Reclaiming welfare

greetings from the welfare stateI’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.

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10 Responses to Reclaiming welfare

  1. john simpson says:

    gosh you really do talk nonsense Niall.

  2. niallcooper says:

    Reblogged this on A Fair Say.

  3. Trish Burns says:

    Spot on Niall, thank you

  4. Bang on Niall, If John thinks its nonsense then he is not living the life so many of us are today,

  5. Then why are you reading ‘nonsence’??

  6. In full agreement with you Niall, I work in the public sector and am always amazed (& saddened) at the attitude of some of my colleagues towards the alleged work-shy. They have no idea, and don’t want any idea, about how some of their clients live.

  7. Adrian Wait says:

    Far from Nonsense Niall – You must have touched a nerve? Keep Going, you are on the right path. I apologise in advance for the length of the following, but I hope it sheds a little light on the ongoing battle between those disengaged from ‘things’ and those trapped by ‘things’.

    The Centrality of ‘Things’
    A Personal reflection (Ongoing)
    We are all shaped by the world around us, we shape new stories but we are a part of a continuing story. There is currently a resurgence of interest ‘family trees’, our roots, and our story. Our yesterdays, todays and tomorrows are shaped by a great many things. ‘Nowt like stating the obvious’. It is not the purpose or among my aim in this reflection is not to provide information that simply describes how terrible social exclusion is, and provides further conference material for talking shops. The last thing we need is another ‘review’, another report, we need action.
    At the heart of the matter are our stories, and our ability to grasp the importance of listening to our story and the stories of others, rather than second-guessing and blindly following the latest trend, or catch phrase of social engineering, whilst leaving the situation untouched. The service mentality charged by targets is in danger of becoming a talking shop on such a scale that the emperors’ new clothes astonish us, we all follow in blind conformity without realising the growing fracture within our communities. There is a very real danger that we will redouble our efforts whilst loosing sight of the cause. In a nutshell we become imprisoned within a notion that busyness is a sign of development, it is not. Are we engaged in a cycle of seminars and conferences whose hidden agenda is to support our notion of ‘doing something’? Where do such events bridge the gap between the disengaged and the trapped? For anyone trying to understand social exclusion – the effects upon the health, well being of the individual and community development – it is essential to grasp the centrality of ‘things’. Community engagement is about ‘things’, it is about being excluded from ‘things’, because of a lack of money, low self-esteem. It is about not having ‘things’ like a job, self-respect, self-confidence, or any plans for the future. But also, it is about having ‘things’ like disability, (visible of invisible). It is about isolation, depression, loneliness, ill-health! Where would You begin to tackle such issues? Would such ‘things’ enable and encourage you to attend Social exclusion seminars, and other such ‘consultation events? Even if you could afford them! Would You have the resolve, the confidence, the heart, to face a room full of confident-professionals who speak of ‘empowerment and social exclusion?’ The failure to acknowledge the centrality of ‘things’ has been and sadly remains the major barrier to engaging those who are trapped by such ‘things’, and likewise challenging those who are disengaged from such ‘things’ to realise that: “apathy” is an overused excuse to describe and dismiss those who are trapped by ‘things’ such as an environment that closes in on them, or ‘things’ that overwhelm and dispirit such as when ‘things’ breakdown or get damaged, they remain broken and damaged. Many people are being trapped by their situation and discounted as apathetic, ‘rough & ready’, benefit-scroungers, poor, and disadvantaged, is it any wonder that they become ‘excluded’. A sense of self-worth is vital to our lives; too often this is neglected and undermined by a paternalistic approach that reinforces the gap between the ‘helper’ and the ‘helped’. It can lead to a relationship that disables and dismantles self-worth, ‘brick-by-patronising-brick’. Affirmation is the tool to address the needs we find within our communities, not a Victorian-style-charity which keeps the poor, the rough & ready, the scroungers in a prison of benevolent charity. Which serves only to make the ‘helper’ feel good, and the ‘helped’ still dependant. This dependency destroys self-worth, reinforcing a sense of helplessness. Those with any semblance of intelligence are aware that the powers-that-be are manipulating the ‘news’ and stoking the misinformation, slander and scandalous propaganda. When the BBC can maintain a ‘blackout’ on the news that some 162,000 people have signed an e-petition to oppose the Privatisation of our NHS, and fail to report a Protest 50,000 strong yet they regurgitate the slander that it is “communists” and “left-wing radicals” who opposed the imposition of “Workfare” you realise that we no longer have a “Free-Press” or a truly representative media! They are the disengaged that ensure a constant stream of ‘gossip’ designed to feed the divisions within society – divide and rule! The dangerous route to fascism is an ever-present danger. When powerful forces label, categorise and dismiss their target, their designated scapegoats. Such warnings are more often than not mocked and exaggerated in an attempt to neuter any warning of such dangers. Yet, we witness in these days the growing arrogance, ignorance and greed of a most pronounced disengaged elite, a feral elite! A mixture of Freud, Duncan-Smith, Grayling and Media sources invest their bile against those trapped by poverty and disadvantage reveal an indifference that has successfully blended and transformed indifference into ‘objectivity’ the first step on the road to the banality of evil. The lessons of history are ever before us – Niemöllers’ warning is written large for all those with eyes to see! The battle has begun, it is a battle that of truth and lies, it is a battle we are destined to lose if we cannot engage the disengaged and the trapped – people of good-will and conscience, people with some notion of common humanity, not too fractured or broken by the ever-increasing worship of the theory: survival of the fittest – the battle that echoes down the corridors of history and a battle ever before the human race when it leans to its own wisdom and the false notions of human worth and Dignity! The Affirmation of Truth… the facts, the voices of the voiceless challenges the disengaged to action, to become a little less disengaged, it also challenges those trapped by the situation to become a little more engaged in the process of change. The Lie of “Big Society” is clear for all to see – it is built on the lie that we are all in this together. It is built on the lie of striving to reinforce the gap between the disengaged and the trapped, between the ‘haves and the have nots’, simply, it is built on the lie that everything is all right – the status quo! If renewal, regeneration is to really make a difference within our communities we need to seek to reconcile the gap between the disengaged and the trapped, we need to be realistic about the task ahead of us. I believe that when we do recognise the enormity of the task, it will bring us to our knees – which is probably the best place to start!

