Ethics & Morality

The myth of the undeserving poor


Unlike most Christian initiatives, this week’s Feeding Britain report on poverty and foodbank use has whipped up a media storm filling up plenty of column inches and broadcast minutes. And it still has a long way to run…

It may have been a parliamentary report, but it has undoubtedly been a Christian initiative. It was funded by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Charitable Trust and was also launched by Justin Welby.  Of those sitting on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty who were members of the inquiry, four out of the six are Christians (Frank Field, the Rev’d Tim Thornton, Bishop of Truro, John Glen and Sarah Newton) including both co-chairs.

Without the commitment of thousands of Christians involved in running the vast majority of foodbanks through their churches, the situation for those who made over 900,000 visits in the last year would be far more desperate. Only the naive or the deluded would fail to admit that serious poverty is an immediate issue for a significant number of people in our society. Yet despite there being a range of issues covered in the report, it was Baroness Jenkin’s comments about the poor not being able to cook – which she hastily retracted – that grabbed many of the headlines. There may be plenty of sympathy for individuals and families facing constant financial pressures, but there is still an underlying assumption that many poor people wouldn’t be so poor if they got their act together, used their money more wisely and stopped expecting the state and others to sort out the consequences of their bad decisions. This is the narrative of the ‘undeserving poor’.

There was another launch down the road at Westminster Central Hall in November involving Christians addressing poverty in our country. It didn’t gain anywhere near as much attention, but in its own way was as equally important. This event, which was presented by Lord David Alton, was for a book entitled The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, by Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, both of whom work for Jubilee+ – an initiative of the Newfrontiers churches in the UK. Their aim is to equip churches to engage more effectively with our communities and increase their capacity to serve the poor. They have carried out valuable research over the past couple of years which found that 35 per cent of community welfare projects are run by Christians, and that this voluntary work benefits our country to a value in excess of £2.5 billion per year.

This time round they have focused their attention on our attitudes to those who have less than us. There are very few books that have set out a theological approach to how we should engage with the poor in this country, especially in the current political climate. The Myth of the Undeserving Poor seeks to do just that, helping Christians to understand what the Bible has to say and what a practical response should look like.

This is an issue that will not be going away anytime soon and, unless something dramatic happens, it will be Christians who will continue to plug the holes of our leaky welfare system. Being able to see poverty from a faith perspective as well as a one of material need will become essential if Christians are to be able to make sense of where and how they should (or should not) engage by providing their time and resources to help others in their local communities.

The book provides a very good overview of how our welfare system ended up where it is now. The Poor Law of 1601 saw the beginnings of the welfare state, but it also provided a strong example of the State and Church working together. Churches were given responsibility using their local knowledge to help administer welfare effectively to the people who really needed it.

Four hundred years on that link has been well and truly broken, but churches still continue to offer that understanding of local community which can be used to run projects at a far more human level than the centralised state will never be able to do. It is still the case that the Church can do some things better than the state, but the realisation of this appears to have dawned on many only very recently.

Another aspect of the Poor Law that remains unchanged is the concept of the poor being either deserving or undeserving. Those who were considered to be work-shy could expect to be treated harshly. However, as the benefits system has grown into the tangled web it now is, perverse arrangements have developed where working can be more disadvantageous than not. When the lives of individuals – who are apparently doing very well for themselves thanks to the generosity of the taxpayer – get splashed across the front pages of the tabloids, ‘undeserving’ rears its head once again and understandably stirs up strong emotions linked to our appreciation of what is fair and just.

Looking at the circumstances of some of these individuals supposedly sponging off the state in a logical and hard-nosed fashion, the concept of the undeserving poor can easily be seen to be factually accurate. So why does this book describe it as a myth?

The authors go to quite some length to make a point that might seem obvious when we think about it. The Bible is brimming with examples of how we shouldn’t judge and discriminate against others. When Jesus fed the 5000, did He consider withholding this miracle from any one of them because of their character? When he went to the house of Zacchaeus,  Jesus had plenty of reasons to reject him, but He did the complete opposite. The Good Samaritan had no cause to help the battered man lying in the road. There’s nothing to say that the Samaritan chastised him for walking along a notoriously dangerous road alone. He simply saw a man in need and did what he could to help him.

This grasp of bestowing grace upon others irrespective of how deserving they are should come naturally for every Christian because we know that God’s grace is utterly undeserved: He does not discriminate when it comes to salvation. But how easily we forget.

Included in the book is some new research that finds that Christians’ views on poverty vary and are often dependent on the newspapers they read. Those who read papers such as the Daily Mail tend to be much less sympathetic towards those considered poor. This presents a sobering challenge to Christians: from where do we derive our values? How much do we allow the media to inform our opinions and reinforce prejudices that are in direct conflict with biblical teaching? Talking about this, the authors say:

Observing what happens in our hearts when we come into contact with poverty is vitally important if we are to reflect the heart of the Father to those in need and to be more like Jesus in both our attitudes and actions. We won’t respond to poverty with the compassion and mercy Jesus showed the poor if our hearts are hard. We see in the Bible that God’s displeasure with humankind and his own people is so often inextricably connected to their own treatment of the poor, vulnerable and marginalised in society. But the Gospel demands more of us: the children of God are called not to fit in with the dominant attitudes of the culture around them, but to stand out – to “shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (Philippians 2:15). The norm in our society is to respond to people according to their behaviour; the norm for the Christian is to have fixed values that do not move according to someone else’s behaviour but are rooted in how only one person behaved: Jesus Christ.

Of course, there is a difference between having compassion for others and understanding what will actually benefit them. Poverty is not simply being materially deprived and throwing money at people will not fix many of the underlying issues that result in the visible needs. The Bible has much to say on aspirational, relational and spiritual poverty too, none of which should be ignored. The combinations and circumstances are often complex and are manifestly different for each individual. This is why foodbanks are just one of many ways that churches can and should be looking to offer help, and it is also why the state welfare system can never provide all of the answers.

This may be a Christian book written for Christians, but the themes it explores and solutions it offers are relevant to everyone, whatever their belief. They are universal truths that cut to the heart of what sort of a society we should aspire to be. How we relate to the most disadvantaged opens a window into our hearts revealing what we truly care about.

There is a reason why Christians are leading the way in addressing deep-seated poverty in this nation. When your heart has been moulded by mercy and compassion, it longs to share those gifts with others. The authors are not afraid to lay this out plainly, setting a challenge that requires a response from each one of us:

Christians are to be shaped primarily and predominantly by what God thinks about the poor, and what God thinks is abundantly clear through the Scriptures. We must allow the narrative of the Bible to have the loudest volume and the largest space in our hearts and minds, even when it means dramatic shifts of attitude need to take place.

The actions of Christians in alleviating poverty in Britain today send a strong message to Government, the media, local decision-makers, the general public and the poor themselves, but it is vitally important that our attitudes at the very least match up – and at best propel us into greater good works. “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34) so let our hearts be shaped not by cultural values nor by media narratives nor by political ideologies nor even by our own experiences. Instead, may the attitudes of our hearts increasingly be moulded by the biblical values of people, truth, kindness, mercy, justice and generosity, which are vitally important. When these values are embedded in our hearts, it becomes impossible for us to believe the myth of the undeserving poor.