Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Penny Pinching or Really Hurting?

Photo by nogoodreason and used under Creative Commons (2) licence

Today the government announced the public will get a say in where and how cuts should happen.  After the release of the governments spending (the treasury's COINS data), this could be another welcome step towards an open style of government.

However, before we leap to our keyboards - calculator in hand - it is worth taking some time to think and reflect about where the money is spent and what it achieves.   As Christians we are called to be both defender and advocate for those who live in poverty based on God’s preferential option for the poor and within all of us - religious or not - there is a commitment to principles of justice and fairness which need to prevail in constructing this social contract. These principles need to be applied in our response to ensure that those least responsible for the financial crisis (which is largely to blame for the budget deficit) are not those required to pay the highest personal price.

Let us consider the  £102.10 billion work and pensions bill as an example of the thinking required. We may think that there is room for manoeuvre within this cost centre. Perhaps there is, but to make that move we need to ensure that what is cut doesn’t add to the difficulty of claimants transitioning from reliance on benefits to meaningful work and potentially renewed sense of dignity!

Do not forget the human impact of claiming benefits. It is not an uplifting experience as the claimant is put under immense scrutiny at a time when he or she could be feeling vulnerable and exposed.  Besides the trudge to the benefit office, there are perceptions about being a 'scrounger' or 'not taking a job when there are lots of jobs about'. 

This is when the lines between public perception and reality begin to blur.  Recent figures indicate there are 2.5million people unemployed and only half a million jobs available.  As a result, one area of change within employment has been with the significant increase in the number of people taking part-time jobs.  The increase is due to the fact that:

“The number of employees and self-employed people working part-time because they could not find a full-time job increased by 25,000 on the quarter to reach 1.07 million, the highest figure since comparable records began in 1992”. (Source Office of National statistics)

Oxfam's recent 'Something for Nothing' briefing report explored perceptions of poverty and benefit claimants within the media and the general public.  They found the difference between perception and reality (with particular reference to policy makers) centred around the transition period from benefits to work.   The transition can leave a person on a low income even more vulnerable.  The reason for this, is due to a problem within policy thinking regarding benefits and work.

"The problem with this (thinking) is twofold.  Firstly, work is generally paid in arrears, whereas the associated costs need to be paid for upfront.  This involves dipping into (generally non-existent) savings or, more realistically, going in to debt and bearing all the additional costs that this entails" (Source: Oxfam Something for Nothing Report)

If we are all to have a say in where and how cuts should happen it might be wise to start by looking at a passage of the bible regarding sheep and goats.   In the story in Matthew's gospel we are confronted with the sobering insight that our treatment of the destitute, sick and imprisoned ‘other’ equates to our treatment of Christ - who often comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poor (to quote Mother Teresa).   Under the cloak of 'an age of austerity' or 'helping people move off benefits' we could risk getting stuck in a number crunching exercise whilst forgetting that each benefit payment ends up in the hands of an individual endowed with human dignity with legitimate claims to the social goods of society .  The question we should be asking is not 'are we paying them too much' but are we enabling decisions to be made that help claimants to realise their full human potential by meeting their basic needs whilst providing the opportunity for them to enhance their job prospects in an affordable and sustainable way. This is the path to human flourishing which we should all aspire to in the UK in the difficult months and years ahead!