    Is Anybody listening?
    The wall that divides is widest at the point of those who prop up the notions of ‘Helper’ and ‘helped’ – ‘Us and them’ Discover, too, how it was through the everyday stories and shaping of these ordinary people within our communities. And the relationships within and around our communities. We need to rediscover how at the centre of all ordinary lives are ‘people’ and, ‘things’: people doing things, making things, exchanging things, hoping for things, overcoming things and transforming things. This is how their story, and their shaping unfold, it is our story. Yet social exclusion fractures this process, suddenly, cruelly and often tragically. The gap between the disengaged and the trapped is not closing, the gulf is immense and the danger is that we will adopt a knee jerk reaction, simply developing more and more initiatives that aim to prop up the notion of ‘the helper’ and ‘the helped’. Busy doing nothing working the whole day through trying to find lots of things not to do – those whom have ears let them listen. I do not think that I am alone in detecting a return to the philosophy of ‘survival of the fittest’ where the middle class confident go-getter pronounces his simplistic and often cold solutions for the socially excluded. They are viewed as inadequate; a box to tick in the lonely search to complete a well-rounded CV. Disengaged indifference, I believe, is on the rise once more disguised as it is by political correctness and thinly veiled judgement on the lives of those trapped by social exclusion. Sustained by the self confidence that security brings they glibly pronounce their various soft minded – ill though out initiatives which blindly mimic government policy, thus securing funding that enables them and their colleagues to sustain their positions for another two years or so. I do not apologise for my cynical insight into the various regeneration schemes I have witnessed and continue to witness – perhaps I am deluded, perhaps the emperor does have a new suit? For those able to draw on self-confidence that is not easily shaken, to have a faith that sustains, or by being able to draw on the resources of education or a good start in life, or by a supportive network of family and friends which may help to have cushioned the blow of social exclusion. However, for the vast majority of those who feel the chill blast of indifferent social exclusion this is not the case. For them, the daily grind is exactly that – a daily grind. Their whole awareness of self is contained within the lack of dignity that social exclusion brings, the awareness of ‘who they are’ in the community depends upon employment, and without a job they are vulnerable to the well meaning, but disengaged professions who seek to control their destiny, whilst refusing the basic dignity of listening to their stories! For such individuals, their story is no longer being told, their life is without shape, and they feel surplus to requirement.

