Ranters of Mow Cop

Ranters of Mow Cop

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Inequality, Social Justice and the DWP: My posting for International Blog Action Day 16 October 2014

My posting for International Blog Action Day 16 October 2014 http://blogactionday.org/ in response to a request from Church Action on Poverty

Twice in 24 hours in the last week I was in an audience hearing a presentation from an official of the Department of Work and Pensions describing and trying to justify the basis and practice of their social justice strategy. Much of both presentations seemed to follow a script and one had to feel somewhat sorry for the poor civil servants who seemed rather unconvinced of the political ideology and ethical views on which their programme is based and less convinced still of its outcomes and achievements.

The official definition goes something like this.;

Social Justice is about making society function better – providing the support and tools to turn lives around… The term 'Social Justice' is one which has many facets, but only one outcome. A life-changing difference that offers people a chance to rebuild their lives.

And the analysis drawn from work by Iain Duncan Smith's think tank the Centre for Social Justice is summarized as:

…..  family breakdown, low educational attainment, worklessness, problem debt, and addiction combine to cause the entrenched poverty affecting many of our communities.

The DWP strategy includes action to:
  • help troubled families turn their lives around
  • improve mental health
  • reduce child poverty and make sure that children are properly supported so that they complete their education
  • make work pay, and help people to find and stay in work
  • help people recover and become independent if things have gone wrong
  • work with the voluntary, public and private sectors to deal more effectively with complex problems
The flagship policy is welfare reform.. and in particular the introduction of Universal Credit.

Where does one begin to critique this approach? For the problems of poverty in the UK  are real enough, and the aspirations are noble. Even some of the mechanisms such as making benefits rates flexible enough to make earning a living worthwhile in a flexible and casualised labour market are fine in principle. However, at every level philosophy, policies, and practices they are wrong, and the outcomes we observe everyday seem to produce increasing social injustice.

An alternative view of social justice  - from the Bible.

The Bible indeed often speaks of the need to turn lives around and about transformation of people and communities. But that turning around involves both a change of mind (metanoia – usually translated as repentance) and a conversion (from sin and self towards the love of God and of neighbour). This is the basis of a new creation, of the power of the age that is to come, the power that raised Jesus from the dead, breaks into the present age and to some measure is brought under the lordship (kingdom rule) that comes from heaven. Such a change is good news for the poor, and liberation for the captives. But it is also a judgement on the oppressor, a justice that in Mary's words brings down the mighty from their thrones, and scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

Biblical social justice therefore is not just about individual rights and responsibilities which are functional for society but is both relational and radically egalitarian. We could start in Genesis with John Ball who in 1381 asked "when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentle man".  Or we could go down with Moses and the slaves of the 19th Century to "tell old Pharaoh, let my people go." Or we could rage in streets with Amos against the "cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, "Bring us some drinks!" and refuse to worship until " justice rolls on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream".  We could sing with David of the perfect anointed ruler who is to come who will " judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice" and trace the fulfillment of this in Jesus who "though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor" and told parables where the invitation to the banquet went "out into the streets and lanes of the city to bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame". Or we could observe the first assembly of believers in Jerusalem where.. "there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need".  Or we could read the instructions of Paul to the church in Corinth that  " Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality…"

It is clear then that a Christian view of social justice is more than offering poor people a chance to rebuild their lives. Rather it offers a chance for the rich and powerful to look at things differently, and to change the way they live and act, before it is too late and they look up to Lazarus in heaven to discover they are on the wrong side of an unbridgeable gulf.

An alternative analysis of the causes of poverty

No one can deny that across the UK there are problematic levels, and local concentration in certain neighbourhoods of family breakdown, low educational attainment, worklessness, problem debt, and addiction . However, it can be argued cogently that these are the symptoms rather than the causes of people's distress. The DWP/CSJ analysis tends to put the blame for these ills on the individuals who suffer from them. Of course all people are more than victims, as human beings they are agents, who take decisions and make choices, some of which may be wrong, bad or irrational. However, the available choices are often constrained by economic and social structures and by political decisions made by powerful people at a great distance from their lives.

Describing poverty in terms of individual pathology is central to the ideology of neo liberalism. Four decades of minimally regulated global capitalism has left many former industrial areas without industries to provide sufficient employment, and  left only service industries based on casual low paid work . The same decades of reckless lending has produced an epidemic of debt and usury. The lack of hope has produced poverty of aspiration among many young people, and many have turned to drugs and alcohol to dull the pain.  Family and community relationships have weakened, and one can argue about the contribution of social and economic stress, compared with the social liberalism that has promoted the cult of the autonomous individual.  Indeed as Paul Verhaeghe argues Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us.

The outcomes of the social justice policy and the need for alternatives

So if the philosophy, and the social analysis of the DWP/CSJ is wrong what about the policies and their outcomes? We only need to look at a few examples. The troubled families programme even if it succeeds with some inevitably stigmatises a small number of households who are drowning, without offering much support to the much larger numbers who are just about keeping their head above water. Universal Credit judging by the delayed and cautious rollout is an administrative quagmire,  and the gains are likely to be offset by the consequences of people who wont be able to cope with the change, to understand the implications or to manage monthly payments and budgeting. More significantly the welfare reforms which introduce harshness and conditionality, and reduce claimants disposable income are fundamentally unjust. Arbitrary benefits sanctions, unwarranted medical judgements about fitness for work and disability and the bedroom tax leave many people in destitution and despair. The evidence is there not least in the rising use of foodbanks, which increasingly are needed by people who are in employment as well as by those who fall through the holes in the welfare safety net.

Also in the background are the unjust effects of the austerity programme where cuts and efficiencies in public sector employment, reduced funding to local authorities, and the creaming off of profits by commercial contractors for public services have an unjust impact on local economies in already struggling areas, especially outside of London and the South East of England. Without solutions to these macro economic problems there seems little chance of an end to work-less-ness, a long term reduction in child poverty, more stable family life or an improvement of mental health and wellbeing.

Even if we give the DWP the benefit of the doubt and accept that they sincerely want the lives of the poor to be improved, the social justice strategy is deeply flawed and likely to prove an utter failure.


  1. "I’m taking part in #blogactionday, October 16, 2014. Join me & register your blog, podcast, tumblr or website today http://j.mp/RpDiS0"

  2. on a similar theme from Al Barrett thisestate.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/what-if-inequality.html


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