I was pulled up short this week on reading again a draft document from a colleague at the church Urban Fund
When people refer to poverty in England, they are not generally referring to the complete lack of material resources that millions of people around the world experience. Thankfully, that kind of 'absolute' poverty is mostly absent from this country. Poverty in England is a relative concept
This reflects a widespread assumption that has been oft repeated over the last fifty years. However, in my own experience I fear this is no longer true. Every week at the homeless drop in Preston where I volunteer meals are served to over 50 people, who are permanently skint, and depend on the circuit of soup kitchens around the town for their food. In Blackpool the numbers reported in similar ministries are even higher. Across Lancashire in 2013 the 26 different food banks issued at least 30,000 food parcels to people who had been formally referred as not being able to afford any food. At the different job clubs run by local churches and community groups there are constant stories of people who have nothing to live on because they have been "sanctioned" - all benefits withdrawn because of some trivial breach of harsh regulations. And then there are thousands who are trapped deep in debt by the legal loan sharks, to whom they turned when for a short term fix to their desperation and destitution. I've not yet mentioned addictions, where the pushers of booze, drugs and late night high street gambling have preyed on human weakness and continue to destroy lives. Many of these people are not yet living on the streets, or sleeping rough thanks often to the genrosity and forbearance of families, friends and various charities though the numbers are rising and are likely to grow exponentially. If this situation is not absolute poverty, what is?
The most frightening aspect is that much of this destitution is the outcome of deliberate policy. Thirty years of neo-liberal economics has promoted the rapid growth of inequality so that a small elite controls the financial institutions, and holds sway over the world's governments. Gross inequality has been shown to be detrimental to the health and well being of all not just the poorest. In global capitalism real wages have been supressed, and welfare spending has been cut. Austerity policies have turned the screw on the poorest, with specific cuts hurting the disabled, social housing tenants and the jobless who are disciplined by benefit sanctions to take a job, any job that is on offer, rather than being offered incentives to look for gainful and meaningful work. All this of course is undergirded by a propaganda machine that labels and demonises the workless as "scroungers.
Nonetheless the emergence of absolute poverty in the UK does not mean that relative poverty has gone away. Huge numbers of people may be in work, or even managing to survive on their benefits yet may be living in poverty when they are considerably worse off than the majority of the population; when they lack sufficient resources to achieve a standard of living regarded as normal in this society. This kind of poverty is about exclusion, as individuals and families are excluded from participating in economic, social and cultural activities that are considered, or promoted by advertisers and role models of popular culture, as essential.
Definitions and benchmarking of relative poverty vary, but two methods are common. Governments and economists seem to prefer a mathematical formula based on the proportion of households who fall below an income threshold based on 60 per cent of the national median income. Using that measure, around 13 million people, including 3.5 million children, are estimated to be living in poverty in the UK. The calculation is relatively easy if the data is sound, and in principle comparable over time. However, strange quirks can occur as inequalities grow, or as GNP falls with the possibility that the numbers within the definition go down, while their struggle to manage on their income becomes worse. Social scientists on the other hand prefer the "breadline Britain" approach, based on the proportion who cannot afford a basket of consumer goods considered to be essential for a decent life, by the average British resident, sampled by opinion polling. Again there are problems with such relative definitions, as aspirations and expectations of the decent life can rapidly change, and may vary widely across a diverse population. There are for example especially among practicing Christians many who are more than content with the material blessings God has entrusted to them, and generously give much of their income away and in the extreme case there are religious orders who have taken a voluntary vow of poverty, and see lack of possessions not as a problem but as a blessing.
Poverty then is a complex phenomenon and hard to define. It is clear that its impacts are multi-dmensional. Although many people manage brilliantly on low incomes, and remain resourceful and hopeful usually lack of resources begins to impact on physical health through the lack of a good diet, poor housing, and unheated living space. In a world where a person's worth is measured by their personal wealth lack of resources brings lack of status, and with that a lowered self image and lack of confidence. The stress of struggling to make ends meet impacts on mental well-being, and can drive people to depression, substance abuse, crime, suicidal thoughts and actions as well as relationship problems. Families can become unstable or break down, often making the cost of living higher for the individual. Communities can find it harder to trust one another, and housing policies often concentrate households with economic and social difficulties closer together. Services in such areas are often over-stretched and under-funded, and over time are tolerated with low expectations. Aspirations for improvement are lowered with the result that people find it pointless to strive for education, decent employment or political change.
The interrelation of these factors and the link to local area deprivation is well captured in a publication from the Church Urban Fund, "The web of poverty"
All these problems are closely interlinked, trapping individuals and whole communities in a 'web of poverty': poor education dampens aspirations; unstable home lives and domestic abuse are triggers for homelessness and drug and alcohol misuse; unemployment and lack of opportunities promote crime; low income makes healthy eating unaffordable; dependence on benefits disempowers people; mental health problems lead to social isolation; and the closure of local services damages community cohesion
The document goes on to name poverty of identity, poverty of resources, and poverty of relationships as three distinct dimensions. However, in my view the analysis is flawed if we see these factors as in an almost Trinitarian relationship with each other. It must surely be the case that economics lack of resources - is the primary driver of the other aspects of poverty. This must especially be the case if we understand the growth of absolute poverty, and the growth of inequality as politically driven. In the driving seat of course are those who already have much, and in their greed are always demanding more, at the expense of the ordinary and the most vulnerable, the least and the lost. It is they of course who also control the language and dominate the discourse around poverty. Only those who have much to gain in terms of a "divide and rule" approach to the electorate could promote a language of poverty built on terms such as "the underclass", "scroungers and shirkers", "teenage lone parents getting pregnant to get housing", "addicts begging to feed their habit" and "benefit tourists and asylum seekers"
The language of relative poverty and social exclusion may seem more liberal and can surely have some beneficial uses when trying to bring on board those who are in low paid work or are striving to better themselves. However, if my analysis is to any extent true then it is arguably time that we forgot about the complex, confusing and contested notion of poverty. Rather we should be speaking and acting compassionately and politically in the vocabulary of inequality and destitution and declaring that behind these symptoms we discern oppression.
It is my contention that such an understanding is profoundly Christian and soundly based in Scripture..
In the Old Testament, "poor" can be translated by six major and three other termstotalling about 300 references, and revealing a broad understanding of the causes, reality, and consequences of poverty. The poor person is the downtrodden, humiliated, oppressed; the man pleading and crying out for justice; the weak or helpless; the destitute; the needy, dependent person; and the one forcibly subjected to the powerful oppressor. ..........
Throughout the Bible the majority of references indicate that the poor are the mercilessly oppressed, the powerless, the destitute, and the downtrodden. Nor is their poverty taken for granted in Scripture. It causes concern, anger, and protest. It is challenged and opposed. And its source is seen as injustice and oppression by the powerful.
This quotation is not taken from some Marxist inspired volume of liberation theology, or even from Pope Francis but from a decidedly evangelical source that is nearly 35 years old
Report of the Consultation of World Evangelization Mini-Consultation on Reaching the Urban Poor held in Pattaya, Thailand from 16-27 June 1980 Sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization
This paper is still well worth reading in full and the appendix which meticulously lists every Bible reference to poverty is available here
It is worth noting that the report was drafted by members of the "MiniConsultation on Reaching the Urban Poor" under the Chairmanship of Rev. Jim Punton, who also served as International Co-ordinator of the pre-COWE study groups on Reaching the Urban Poor. Final editing was by Dr. Colin Marchant.