be able to work? But practically they know that no employer could cope with their problems.
Language is used to fuel mistrust by contrasting supposed ‘strivers’ with ‘skivers’. It is used to justify cuts to our safety net, which will drive hundreds of thousands of people further into poverty. Such language dehumanises and degrades people who are already struggling to survive. It blames them from an economic crisis which is not of their making.
As Christians we are called to believe that every person is made in the image of God and has a value. Surely then we are called to to use our voices to speak out when people are marginalised, excluded and stigmatised. What would Jesus make of it all?
Christians today do respond to the need to comfort the marginalised and vulnerable. Many shelters, foodbanks and community projects have been started by churches or people inspired by their faith (we have them in our area). However, perhaps we aren’t so good at challenging the system, telling the truth about injustice, or recognising just how comfortably off we are.
It is now time to challenge the myths about poverty. Overwhelmingly, people on benefit do want to work indeed many people claiming benefits are actually in work but earn so little that they still need help with their rent and to look after their children. Is it good enough, in a so called civilised society, to treat them like second class citizens and to speak of our most vulnerable people in a way that is demeaning?
I could tell you many stories but I leave you with one of the case studies from the research that Christians Against Poverty have carried out.
Neil Whitcher used to be a long-distance lorry driver, travelling all over Europe. Ill health has meant that he’s had to give up work. He receives disability benefits and has a car without which he would be housebound. He is in danger of losing his home because of benefit changes. He feels desperate, fearful and uncertain of the future. He also feels demeaned and stigmatised by his situation:
“I can no longer work, I was a proud man, I always worked but I can no longer afford that luxury. Benefit changes reduce my ability to eat properly. I can’t afford to keep the fridge on all the time, and I can’t afford to heat my home all the time. I can’t pay my way if I go out with my family or friends: I feel like my children and my friends no longer look up to me because I have nothing. I feel like a failure. I don’t feel like a person any more.”
We can ignore the poor, they feel they are invisible anyway; we can dismiss them and not listen to their stories assuming that we know all about it, but would that be the Christian way? Surely the very least we can do is listen; to try to understand and not judge; not to merely dismiss people as scroungers or skivers. Can we truly blame them for causing the problems in society when so many other factors are at play?
Christians Against Poverty are speaking out on our behalf to challenge injustice and the system that brings it about. I think we should pray for them and be informed of their work.
*Scapegoating: the act of assigning blame to another, to deflect attention away from oneself.