    The Centrality of ‘Things’
    We live in a society that is content to busy itself with seminars and conferences about them, but rarely if ever engaging with them, never listening. Community consultation is a lie, and we know it is; yet it enables the conscience of the disengaged to continue unaware of the true story of those trapped by social exclusion. We have lost the important concept of ‘vocation’ and the careerists in ever field whether politics, spiritual, or social have become the ‘professionals’ – who are too often ‘professionally disengaged’ to the point they can no longer recognise the importance of ‘Vocation’, They are simply wise in their own eyes and conform to the world around them. And thus the gap between the disengaged and the trapped remains stubbornly steadfast, and the very fuel that justifies their positions, their job, their career! Nothing changes!
    What do I mean by the ‘shaping’ and the ‘story’ of your life, or of my life? How often do we take the time to ‘stand and stare’, to think about our life so far? Pause for a moment; think about your mam and dad, about their mam and dad, about all the people who were part of your life as you grew up. Think about all the hundreds of things which they did and which you watched, and absorbed into your story. Think of the things they said, and used to say and to which you listened, slowly taking them in as you developed your personality. Think of the many, many ways in which all of these people ‘handed on’ to you what, in their turn, had had handed on to them – for they, too, had watched and listened as they grew up, just like you. In this way we are shaped by the world around us, it is a long, continuous, process stretching way back down the corridors of time. We are all part of a journey in which we are shaped and shape the lives of those around us. It is not only people who shape or play there part in our lives, for those fortunate enough to establish a bond with a pet this is often has meaningful a friendship, such bonds are not to be trivialised for they are part of the main, and add up to the totality of personhood.
    ‘Things’ also play a part in our in the shaping of our story. Just think about all the ‘things’ in your life. Think of the ‘things’ which you were surrounded by as you grew up; the things you wore, the things you ate, the things you played with, the things you did at school, the things you made, the things you did with other people, as well as the ‘things’ like the houses you lived in, the memories the cultivated, the furniture, the warmth it provided in the winter, the surroundings which collected or the ‘simple things of life’, the background noise to our developing story as the years went by. Remember, to the smell of cooking as you opened the kitchen door, the smell of clean clothes, and of a favourite book. The feeling of a game shared and returned to through the long summer holidays, the comings and goings of family and friends. These things shaped your life and gave you bearings on your journey, they began to unveil the mystery of ‘being’ you, of discovering you – who you were, where you were in the story of life, unfolding, no doubt as it should. ‘Things’ help to shape our lives in an intricate pattern of looking, listening, smelling, tasting and touching. Cooking a meal is a very basic way of shaping things: choosing which ingredients to use, changing and mixing the texture as we prepare the meal with our hands. Influencing the flavour as you mix and blend, a herb, a spice until the meal takes the form, of shape you want it to. The meal you prepare helps to shape your life in another sense – by the way it affects your health and well-being. Is it a shared meal, or do you eat alone?
    ‘Things’ like relationships are a crucial part of the human story; doing things, making things, creating things – we live in a world of things, which are made far richer by the fact of sharing them. Completion is within the process of relationships – this is the thing so often neglected when we consider the term social exclusion. People in isolation are robbed of the things that affect their very being – contact, a listening ear, another voice, a sense of the other. Unemployment has a very dramatic if somewhat gradual affect upon the world of ‘things’. Things like the routine – doings things with other people, engaging in conversation, laughing, sharing stories, plans and hopes all of these things are cruelly taken away, and you don’t even hear the door close! Other things like the burden of a severely restricted income, and the cascade of worries this brings – the heating, meals, travel, and clothes. Slowly, but surely your story becomes restricted, a sense of being surplus to requirement negatively reinforces the sense of becoming invisible. Life becomes a battle against ‘things’ – the washing machine breaks down, and remains broken, the settee becomes worn and remains worn, clothes too, whole sections of the story are closed down. You do not even entertain the idea of holidays, or away days or shopping, hobbies cease – even going out becomes a drag, the world closes in on you. Confidence and competence become strangers to you, silence smothers your opinion – who’s listening anyway? Unemployment figures, the lowest in years, do not alter the 100% unemployment you feel. Unemployment distorts the relationship between you and all the former things of your life. ‘Things’ trap you instead of release you. Labels, damn labels. Among the aims of this reflection is my hope to share with you what the journey reveals about ‘things’ and about ‘people’. You Are A Person – YOU have Dignity! Let no one, no system robbed You of your Personhood – You are Priceless! You Are You! It is risky to abandon our