Before we moved to Northampton, England, my family and me lived and worked in the inner city of Melbourne. The church for which I had ministerial oversight was called the Prahran Community Baptist Centre. The area in which the church was located was a mixture of small urban terraces in narrow streets, high rise public housing and a busy commercial centre, along with some very up-market housing in rather more grand tree-lined avenues.
The church community was small but it served a larger and wider mixed population, from a busy children’s programme to worship, educational and social ministries for young adults, families and elderly citizens. It comprised a balanced population of local persons and those who commuted from elsewhere in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The centre-piece of the church’s work with and for the local community was a provision we called “Mum’s Mini-mart”. The oversight of the programme was with my wife, Vicky, but also well supported by my mother and father and was always attended by our three children.
Mum’s Mini-mart was essentially a market in which was sold all manner of donated personal, household and leisure items. It took place in the church hall once per month. It had practical support from a substantial proportion of the church membership. A valuable adjunct to this programme was the provision of a food parcel service. Persons within the local population were able to obtain a food parcel from the church whenever it was required. Donations of food items and money for this programme came from the church and other donors. A local bakery supplied much appreciated bread and other bakery products after shop closing hours each Saturday.
Persons who used this service were, of course, those who were less fortunate in terms of their household incomes – single parents, the unemployed (including young people), persons on a limited state pension and the chronically sick. Few questions were asked, no genuine request was ever refused, and there were very few instances where moral matters ever impeded the service that was offered. The portions in the food parcels were generous.
It is with great interest, therefore, that I have been following the present conversation in the media about government cuts to welfare benefits and the idea that has been sold to the British public that there is “a whole class of scroungers which prefers to scrounge around on the sofa all day, watching telly, smoking spliffs and drinking lager”. This perspective is strongly criticised by the Anglican priest Giles Fraser who, in a weekend newspaper article, argues against those, in government and the media, who hold the view that such a “lazy and dissolute brigade have been taking the piss out of the rest of us, insulting hard-working families everywhere”. He takes issue, therefore, with those who consider that there is “a moral case to cut welfare benefits in order to re-establish a culture of personal responsibility”. This process implicitly regards people on welfare benefits as being feckless.
In recent days, a counter argument has been launched by a significant group of powerful people in the established churches in the UK – including archbishops and bishops, other church leaders and those who face parish life working at the coal face of British society. Such persons are rather uniquely positioned to see and understand the effect that financial cuts are having on the ground – perhaps better placed than those wealthy persons who sit on both sides of the Westminster divide, or the group of, predominantly, Old Etonians who plan economic policy for the Conservative Party.
What is making these church leaders so bloody angry is that the reality of what is happening with the social fabric of British society is not being acknowledged by the politicians, especially those responsible for government and the care of the British people – surely a first concern of peoples’ government. So too, the anger felt by the clergy is shared with a wider section of the nation’s population but not, evidently, by the right-wing press that maintains the defence of extreme austerity measures by its continuing attack on those who are, supposedly, using and abusing the system. The “scrounger” tag, it seems, is a way of blaming the poor for being poor!
It is significant that, in all the time that Mum’s Mini-mart was in operation in the Prahran Community Baptist Centre, no one who ever used this service, either to buy an item or obtain a food parcel, was ever regarded as a “scrounger”. Indeed, from memory over the dozen or so years of the programme’s operation, that term was never heard from either the church community or from the general community. It was recognised that, even within a generally affluent society as the one that existed then (and now) in Melbourne, there are those who are victims, those who, for a variety of reasons, cannot attain or maintain the levels of affluence enjoyed by the majority.
Seemingly in response to what the church leaders have stated, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has said that his is a moral vision too. However, it has never been, and could not be, the task of the church “to poison the wells of public sympathy” by smearing vulnerable people as cheats, ostracising the economically disenfranchised, and further suppressing the voice of the politically powerless. Yet that seems to be acceptable to Cameron and his government – as recent government statements, legislation and policies would suggest.
Referring recently to flood relief in the south-west and east of England, the Prime Minister said that “money was no object”; it seems that it is an object when it comes to hunger relief. There were many who volunteered for the task of easing the effects of flooding in the rich West Country and Thames Valley; yet there is derision for those who set-up, manage and assist with food banks in the less affluent areas of the UK. The government talks of weaning people off welfare dependency; but, when it comes to, amongst others, bankers, professional footballers and the owners of the gambling and money-lending industries being weaned off their excesses, the silence of government is deafening.
The argument is always that the “market” must be protected. So much for Cameron’s idea of the “big society”! This once-noble idea simply comes down to the present reality that it is the “big” people in society that must be aided and protected; the “small” people, the majority, can be lied to, bullied, impoverished and overwhelmed. Once again, we are seeing the “them” and “us” society developing in front of our faces. It would appear that the ideological direction and policy strategy and implementation programme of this present government is actually encouraging a dependent society, a society for which it shows little genuine sympathy – its real priorities are with the “deserving affluent”.
I have a nephew who works with the London Fire Brigade. I doubt that anyone would have the audacity to say to him that people light fires in order to make fire brigade workers dependent? When was the last time that giving a tax cut to wealthy people, or increasing the cost to the nation of having a monarchy, was regarded as making them (the rich or the royals) dependent, as if the minute you help someone you run the risk of making them dependent? When was the last time we heard any form of real criticism for those who strive to make themselves rich, even absurdly so?
A Jewish moral teacher once said that “the poor will always be with you”. He stated this not because he was lamenting the fact or because he believed that the poor were lazy or parasitical, but because he knew that there would always be the equivalent of people who would not have paid employment, or who would be working for low wages, in part-time or zero-hours employment, subsiding the rich with inflated home rentals and governments that will stigmatize the poor and the powerless in order to justify their ideological prejudices or maintain their privileges and those of their supporters.
It was always understood by those who volunteered their services to help with Mum’s Mini-mart, that the service was designed only to give emergency help. It could never cope with a crisis outside of its immediate community. The preservation of local dignity was its focus. Preserving the dignity of a city or a nation is the task of local and national government. This is as true for a nation’s poor as it is for any other section of society. The Guardian journalist, Jonathan Freedland, recently wrote, “there is less shame in claiming a nationally mandated benefit than in going to a church hall, being handed a food parcel and having to nod and say thank you.” Mum’s Mini-mart understood that, even as it nodded back in empathy and practical support.
The welfare state was inaugurated not to encourage dependency by the British people, but to ensure that the nation’s people were cared for in times of need or emergency. Whether brought about by government policy or otherwise, surely we live in such times.