The truth can lie between the facts
As somewhat of an idealist, I do tend to find that life can be disappointing, that people don’t turn out as noble or selfless as I expect. This is hardly surprising when I consider my own thoughts and actions, which certainly do not seem to stem from idealistic roots.
I watched the documentary Britain’s Hidden Hungry, which looks at food poverty in Coventry and the work of food banks. There are some great characters in the programme, some of whom I wanted to cheer, yet there were others I wanted to boo, and a number who I cringed at. This programme showed a number of different stories and attitudes, and as I talk to colleagues and friends, I hear more stories; some about noble characters, some about rogue. It raises the question about the correct levers to pull to help people in need whilst avoiding the creation of a ‘benefits culture’.
With the ongoing depressing news about the state of the UK and global economy — the harsh changes to benefits and cuts hitting the voluntary sector particular hard — the reality of poverty is never far from our TV screens. Many of us who work in the voluntary sector face this on a daily basis, but there also lies a new experience of how much the issue of poverty pervades our friends and families. Two families I know have been made homeless in the past month. People in similar jobs to mine, where they are reasonably well off, have come to the end of their contract and received their redundancy pay, but not long after, they have had to receive food parcels from food banks.
The Victorian fear of debt and poverty is upon us again. Dickens’ novels have a growing poignancy. For those of us in a vibrant faith community, there is some respite in the knowledge that we have access to a larger network of support than many others, but this does not completely dispel the sense of unease we feel. When David Lloyd George MP and Winston Churchill MP introduced the National Insurance Act of 1911, it went some way to creating a safety net for old age and unemployment. Some historians would argue that this safety net released capital into the economy, as people felt more able to spend where they would have previously ‘saved for a rainy day’. In other words, this National Insurance went towards creating ‘confidence’. It is the creation of confidence, or at least assurance, which is needed in the world economy.
(Here’s a wild thought: many people in China save up to 40% of their income should they need to pay for healthcare. If the Chinese government were to introduce some level of state-funded healthcare, 1.3bn Chinese would suddenly have an increase in spending power that could help bolster the global economy.)
So how do you and your organisation view those who are in receipt of significant state benefits? (That is, not the majority who receive universal benefits such as Child Benefit and Winter Fuel Payments) I have been taken aback by number of opinions from relatively liberal friend and colleagues, whose first-hand experience has given them some rather cynical views of claimants. One person told me of a family member who is a very talented craftsman, but his attitude is that is the government would pay him to not work, why should he bother working? He gets round the system at the moment by applying for board-level corporate roles, of which he has no experience or qualifications, so that he can still tell the Jobcentre that he has applied for work. Another story I heard was of a client whose specification was so narrow in terms of role and travel time, there were was very little opportunity.
So where is the truth? The anecdotal evidence which we hear every day and the evidence from TV documentaries cannot be denied. But what is the truth about welfare, benefit culture and poverty?
Is there hard-core benefit claimants who are ‘working the system?’, or are they just being played by the system? Are people barely surviving their fall arrested by the safety net, or are they just resting on the net? These questions are being addressed not explicitly but sub-consciously by faith and community organisations throughout the U.K., as the answer to these questions dictates how we approach our work in the community and the type of project we will participate in.
We are very keen to hear your thoughts to these questions and to hear about the solutions and responses you have discovered. Please email us at [email protected]