Are we worshipping welfare?

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The great welfare debate of February 2014 has failed to ask or answer any substantive questions. I add just one caveat to that strong statement, from the looks of Theos’ report The Future of Welfare I suspect it does address many such questions – however, I have only read the introduction, and unfortunately coverage has not penetrated beyond it being another intervention by Christians on welfare.

It is less of a debate and more of a farce. With many who see poverty taking its toll railing against a government accused of worsening the situation. And those taking decisions thanking the commentators kindly for their advice, but also reminding them that they are the ones taking the necessary hard decisions.

There is an almost axiomatic response that a family in poverty requires government action, and specifically legislation.

I think there is a responsibility on us, as a society, to look after each other. But maybe we need to take a deeper look at the solutions that are frequently called for without a pause to consider if they are the best.

We have not asked what kind of welfare system we want.

The automatic response to more people needing food from foodbanks seems to be: the government should offer more generous benefits so this problem doesn’t occur. I care about as little for that logic as I do for the response that: it’s austerity, these are unavoidable choices. All choices are avoidable, it’s just that some options are unpalatable.

Too much of the furore in recent weeks has been focused on who said what, and whether they have the right to say it. By keeping the debate at this level the real questions do not get asked. It’s all about the bishops who intervened and the politicians who slapped them down.

I believe it is vital for church leaders to speak out on political issues, I believe it is vital for them to give testimony to what they see in their ministry. Churches often have the closest contact to communities, they are trusted and they are present where politicians often are not. I also believe politicians shouldn’t be afraid to respond. I think the bishops and fellow church leaders were unwise to give their letter to the Mirror: it was used as a very blunt political tool. I also think David Cameron’s response to Vincent Nichols, whose interview got this ball rolling, was high handed and failed to engage with the concern expressed.

The dynamics of the debate lead to frustration. Where we want something to happen but we don’t get beyond complaining. And part of the problem is it is very complicated. Take banker’s pay, they are often paid inordinate sums, amounts that make the eyes water. Should their pay be capped? In which case they will pay less tax into the Treasury reducing the amount to spread around. Should they be taxed more? They already are, and there is a point at which higher rates of taxation provide a disincentive to earn more. One can argue this shouldn’t be the case, that they are earning more than enough already so the government taking a higher proportion of their pay shouldn’t worry them. But alas, it does.

This week we heard of HSBC paying their chief executive £9 million, changing the structure of his pay to get around rules restricting bank bonuses. And there was outcry. But the restrictions on bonuses came about to address the incentive toward risky activities which set pay would mitigate against. Now that the pay is set and not made up of bonuses the issue seems more with the amount he is paid not how it is structured.

Wayne Rooney also made headlines for his £300,000 a week pay packet, that’s over £15 million a year. This is far more than most people will earn in their lifetime. The tragedy in this case is that Manchester United don’t pay their cleaners the living wage. Maybe the argument would be posited that unless stars like Rooney are retained the fans won’t come and watch, and then the cleaners wouldn’t have jobs at all. I think Manchester United have more pressing concerns when it comes to keeping their fans happy.

These raise the question of what we want the taxation and benefit system to do. Do we want it to provide essential services for all and a safety net for those in particular difficulty, or do we want it to be a mechanism for equalising the distribution of resources? A completely redistributive welfare system removes the incentive for work and effort – the ultimate manifestation of this train of though is toward a common wage for all regardless of the work carried out or whether any work is carried out (I’m sure I read something about this in a university political philosophy class).

On many occasions those relying on benefits are stigmatised, and opinion polls show gross misunderstanding of the cost of out of work benefits and the level of fraud. Most benefits go to the elderly and far too much goes to those in work. Far too much because work should not leave families dependent on the state, when we have business structures dependent on low incomes propped up by the state while money is made for those at the top: this is injustice.

And yet. And yet I think we ask too much of welfare, and our attachment to it as a vital protection can blind us to its limitations and where it over reaches its efficacy. While many accept something has to change, the welfare state has become an idol we dare not deface. So it remains as it is, unsuited to its task, unable to deliver, and inviolable to change. 

The way we as a society, and as a state, look after the poor, the vulnerable and the elderly is a testament to the health of a society. But what says more is the way we help each other beyond immediate care. If helping the Good Samaritan by the road side is only the first step toward countering injustice, campaigning for better street lighting and security is only the second. The ongoing steps of working to remove the danger and the threat that made those first steps necessary is the longer and harder task. In relation to welfare this means strengthening education, promoting work, ensuring there is work to be done and work that is paid sufficiently. And more than the safety net the state can provide it means working to strengthen the bonds of society, the place of family and community, that build resilience and protect against the shocks that will undoubtedly come from time to time. 

I wonder whether our use of the Good Samaritan as a parable for good welfare is a poor one. I wonder if it is an easy tale to latch onto to promote a political point. Do we use it as a catch all for helping other people, almost guilt tripping support for something without considering the alternatives? Because sometimes the alternatives are not unpalatable, they are just harder, and we sometimes like to avoid the hard things. It’s easier when the state does it for us.