assumptions, notions, or traditions when journeying into a field we believe we know all we need to know, and the signposts are firmly rooted – “No Thinking Beyond this Point, or Assumption” they scream. If we can approach in a manner that is thoughtful, rather than dismissive, if we strive to abandon our well-rehearsed arguments against any investigation – we may discover another way through the woods! And, we may, just may hear the Word rather than assume we know it before it is spoken to us – Listening, is the essential step towards wisdom, for it guards against being wise in our own eyes – a mistake we all make when reinforcing our disengagement through assumption, thus widening the gap between the disengaged and the trapped. The consequences for the disengaged and the trapped within our story when we turn away from dull and the ignorant, from those we assume we know, from our tried and trusted ways of labelling, categorising and dismissing are a profound challenged to us all! To listen is not a trite consideration; it is courageous and altruistic and flies in the face of the theory of the survival of the fittest because we are called to care for the other, to notice the other, to listen to the other! And gradually, vulnerably, abandon our tendency to assume – to lean on our own wisdom. Our lives are not purely routine, of the expected, predictable and the familiar. There are also moments of decision, turning points. There are moments when we have quite deliberately left behind the familiar, and wrestled with the challenge of the new or unexpected. Times when we have taken a step in a new direction not knowing the outcome the direction of live from this step forward – when we leave home, get married, start a new life of our own. Full of hope, and some anxiety taking the dream wish and seeking to make it a dream reality – moving on to the new, the strange. Alongside the momentous decisions there will be hundreds if not thousands of times we taste the new, the unexpected – experimenting with new skills, being convicted of the purpose for our lives or the injustices we must challenge. There are none so blind as those who cling to their routines out of fear of the new or the changes that the journey may take if we step out in faith.
    At other times an unexpected event; a sudden bereavement, a shock, an accident or being made redundant – surplus to requirement. These moments of despair can be transformed if we can overcome them; for each of these moments brings us to the end of our resources. The despair, and pain of loss gather like storm clouds and such fractures of life expose our vulnerability and threaten the heart of true hope. There is no darkness like this, and to be alone at such times is to be truly alone. The world we once knew will never be the same again. Each of these experiences speaks of an ending. Yet, slowly, often very slowly, hope returns – it sits in stillness and silence hardly daring to raise itself for fear of rejection and banishment. What seemed to be an ending becomes transformed into a new beginning, and so we step out once again and face a world that will never be quite the same again – a world that preferred our frozen isolation, and informed our sense of being surplus to requirement. This is only half of the picture. For if we settle into the doldrums of despair convinced that our part within the story is over we have surrendered to the fight that had barely begun, before we were taken out by grief and doubt. So often, too often we cling to the familiar stay within our comfort zones, and we begin to lose our vision of what the whole story could unfold. Fear seeks to disable, to raise doubts that if they are unleashed, discourage us from asking questions and seeking the truth. Fears are limiting, they seek to establish doubt and cynicism that if it prevails see our lives fall short, turn inward and slowly stagnate and eventually die a death surrounded by unfulfilled reams and shattered hopes. Prolonged isolation waters the seeds of despair that turns hope into a cruel mockery of dreams unfulfilled. Finally, I would say to the Duncan-Smiths, the Graylings and the Freud’s of this world – You have sown what you will reap – indifference is NOT ‘Objectivity’! To save yourselves from becoming the very personification of the banality of evil you need to recognise the dignity of Personhood. And you must apologise for your indifference and admit your wrongs against those to weak to fight back; you must recognise your revolting abuse of power and arrogant indifference to the hurt You have caused! If you maintain the wisdom in your own eyes then your fate is sealed. Do you think your money will buy you forgiveness? Do You think that it should? Are you so wise in your own eyes? You will be judged the way you have judged and treated the vulnerable, the disabled and the fragile. The road to justice may be long, but it bends towards Justice. You shall reap what you have sown! I believe it is through listening that all things are gradually revealed, we may come to understand the sense of story and shaping of the everyday lives that we seek to live. However, it takes time and effort! And would strip us of all the notions we may revel in as we assume rather than know the stories of others, stories of the disengaged, and the stories of the trapped, stories of the dull and the ignorant! Stories that have profound roots, and heart in the somebodies’ nobody knows. Together we can overcome, together we can dismantle the barriers that prevent relationships, together we may realise the strength we have to overcome the darkness represented by those agencies and, yes by those individuals who prefer the darkness, the division, the disengaged fury of the banality of evil.

