Across the UK, the number of children living in poverty is increasing, families needing emergency help from food banks has shot up, and calls to debt crisis helplines are soaring.
In the face of this, church leaders have been speaking out in concern for the most vulnerable in our society. Recently, 27 bishops and other church leaders wrote to the Mirror criticising government changes and calling on them to do more to address the food shortages many families are facing. A few weeks ago Cardinal Nichols publicly criticised the UK’s welfare system for allowing poorer members of society to remain in a destitute situation.
Christians on the Left provided a timely conversation on welfare with last week’s annual RH Tawney Memorial Dialogue which addressed the topic, “Welfare: moral responsibility or sinful waste?”
Dr Anna Rowlands, Lecturer in Theology and Ministry at King’s College London and Rachel Reeves, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions offered thought-provoking contributions as they sought to address the tensions between Christian thought and current policy.
Christians don’t hold to one view on welfare and Dr Rowlands rightly acknowledged that they are found on all sides of the debate.
While it would be simplistic to assume there is one Christian answer to the future of welfare, it is important to carefully consider the role of welfare, what it looks like in our society, and the practical outworking of a welfare system.
Language plays a vital role in shaping perceptions, conversation, and opinion. Sadly, the current language around welfare is largely negative and often misleading. With frequent headlines about benefit fraud and TV programmes such as Benefits Street, it’s no wonder the British public feel too many people are taking advantage the welfare system at the expense of hardworking people.
The influence of the negative language dominating today’s debate is evident in recent TUC research which shows the public believe benefit fraud accounts for about 27% of the welfare bill. In reality, benefit fraud accounts for 2.1% of overall benefit expenditure.
It seems that Christians are not immune to these perspectives. Research by Professor Linda Woodhead based on a YouGov survey suggests the Christian laity are even more negative about benefit claimants and poverty issues than the general population. Yet as Faith in the Community, the Evangelical Alliance’s report with Christians in Parliament showed, Christian groups and individuals remain heavily involved with supporting those who need it through a vast range of services and activities.
There is no denying that UK’s welfare bill is big. Huge in fact. Excluding pensions, it accounts for 23% of all public spending. The total welfare bill, which includes pensions, universal credit and in-work benefits, has been increasing with alarming pace since the 1960s. Since 2000, welfare spending has increased more rapidly than any other European country. This needs to be addressed. However it is unhelpful and ignorant to put this down to people thwarting the system. The issue at hand is far more complex.
It would be remiss to attribute the public’s frustration solely to perceived fraud. There are other aspects, valid aspects to consider. Theos has recently published a collection of essays, The future of welfare: A Theos collection, which explores this.
Dr Rowlands reflected on Anglican Archbishop William Temple’s definition of a welfare state which is decidedly more positive than today’s popular views. It is seen as state ruled with and for the people, committed to partnership with a wider civil community.
The tension we face is living in a society which increasingly places greater merit on independence and autonomy in contrast with the Biblical narrative which values inter-dependence, relationship and community. In response to this Dr Rowlands suggests the political task is not to overcome all forms of dependence, but to distinguish between healthy from unhealthy dependence.
Rachel Reeves picked up on many of these themes while focusing on the practical policy implementation. Valuing the importance of welfare, she wants to see a system that rewards work, responsibility, and contribution. This is viewed as crucial to building a better economy.
With a commitment to restoring links between contributions and benefits, Rachel maintains that in order to tackle rising benefit bills and ensuring a system that is sustainable long term, we need to get more people into work and create better paid and more secure jobs.
Crucially, she acknowledged this needs to be in conjunction with recognising that some people, due to illness or disability, will rely on welfare long term. Rachel went on to say to these people there is a societal responsibility to enable them to live with dignity and respect, to a decent standard of living while supporting them to participate and contribute to their communities and society as they are able. This attitude has long been biblically rooted and informed, and we all have a responsibility to defend it.
Both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party acknowledge that we need a welfare system which is affordable and sustainable, provides a safety net to those who need it, discourages unhealthy dependency and ensures work is the best option for those who are able to work.
Welfare doesn’t need to be a dirty word. It doesn’t need to cripple a society economically. It doesn’t need to create a cycle of unhealthy dependency.
In accepting that no one is completely autonomous and that we are created to live inter-dependently in relationship and community we can begin to view welfare as a positive part of our society.
Welfare can be affordable. It can support those who are able, back into work. It can provide for those unable to work while valuing the contributions they can make. And it can ensure our most vulnerable aren’t left destitute.
The state should not be left solely responsible for providing welfare. Christians have long been at the forefront of providing welfare.
As the debate on welfare continues, there needs to be an intentionality in the language used and a commitment to engage constructively with the conversation.
 Faith in the Community – strengthening ties between local authorities and faith groups (2013), a report produced by Christians in Parliament and the Evangelical Alliance: http://www.eauk.org/current-affairs/news/faith-in-the-community.cfm
 The future of welfare: A Theos collection: http://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/publications/2014/02/19/the-future-of-welfare-a-theos-collection
Amelia is Public Policy Officer at the Evangelical Alliance. She grew up in New Zealand where she received a Bachelor of Arts in History and Politics. Amelia has worked in New Zealand’s Parliament as a Research and Communications Advisor in the Office of Rt Hon John Key, the current Prime Minister and Private Secretary to the Speaker of the House.