Scotland's National Catholic magazine

Is it time for a Christian crusade against poverty?

With prices rising and millions struggling to make ends meet, Ewan Gurr looks at how Christians can really make a difference.

Let me tell you about David and Suzanne. Having worked as a successful child psychiatric nurse in Glasgow, David was head-hunted for a lucrative job running a centre for vulnerable addressed.

His wife, Suzanne, secured a post as a support worker and they moved together with their young son.

They had a beautiful three-bedroomed home in Buckinghamshire, located a reasonable commuting distance from their jobs in central London and were the perfect poster couple for a sustained middle-class family. Things could not have been better.

Tragically, David fell ill because of pressure at work and Suzanne lost her job because of inescapable economic circumstances at the time. With David, on the advice of his GP, unable to return to work because of prolonged illness and Suzanne unemployed, they could not maintain mortgage repayments and lost their home.

They returned to Scotland but were forced to forego meals and limit their intake of calories.

This was brutally wedged between two huge events completely outwith the control of David and Suzanne that still had devastating consequences for them as a family.

The first event was what Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, defined during that period as ‘The Great Recession’ in 2008 and 2009.

The second event was when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took office in 2010 and implemented various austerity measures soon thereafter.

The great recession

How precisely are these events linked to them you may ask?

The first relates to Suzanne’s job in London, which she lost because of multiple organisational redundancies as the recession started to bite in 2009.

The second follows their return to Scotland and two years into the coalition government’s term when multiple welfare reforms were introduced.

One pillar of these reforms was the increasing use of benefit sanctions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for things as trivial as turning up two minutes late to a Job Centre appointment.

David was one of those sanctioned when the overall number peaked at over one million in 2013. The reason being he was sent two letters by the DWP, one telling him to come to an appointment on a Monday and another on Thursday.

He called to query which he should attend and was told Thursday. When he failed to appear on the Monday, he was sanctioned. Arbitrary sanctions, which resulted in reduced or zero benefits, like these were commonplace in the aftermath of these reforms.

The crises that beset David and Suzanne sound less like events from a housing scheme in Scotland all of us either live in or relatively close to and more like the kind you might encounter in a third-world environment.

The reason I cite their story is because they were just one among many families who became casualties of the last recession and calamitous cost-of-living consequences.

However, what is even more jarring is all available analyses suggest the cost-of-living challenges we will face this year are worse than those after the great recession.

A looming crisis

Following our UK Chancellor’s Spring Budget in March, the Office for Budget Responsibility said we faced the biggest decrease in living standards since records began in 1956. All of us have seen energy, fuel, internet and mobile costs increase.

In my city of Dundee, council tax has risen by 2.9% and those of us who use public transport have just seen another price increase. Furthermore, a 3.1% increase in social security benefits last week was quashed when inflation rose to more than 7%, which was the greatest fall in the value of unemployment benefits since 1972.

Spring is the most hopeful season of nature’s calendar at the epicentre of which is April – a month traditionally associated with rebirth, renewal and resurrection.

Last month, we celebrated Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, which collectively symbolise the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While the resurrection story says those who are last come first, the inverse is true of this crisis.

These blows hit the last among us first and those least among us the most. So how should we, as ambassadors of Christ, respond?

Alongside Christians of all denominations, I spent my twenties and thirties pioneering projects across all of Scotland, with others who share the same passion for the Old and New Testament scriptures which commit our service to the poor, needy, widows, orphans and victims of injustice.

Society has undergone many perilous moments yet the mainstay during hard times, particularly in deprived and impoverished communities, has been the Church and if ever there was an appropriate moment for an ecumenical crusade against poverty, it is now.

A Christian response

The Bible is a roadmap to crisis intervention and the Church a hub for poverty prevention. In terms of crisis intervention, the Prophet Isaiah implores us to feed poor folk, house homeless people and clothe the naked.

In terms of poverty prevention, the Church has historically gone even further by being the principal pioneers of universal education, healthcare and welfare.

Before Butler, Bevan and Beveridge, we were there and when these social levers inevitably fail, we will still be there, again highlighting the roadmap to rebirth, renewal and resurrection.

Poverty is preventable and anyone who appeals to Jesus’ words concerning the presence of the poor among us as evidence of its inevitability misunderstands what he was saying and to whom these words were addressed.

First, their utterance was, in fact, a reference to Deuteronomy 15 where the sentence ends with a charge to be open-handed. Second, Deuteronomy 15 opens with a statement that there ‘need be no poor people among you…’

And, finally, they were addressed as a direct rebuke to Judas Iscariot who was known for stealing from the treasury.

Jesus never encouraged defeatism towards poverty. In Acts 4 there is mentioned a group who understood and acted upon what he actually said and were the first recorded group among whom poverty was eliminated – the Church of Jerusalem.

We are told they were united in heart and mind, claimed no possessions as their own and shared everything according to need.

So radical was the open-handed nature of redistribution they exhibited that this chapter invokes the words used in Deuteronomy 15 to say ‘there were no needy persons among them.’ Incredible.

Therefore, like the Good Samaritan, we believers are called to be available to our near ones. In these times, we will need first to identify the ailment because we cannot administer an antidote to address an ailment we have not understood.

Imagine if our National Health Service did that?

Having identified the ailment, we may need to pivot between the short-term crisis intervention approach of providing food, shelter or clothing to, on other occasions, a long-term poverty prevention approach of teaching, bandaging and supporting.

The truth is, there are Davids and Suzannes all around us if we have eyes to see, ears to hear as well as a willingness to engage our hands and hearts by being the answers to their prayers.

Ewan lives in Dundee with his wife Leah and three young children. In 2005, he founded and led Dundee Foodbank for seven years before joining The Trussell Trust for a further seven years to set up projects in 28 out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, which distributed 221,554 food parcels last year. For the first three years from its inception in 2018, he served as a non-executive director of Social Security Scotland, and is now pioneering his third charity. He writes a weekly column for the Dundee Evening Telegraph.

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