The recent report from the Evangelical Alliance on attitudes to poverty has caused something of a storm in a teacup. The press release accompanying the launch stated:
Evangelicals have issued a stinging critique of the last government’s economic policy in new research from the Evangelical Alliance.
The Good news for the poor? report shows nearly four out of five evangelicals thought the last government’s economic policy hurt the poor more than the rich, while two thirds said welfare reform policies had a negative impact on the sick and disabled. Overall, just 15 per cent of evangelicals said the Coalition’s economic policy worked well to produce a more prosperous future for all.
The research shows a very high level of concern about poverty among evangelicals. This is motivated by a belief that God is on the side of the poor and this leads evangelical Christians to support a more generous welfare budget.
Now let’s get one thing clear: God’s heart is for the poor. If you cut out every verse in the Bible relating to poverty, you’re going to end up with a large mess of paper fragments. Evangelicals, like anyone who calls themselves a Christian, should be living lives that demonstrate compassion toward the poor and needy, seeking justice for all. However, this is not necessarily best achieved by complaining about the Government and believing that increasing welfare benefits will solve the problem.
Once you delve into the EA’s report, it appears that the press release is actually drawing a couple of rather superficial conclusions. 78 per cent of respondents did indeed say that the previous government’s economic policy hurt the poor more than the rich, but, to be honest, it’s surprising that this figure isn’t higher. As soon as welfare was cut as a result of austerity measures – which the Coalition had no moral option but to implement – those with the smallest incomes were inevitably going to feel the pinch far more than those with plenty, unless the rich had been hit so hard that the wealth-creators and drivers of economic growth had been taxed to the point of emigration. The important question is not who has been hit the hardest, but how hard the hit actually is. The survey responses provided do not conclusively deliver a ‘stinging critique’, as hyperbolically claimed, though a level of concern is patently justified, particularly for some vulnerable groups including the disabled, as Tanya Marlow’s recent guest article demonstrated.
The EA’s biggest inaccuracy, though, is to say that Evangelicals support a more generous welfare budget. The report found that 28 per cent were in favour of such a move, but 22 per cent believed that the budget was too high and should be reduced. That’s anything but an overwhelming endorsement. Furthermore, the top cause of poverty in the UK was considered to be welfare dependency.
Too often poverty is talked about and measured in purely monetary terms, but this is far too simplistic and in many ways unhelpful. The Centre for Social Justice think-tank has produced vast amounts of research on the subject and has come to the conclusion that the five key pathways to poverty are family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependency and worklessness, addiction and serious personal debt. Throwing money at people in order to drag them out of poverty will only get you so far and – as we found toward the end of Labour’s last term in office – is financially unsustainable. Attempts to genuinely address poverty require a more complex, intelligent and sophisticated approach.
Bearing this in mind, it would appear that Evangelical Christians are actually a pretty discerning bunch when it comes to understanding poverty and its root causes. If the majority of Evangelicals don’t see the need to increase the welfare budget, it’s not due to a lack of conscience, but rather the opposite: it is an appreciation that there are more important issues that the Government needs to be addressing above and beyond benefits. The report finds that the priority intervention in the alleviation of poverty is a good education. This is followed by developing strong businesses that offer employment, debt advice and money management courses; preventing family breakup; training programmes that help people get decent jobs; the Church getting involved in social action, and sustained economic growth.
It’s hard to argue with this list. It offers answers that are far more astute than the one the press release presents. In fact, the EA’s promotion of their report is, sadly, a missed opportunity. Instead of using it to take a cheap shot at both the previous and current governments, it could have been used so much more effectively as an offer for engagement; to share ideas and present a mutual desire to collaborate in tackling poverty on behalf of all of the Christians they represent. If you look at the proposed solutions, some need to be addressed by our politicians, but others are already being delivered by churches more successfully than any government could hope to do.
Church and Government are really not opponents on this matter. Both have an interest in working toward building a strong and stable nation where poverty is set firmly on a course of terminal decline. Sure, the current Government, like every one before it, will get things wrong and make some bad decisions along the way. We might not like every policy, or despise the party that won the General Election, but in seeking to change the attitudes of our politicians, Christian leaders with a public role should be looking at themselves and considering whether a hostile ‘them and us’ approach needs to be reconsidered. There is a better way forward, and it starts with a bit more honesty and humility, and less grandstanding and spin. We might even begin with a comprehensive and courteous assessment of how we define ‘poverty’.