Church of England takes a 'moral stand' against welfare reforms
The introduction of a cap on benefits, as suggested in the Welfare Reform Bill, could push some of the most vulnerable children in the country into severe poverty. While 70,000 adults are likely to be affected by the cap, the Children's Society has found that it is going to cut support for an estimated 210,000 children, leaving as many as 80,000 homeless. The Church of England has a commitment and moral obligation to speak up for those who have no voice. As such, we feel compelled to speak for children who might be faced with severe poverty and potentially homelessness, as a result of the choices or circumstances of their parents. Such an impact is profoundly unjust.
We are urging the government to consider some of the options offered by the Children's Society before the bill is passed into legislation, such as removing child benefit from household income for the purposes of calculating the level of the cap and calculating the level of the cap based on earnings of families with children, rather than all households. The government could also consider removing certain vulnerable groups from the cap and the introduction of a significant "grace period" of exemption from the cap for households which have recently left employment.
The Bishops of Bath & Wells, Blackburn, Bristol, Chichester, Derby, Exeter, Gloucester, Guildford, Leicester, Lichfield, London, Manchester, Norwich, Oxford, Ripon and Leeds, St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, Wakefield and Truro
The above open letter appears in today's Observer, over which CofE bishops routinely pore on the Lord's Day as they partake of their English Breakfast tea and marmalade on toast. The letter was apparently written with the blessings of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, who are of the opinion that the imposition of a £500-a-week benefit cap on families is 'profoundly unjust'.
His Grace would like a pad in Virgina Water, preferably on the Wentworth Estate. Failing that, a nice pied-à-terre in Kensington Palace Gardens would suffice. The reality, of course, is that his abode is commensurate with and proportionate to his meagre stipend: he has no expectation that the taxpayer should subsidise his desire to dwell in an area he cannot afford.
£2000 a month represents the average weekly wage for working households. Adopting the mean income would appear to be a manifestly fair way of apportioning welfare, the bill for which presently runs at £192bn a year. But the bishops are concerned that the reforms risk pushing thousands of children into poverty and homelessness. How in the name of St Gemma could an income of £2000 a month be considered poverty? Certainly, it won't be enough to pay a rent in Kensington or any major city. So move.
When it comes to protecting the poorest and most vulnerable in society, the Government's measure of poverty is woefully inadequate. His Grace has said this before, but he will say it again for the economically obtuse. If poverty continues to be defined in relative terms, then Jesus was right to insist that the poor will always be with us. For when the average household income reaches £35,000, there will still be children being brought up in households where the income is a meagre £21,000, and thereby damned to be brought up in ‘Dickensian levels of poverty’.
The proportion of UK households defined as living in poverty has been around the 20 per cent through many decades of both Conservative and Labour administrations.
If the Conservative Party were intent on eradicating child poverty, or any other kind of poverty, they would first need to confront UN/EU/UK definition of the term and reassess how it is measured, for the social(-ist) scientists have being very busy moving the goalposts.
The bishops are right to highlight that subject of poverty, for it was foundational to the ministry of Jesus: he preached more about money than he did about eternal salvation. But when examining what he said about the poor, consideration has to be given to context and audience, and the nuances of Greek vocabulary also need examining.
What does Luke mean by ‘the poor’ (6:20)? The peasants who possessed little material wealth were not called ‘poor’ (‘ptochos’) if they possessed what was sufficient (ie subsistence) - they were termed ‘penes’. Jesus was (and is) concerned with the literal, physical needs of men (ie not just the spiritual [cf Acts 10:38]). When Luke was addressing the ‘poor’, he meant those who had no money - the oppressed, miserable, dependent, humiliated - and this is translated by ‘ptochos’, indicating ‘poverty-stricken…to cower down or hide oneself for fear’ - the need to beg. The ‘penes’ has to work, but the ‘ptochos’ has to beg. Those addressed by Jesus are the destitute beggars, not ‘penes’ or the general peasant audience of few possessions.
This is an important distinction upon which the bishops might like to reflect. The Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton, said the unity of the bishops should convince the government to act: "We are proposing something positive rather than just saying something negative," he said.
Bishop, with enormous respect, being positive isn't the same as being right, just, fair or moral.