Yesterday's report from the Evangelical Alliance discussing evangelical Christians' views of poverty and how it should be tackled revealed what most of us know to be the case: those at the bottom of the income ladder have felt the adverse effects of this climate of austerity more than those at the top. For any Christian who pays attention to their Bible, poverty is never someone else's problem and that is also why it is of little surprise that 97 per cent of those responding to the survey believed that that we should actively work for justice for the poor. Krish Kandiah, president of London School of Theology, wrote on Christian Today yesterday that he found it "staggering that we ended up with the government we did if these views are so widely held by evangelicalism."
The thing is though that politics is a messy and complicated business. None of the main political parties in the run-up to last month's election were promising a set of economic policies that deliberately aimed to significantly improve the incomes of the poorest in our society over and above the rest of the population. Does this indicate that our politicians are displaying a callous lack of compassion, or that given the state of our country's finances there just aren't the options available that are going to immediately lift vast numbers of people above the poverty line? When state spending is reduced in order to attempt to balance the books and provide long-term stability, even if you increase taxes for the better off, those who rely on some form of income support to get by are inevitably going to still find themselves being squeezed.
Having said this, many people are rightly concerned about the proposed £12 billion of further savings from the welfare budget that the current Conservative government has said it will implement. The chances that many more people will find themselves needing help as they fall through the safety net are high. And in many cases, if the churches aren't there to catch them, no one else will.
Churches have been providing a vital lifeline for many people through a whole raft of social action projects over the last few years and these will only become more important in the near future. But alongside practical action, the Bible clearly tells us to speak up for the poor too. If the Church is to fully take on this crucial role then we need to be holding our politicians to account when we see those in poverty struggling to make ends meet or facing insurmountable hardships at the hands of a system over which they have no control.
Kandiah's piece gives five important ways that we as Christians can live out our beliefs and care for the poor, so to compliment this, here are five poverty-related issues that I believe Christians should be publicly raising and challenging our government to address:
1. Poverty is more than lack of money
Current government definitions of poverty are addressed purely in terms of income. This is an arbitrary and simplistic approach that fails to acknowledge the different dimensions tied up in the term. As well as material poverty there is also relational, aspirational and spiritual poverty. Those who are working at foodbanks see these facets at play week after week. Political attitudes towards issues including family breakdown, personal debt, addiction and the value of religious faith need to change if we want to see real progress in releasing lives from the grip of poverty.
2. Disabled people need better protection
Disabled people are the most vulnerable in society as for many welfare is the only form of income they can hope to access. Disabled people have been affected by cuts nine times more than the average person, and severely disabled people 19 times more. When Christian campaigner Tanya Marlow wrote an article for my blog outlining the extent to which disabled people have been affected, within the first few hours thousands of people had read and shared it – and rightly so. Their plight must not be ignored.
3. Strong families are a foundation of stability
The most successful poverty-fighting institution of all is the family. Marriage has always been at the heart of Christian relationships and we need to continue to encourage our government to support and promote its value through their policies. Christian Guy, head of the influential think tank the Centre for Social Justice, writes this:
"Family instability is rife in the poorest neighbourhoods and we need to work harder to change that. Adults and children are most likely to thrive in two parent families. They're more stable, more prosperous and better protected against the inevitable shocks of life.
"Many in politics say family breakdown is inevitable but the experts tell us it is not. Its trauma holds children back and it creates poverty. We have to become less embarrassed about this. It is perfectly possible to support remarkable lone parents with all we can and work to reduce the break-up in our society which hits the poorest the hardest... And yes, it means being less shy about the greater stability marriage creates."
4. Benefit delays must be urgently addressed
Between April 2014 and March 2015 Trussell Trust foodbanks served 1,084,604 people of which 29 per cent visited simply because their benefit payments had been delayed. If the payment system was working more effectively then each year hundreds of thousands of recipients would no longer find themselves short of food as they wait to recieve the money that they are entitled to. It is essentially a straightforward solution that churches should be pressing the government to address immediately.
5. Faith groups have earned the right to be heard
Two weeks ago a major survey conducted by Cinnamon Network estimated that social action projects provided by churches are worth in excess of £3 billion and reach 48 million people in this country. No other group comes close to working with so many people within local communities and churches have an unrivalled knowledge of the problems and issues individuals and families are experiencing in their areas. Any government that is serious about dealing with poverty needs to be listening to the practitioners who are actually on the ground serving those in need.
In their election manifesto the Conservatives thanked churches for the work they do for others. This acknowledgement needs to be turned into engagement. Church leaders might be seen as critical of the government at times, but at the heart of this is the fact that they care rather than any desire to score political points. Increased government recognition and encouragement for churches, along with an acceptance of the religious faith that drives it, will allow churches to be more effective in what they do and bring blessings, not just to the poor, but to the entire nation.
Gillan Scott regularly writes about the relationship between Christianity and society. He is deputy editor at archbishopcranmer.com and founder of the God and Politics in the UK blog godandpoliticsuk.org. You can follow him on Twitter @gillan_scott