    A.R.Wait. (Ongoing)

  8. Ian Brewerton says:

    Not nonsense at all.

    Workhouses were “largely designed for a pool of able-bodied idlers and shirkers … However this group hardly existed outside the imagination of a generation of political economists”. This comment – about attitudes to poverty in the 1820’s – seems equally applicable to today, and current political agendas seem to be demonising those unfortunate enough to be low- or non-earners. And ‘with malice aforethought’ – I suspect most of those involved know exactly what they are doing.

    We also need to challenge the rhetoric about about ‘wealth creators’. Owners and managers seem to feel that they are the wealth creators – the reality is that their workpeople create the wealth (if ‘create’ is an appropriate term for the activities of trade and industry); top management and shareholders have an essentially parasitic role in business. Part of the problem lies in the tradition (which it has been suggested is restricted to the English-speaking part of the world) that management is a separate discipline, and a competent manager can manage anything. My own experience, as a public sector worker, public sector manager and private sector small businessman, is that no manager can effectively manage processes and activities which they do not understand in some detail.

  9. gerfome says:

    Well spoken Niall! I was listening to David Cameron’s speech today, and thought it was very slick, although, as to be expected, very one sided. No mention of the ‘Banking Crisis’ of 2008, which cost the British taxpayer a conservative estimate of around 850 billion pounds sterling to stop the country , and probably the world falling, into anarchical chaos. And who are these bankers one may ask? None other than the Tory party faithful, who were soaking up the spin, in the conference hall. That is just one point that was omitted, for obvious reasons. Another point was the promise by labour to raise Corporation Tax. I heard that we have one of the lowest Corporation Taxes in Europe, and lower than America’s. Very few companies will be put off by this move. Two of the benefits of investing in Britain are a cheap and technologically educated workforce, who work hard to keep their jobs, as they do not want to be stygmatised, by the state of unemployment, not to mention the less than breadline subsidy of unemployment benefit.
    One more point is that it is OK for fat greedy elitist parasites in the Tory party denigrating the unemployed, most of whom did not ask for unemployment, or actively seek it, and the rest of the unemployed, being let down by almost every part of society, especially the education system, which has led to them being classed as virtually unemployable. Oh yes I do love the Tories!

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