I’m proud of the Welfare State. More than that, I’m proud to live in a country which can count the creation of the modern Welfare State as one of its finest achievements. And I’m proud that one of its key founding principles in 1945 was to establish a safety net to end the ‘Giant Evil’ of want (or hunger).
For the past 70 years, most of us have grown up safe in the assumption that if we fall on hard times, the welfare safety net will provide a cushion to prevent us becoming hungry or destitute.
Whilst the Department for Work and Pensions continues to assert that the benefits system provides a ‘safety net for essentials such as food’, the evidence increasingly does not support this claim. Sadly, for tens of thousands of UK citizens, that safety net is no longer in place. And as a consequence, food poverty and increasing hunger is having a devastating impact upon low-income families and individuals in the UK.
As one person who gave evidence to the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission last year said: “I have to cut down on basic living expenses as it is. I stay in bed to keep warm, especially in winter as I can’t afford to put the heating on. The bleakness of this week to week is having an impact on my mental/physical. I have had to get occasional food parcels from the food and support drop in service.”
Or take Jack, a single mother, bringing up a young child on housing benefit and child support. After selling all of her possessions to pay off debts she was left with just a bed and a sofa and a few items that were later donated by friends. She lives on a food budget of £10 per week. Sacrifices she makes to save money include never using the heating; taking out excess light bulbs and not having a freezer or tumble drier. She buys basic products and avoids meat and dairy products as they are too expensive. Her local food bank is able to provide nappies and five items of food each week.
On reading an article in The Independent she was shocked to find that nine of the sixteen criteria that class a child as being in poverty applied to her own son, including: not having outdoor space to play; not having two pairs of shoes; and not having meat or dairy in his diet. “It was a shock to me. I thought, my child is in poverty, and I wondered if I was a bad mother.”
Today’s speech by the Chancellor re-inforces the assumption that effectively the only purpose of welfare is to promote hard work. More generally, public debate has become increasingly polarized, leading to unhealthy and misleading arguments setting so-called ‘strivers’ against co-called ‘shirkers.’ Welfare itself has almost become a dirty word.
As Christians, we must not only challenge any such attempts to sow social division – we must re-assert the positive and enduring role of the Welfare State, and reclaim the vision of it providing a safety net to protect all people from the Giant Evil of hunger and destitution.
To be sure, the Welfare State needs to move with the times to meet the demands of the 21st century. What form the safety net should take in 2013, as opposed to 1945, is rightly a matter for public debate, but it should be difficult for anyone to argue against the essential premise that the state needs to put in place measures to ensure that no one should go hungry.
A good starting point for this debate is the principle of the Minimum Income Standard. This is defined as an income which is sufficient to enable any household to live according to a ‘low cost but acceptable’ standard established on the basis of the social norms of the day – including having the means to afford a nutritionally balanced diet.
Pretty much all the research to date points to the fact that benefit levels are currently set below the Minimum Income Standard for the vast majority of households, and that over time benefit levels need to rise – rather than fall – in real terms to reach this threshold.
But even if the principle of increasing benefit levels to attain the Minimum Income Standard is not accepted, it is hard to sustain the case for a system which currently forces hundreds of thousands to subsist on incomes significantly below existing benefit levels.
So as we move towards the General Election it is time for those of us in the Churches to initiative a grown-up debate with our fellow citizens, politicians and the media about how to reclaim the role of the welfare state in ending – yet again – the spectres of hunger and destitution that stalk the most vulnerable members of our society.