There has been a bit of a palaver in the church-y corner of the news recently, with articles saying that most Christians, or at least most Anglicans, “think the welfare budget should be reduced”, see the welfare system as being in trouble, blame scroungers and foreigners for some of that trouble, and so on and so forth. This is being used in some instances to criticise the Bishops of the Church of England for their (mild, I thought) letter about ending hunger; apparently, our episcopal leaders are “out of touch” on this, as well as on issues like equal marriage.
So, what’s the story here? There is some research from Theos, which I haven’t looked at yet, and some from Linda Woodhead which I have. Linda Woodhead’s research is available from http://faithdebates.org.uk/research/ and the question on welfare is stated as such:
Which of these statements comes closer to your view?
The welfare budget is too high and should be reduced
The welfare budget is about right and should be
The welfare budget is too low and should be increased
Which of these statements comes closer to your view?
Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of
dependency, whereby many people, and often whole families…
Most people who rely on welfare benefits are victims of
circumstances beyond their control. The benefits they receive…
The numbers are all available, and are being reported accurately, as far as I can tell. Just over half (52%) of self-identified Anglicans thought the welfare budget is too high and should be reduced; the other 48% thought it too low, or about right, or they aren’t sure. In the more ideologically weighted second statement the numbers are more stark.
I have a few issues with this. One is that really, the fact that ordinary people have been swayed by government rhetoric on scroungers is totally unsurprising. The C of E is mostly made up of ordinary people. Yes, some of them even read the Daily Fail. It would be unrealistic to expect a church made out of ordinary people to hold, as a group, extraordinary ideas about government spending. Similarly, it is misleading, and perhaps dangerous, to imply (as some commentators seem to want to do) that it is somehow distinctively “Christian” to hold these beliefs. I’m sure the current government would love for that idea to take hold, but Christianity is about following Christ, and one can have a number of political viewpoints while still faithfully attempting to follow Christ. The numbers for Anglicans and indeed for other religious groups are not that far away from the totals. So the media storm-in-a-teacup (and it really is a teacup, one of those little dainty ones with a matching saucer) over it seems to me like shouting from the rooftops that Anglicans are mostly just ordinary people. Thanks for that. I suppose this is useful information for left-leaning people who make the error of thinking all Christians are like them.
However, for me the biggest issue is that the questions asked are — still — the wrong questions, dressing up the welfare system as a Very Hard Practical Issue. Triage is hard and rationing is hard, but we’re not talking about difficult edge cases in what is being done to the social security system, we’re talking about overhaul to the entire way the system works.
So, just for the record: I am a Christian, and a member of the Church of England. I DO think the welfare system is a bit rubbish. I DO want the welfare budget reduced. I just don’t think it should be done by cuts to social security.
Here’s a short list of what we could do instead:
-raise the National Minimum Wage to match the Living Wage, which would reduce the amount of in-work social security paid
-tighten regulations on zero hours contracts — as above
-ditch “workfare” and other mandatory unpaid work schemes: companies should pay for their own labour, not get a subsidy from the taxpayer which also leaves the workers destitute.
-ditch or overhaul wasteful PFI schemes: too often these are hideously expensive and don’t deliver.
-build a lot more social housing (real social housing, not housing that is “social” but actually completely inaccessible) near places where people work, so that there are fewer people in housing poverty — saving on housing benefit. For a while this would also help with employment.
-institute rent caps or controls of some sort; perhaps for landlords with more than one rental property — also saving on housing benefit, which in the instance of multiple buy-to-let landlords, is a lovely way of funneling taxpayer money to banks through mortgage interest.
I don’t think the cuts to social security we’ve seen in the last few years have been anything to do with reducing the welfare budget. I think they’ve been to do with reducing the cost of wages, so that companies can have a cheap pool of labour from the ever-increasing precariat class, so they can keep making poor quality stuff most people don’t need and many don’t want, to sell to people who are borrowing money to buy it because there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. Who wins? Big business and bankers. Always.
None of what this government has done is really about reducing the welfare budget, or about “making work pay” by dismantling a welfare system that rewards inactivity. It’s about reducing costs, and increasing taxpayer subsidy, for those who already make the profit. And the ones who suffer as a result are those Christ tells us to care for, to feed and clothe, to love and welcome and treat as the beloved children of God they are.
It’s enough to put me off my tea.