Welfare is one of the most hotly debated topics this year. It has become a political football to score points and win votes.
The ‘bedroom tax’ is the latest element of welfare reform to hit the media agenda. Protesters inLiverpoolhave occupied a housing association office and David Cameron faced questions about it for a second week at Prime Minister’s Questions. The under-occupancy rules will hit those in social housing who are deemed to have a spare room, with tenants losing 14 per cent of housing benefit for one room and 25 per cent for two or more. The media is now picking up on stories of foster carers losing housing benefit or disabled people with adapted homes being forced to move.
The Tory leadership argue that welfare reform is motivated by fairness. They actively encourage the rhetoric of strivers and skivers. When George Osborne described those in need of welfare as “sleeping off a life on benefits” I think he wanted to fan the flames of welfare stigma. Some believe he wants to deflect the public anger away from those who earn the top one per cent and towards those who earn nothing. And he has the public with him; it is seen as a vote winner to be tough on benefits, which is why Labour has been so quiet till now.
I find it galling that while the prime minister and chancellor say it’s only fair to cut benefits to unemployed, under-employed, sick and disabled people, they reduce the top rate of tax for the wealthiest one per cent. If Jesus were here today, I would like to think he’d be telling stories about a Bullingdon club duo who take from the poor and blame them, whilst giving the proceeds to the rich.
Jesus tended to stand with those who were stigmatised and outcasts. His parables were often an attack on the authorities of the day, and he wasn’t gentle with the top one per cent of earners. One of my favourite stories is the vivid depiction of the rich man who Jesus sends to the fires of Hades in the parable of Lazarus. The parable says nothing of the rich man’s lack of faith, just that he “received his good things, while Lazarus received bad things” (Luke 16:19-31). Maybe Osborne could explain to Jesus how important the wealth creators are.
I think it’s time to hear the real stories of people on benefits and think about how we stand with them as Jesus would have. Housing Justice is a National Christian Charity trying to do just that. They have created a website to allow people on benefits tell their story. It encourages visitors to the site to take action by sending a letter to their MP, opposing the bedroom tax and the stigmatisation of welfare.
One contributor to the project said: “I received a letter a few days back notifying me that as of April, I would be responsible for paying a portion of my council tax bill. Letters like these make me panic; I broke down in tears and grabbed a pen and paper to review my outgoings and incomings once again to see if any corners could be cut. I finally accepted that my food bill for my daughter and I would have to be reduced to £40 a fortnight in order to make these payments. I don’t know how I will cope. We struggle as it is. I’ve started selling off some unnecessary items of furniture and clothes on eBay to try and make a bit of cash to put aside for this. But sometimes as a woman, there’s only one thing left to sell if you get my drift…the thought has crossed my mind.”
For more information visit www.tellmystory.org.uk to hear the real voices of those who need welfare.