Has our faith in the goodness of the welfare system turned it into a god that we worship?

Welfare debate: do politicians want churches’ works but not their words?

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Hearing a politician say that job of “the Church of England is to evangelise the message that Jesus Christ is the son of God, come to intervene for a humanity that can never meet God’s standards of perfection, and that humanity should concentrate on loving God and loving our neighbour” should be a cause for joy. Unfortunately the words from Charlotte Leslie MP are used as a device to try and shut the church up.

Since the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, spoke out last weekend against the government’s welfare reforms and austerity measures Christian leaders have made the running for the week’s news. David Cameron replied in an article for the Daily Telegraph attempting to claim a moral mission for his government’s reforms. Theos think tank published a collection of essays on the Future of Welfare, and then 27 bishops along with other church leaders signed a letter to the Mirror calling on the government to act on food hunger, ensure the safety net of the welfare state is secure and make work pay.

There was bluster and counter bluster, the most significant intervention in decades, an unprecedented attack. Forgetting that these unprecedented moments happen a couple of times a year. David Cameron in his response to Vincent Nichols had the courtesy to welcome his comments, and his place in the debate. Others have been less kind, and I would put Charlotte Leslie in that position, at least implicitly criticising church leaders for speaking out.

Christians are welcomed for their work on the front line, collecting food donations, handing them out, counselling those in severe debt, walking the streets at night causing crime to drop. The social action churches do is lauded, their contribution to the voluntary and charitable sector is vital. There are times when the church is loved. And there are times it is loathed, and that’s usually when it conflicts with the prevailing political consensus. Political ostracism is one threat but political co-option is arguably the greater challenge.

When church leaders criticise a political programme the other side can easily grab the religious leaders and use them as a shield. While the comments can be fair, the concerns grounded in reality, the policy asks reasonable, sometimes the political climate can morph an outspoken church leader’s statement into a political point scoring mechanism.

That’s where political interventions are dangerous. They become a clothes horse used to hang whatever particular agenda or priority best suits at that moment. It’s either a sign of strength, or a sign of disconnect, of a church finding it’s fight, or showing all it has left is to complain about the incoming tide and garner the attention given as it expends the last gasps of its relevancy on a fruitless cause. For journalists looking for a story it is the House of Bishops becoming the Labour Party at prayer. For naïve Bishops it is the church saying what they’re seeing on the ground and nothing more. The rest is up to the politicians to sort out.

It’s that sort of attitude towards politicians that gets us in trouble. When we think they are a special cadre of people, somehow more capable, more equipped, more likely to find solutions to the problems we encounter and comment on. When we think something is for politicians, so we don’t need to get our hands dirty, we’re abdicating responsibility. As I put it elsewhere, sometimes campaigning can look a lot like complacency.

Elaine Graham, in her book Between a rock and a hard place identifies this as the paradox of a post secular society, where Christians are welcomed on occasions, usually for the services and good they bring to communities, but also rejected, often for what they have to say. Perhaps, Christians are the new children, best seen but not heard.

Which bring us back to Charlotte Leslie’s intervention as well as John Redwood’s blog questioning whether churches want to pay more tax to fund the welfare they seemingly are calling for.

It was Christians who got involved before the funding of the welfare state started and as Stephen Timms, Labour’s employment spokesperson and chair of Christians on the Left, frequently comments, is it any surprise that it is Christians who have risen to the task in recent years?

A study by the Evangelical Alliance showed that 84 per cent of evangelicals volunteered at least monthly, for an average of two hours at a time, the contribution to the economy of this across the cities, towns and villages of our country is immense, and it more than offsets the gift aid churches receive back on the gifts they receive. If the government wanted to pay the church for its work the nation’s finances would be in a perilous state.

John Redwood doesn’t support higher taxes on churches, he’s not advocating the repeal of rebates which create vital stimuli. He’s a classic small state conservative, liberating voluntary organisations to take responsibility for their communities, Burke’s little platoons, is honey to his lips. But his tongue-in-cheek comments read like a warning shot across the churches’ bows, similar to Leslie’s call for the church to get its house in order before criticising the government.

If I were to caricature the two sides, the politicians and the church leaders, the politicians say to the churches: “thank you very much for the wonderful work you do, now leave us alone to make the important decisions which we know best how to handle”, they like the works but not the words. But the churches shouldn’t get off the hook either, too often their response is: “look at the dreadful impact of what you’re doing, we should know because we see it everyday, sort it. Oh, we don’t know how, just sort it”.

As I say, they’re caricatures, not the truth, but resembling it. The politicians want to keep the church at a safe distance, and the church obliges by lobbing in the odd hand grenade as they did this week, but then retreating to the comparative safety and affirmation of acting the Good Samaritan on life’s Jericho Road, letting others handle the tricky policy questions needing answers.