Writing an article in ‘support’ of benefit cuts is something of a poisoned chalice. No one relishes the prospect of taking money, resources or services away from people who have come to depend on them. In the first instance it seems at odds with the actions of Jesus, who did all he could for the economically disadvantaged.
But in my opinion, the welfare system has long ceased to be an expression of Christ-centred compassion.
Let’s start with that national picture. In short, the UK is skint. In order to fulfil our spending plans last year, we had to borrow almost £120 billion. Our national debt is rocketing, and we spend almost as much on interest repayments as we do on schools. An economist can see the problem with this, but so can anyone with a credit card or an overdraft.
Perhaps (some would say) we should spend more to encourage economic growth. It’s a nice idea, but it wouldn’t solve the problem. A big chunk of the budget black hole is ‘structural’, which means that even after a sustained period of economic growth – which we do need – Britain would still regularly find itself living beyond its means unless we change spending policies. Spending on welfare (at £215 billion a year) is by far the biggest slice of the pie. Sheer mathematics means this can’t continue.
However, the real travesty is the effect the welfare system has on many of the people it’s supposed to help. Not only does the current framework hinder people from going back to work; in some cases it actively prevents it.
Despite my support for the policy, much of the surrounding media language makes my blood boil. The unemployed have been described as ‘lazy’, ‘skivers’ and ‘freeloaders’. I disassociate myself entirely from this rhetoric. Against this backdrop it is no surprise that four leaders of Christian denominations have spoken against government plans.
The leaders of Britain’s denominations who spoke out at the weekend are people of grace and compassion, but I fear they are disconnected from what is happening on the ground. Perhaps it’s because of my current involvement in church leadership and youth work that I have a different perspective.
In the last year alone, I have met heroic parents who would genuinely have less cash in their pocket if they went out to work. I have met bright, inspiring young people who, though unemployed, chose to leave their last job because it wasn’t ‘interesting’ enough.
These people are not villains. They are victims. Victims of a system that has expanded over decades and trapped people in the process. For some ,they are literally trapped by the finances of the situation. In the case of others, they are trapped by a myth (propelled and ultimately funded by the affluent classes) that work is more about personal satisfaction and enlightenment than it is about independence, self-provision and contributing to society. Whether or not you agree with them, the benefit changes, including the universal credit that ensures work always pays, are going to cause a huge change.
So what would Jesus do in this situation? In my view, it’s a question we should answer cautiously. The Jesus of the gospels had no knowledge of a contemporary welfare state. We need to resist the temptation to twist his teachings to suit our arguments.
With this caution in mind, I am drawn to Jesus’s words in John: “I have come that they may have life and life in all its fullness.” Someone trapped on benefits because it makes sense not to work is not living life to the max.
A young person, who has not entered the world of work, is less likely to develop the responsibilities and resilience that enables them to handle adult life.
Having a job is not, in and of itself, the fulfilment of abundant life.
But if someone who can work is being encouraged not to, or even prevented from doing so, they are being forced into a life of dependence. This is not life in all its fullness.
The implementation of the government’s welfare cuts will not be easy, and they are not being made in isolation. They are part of a wider set of policies designed to help the most disadvantaged, including taking low earners out of income tax, enabling the private sector to create more job opportunities and improving standards of education.
However, anyone who thinks that reform of welfare will not cause pain for people already struggling is kidding themselves. But at the end of the day, effectively barring multitudes of people from the work place is a form of oppression that should not be allowed to continue.
To do so would not be responsible, it would not be just and in my opinion, it would not be Christ-like.