The quest to identify those impoverished people who are not to blame for their poverty from the other poor people - who by inference are receiving the poverty they deserve- is as old as the hills. Rowan Williams wrote last week of “a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving” poor’” within the political debate. He was right to do so.
The phrase “deserving and undeserving” is no longer used but there are many codes in its place. The new acceptable discriminator is to talk of “people who do the right thing”. The phrase crosses the political divide, David Cameron used the phrase 7 times in one pre-election debate; Ed Milliband used it last week when suggesting some deserving people should have preference in going up housing waiting lists. It is an obvious phrase, which tests well in focus groups, but its implications are, in my view, both socially damaging and profoundly contrary to Christian teaching.
The Government has now begun to haphazardly convert the rhetoric of the “those who do the right thing” into policy. Initially Benefit Caps – limiting the total amount of benefit which could be received - were to apply to all. As time has passed those “doing the right thing” have been exempted - the old, the disabled, the war widow(er)s, and other special cases. Every Housing Benefit claim will be reduced by mathematical formula but now a discretionary £200m will go to those considered to be unjustly affected, to be determined by individual local authorities – these will be the old, the sick.... The welfare cuts are gaining similar grossly underfunded exemptions on a daily basis.
The problem is that it is easy for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to supply examples of the feckless poor to be derided in the pages of the Sunday Telegraph – but it is much harder to define a group as undeserving with any degree of justice or accuracy. Whole categories are labelled so that the majority of the public believe them undeserving (alcoholics for instance) but talk to your minister or others who work with addicts and very quickly it becomes much harder to use words like “undeserving”.
The hunt for the undeserving poor, despite many attempts, has never found large enough numbers of people to save significant amounts of money. This enthusiastically publicised scrounger hunt has served to stigmatise people who least deserve it and have little opportunity to fight back. The unjust sigma is also used to penalise those who clearly have “done the right thing”. The reason being if you just take money from the “undeserving” it doesn’t save much and don’t be fooled into thinking it does. But even if making moral judgements on past behaviour was a fruitful exercise I would argue for a benefit system focussed on meeting needs rather than judging behaviour.
Some of the most compelling Gospel stories are of Jesus’ encounters with people as he went about his ministry. My reading of these encounters show Jesus to be profoundly disinterested in someone’s past commitment to “doing the right thing”. Jesus was unimpressed by the Pharisees - who made a fetish out of “doing the right thing” – yet those who society judged harshly - those who hadn’t “done the right thing” eg - Zacheaus or the Woman at the Well – seem to emerge from their encounters with Jesus much better. Jesus seemed much more concerned with meeting the needs of the person he met than judging them on past behaviour.
Our liturgy says we have “all sinned and fallen short”. In past times Christians would describe themselves as “wretched” or “sinners” or other colourful words to acknowledge the fact that even the best of us have not always “done the right thing”. The very heart of the Christian faith is the acknowledgement that although we do not always “do the right thing” we are still loved, still valuable and still acknowledged as made in the image of God. A Christian who wishes others the full consequences of “doing the wrong thing” should really ask themselves if this is a rule they would be happy to see applied to themselves.
My view is that Christians should not set themselves up as the uninvited judges of others behaviour, nor ask the DWP to judge others’ behaviour. Christians instead should be focused on ensuring that people’s needs are met – irrespective of how they came to be in need.