This was first delivered as a speech at the 9th Birmingham Diocesan Justice & Peace Assembly, 2 November 2013

There was a lot of murmuring and some polite heckling during one of the keynote addresses at this year’s NJPN conference in Swanwick. Eventually the chair, John Battle, had to intervene to get the session back on track. The cause of the disturbance was the disparaging of the concept of welfare and the welfare state by the (American) speaker, Megan McKenna. Welfare has long been a bad word in the USA, carrying with it connotations of dependency (another bad word), cheating and scroungers. The audience sought to defend the British welfare state as a good and Christian thing – something they were proud of and wanted to see promoted rather than decried.

In recent years welfare has also become a bogey word amongst politicians and commentators on the right hand side of the political spectrum in this country. It’s not just Iain Duncan Smith and Frank Field who speak of the failure of the welfare state, of its collapse into dependency and excessive cost to the public purse. I have heard public theologians like Luke Bretherton mount a strong critique of the welfare state from a Christian perspective. And there are, of course, left of centre critiques of the welfare state which start from the inadequacy of payments and the hopelessness of the bureaucracy and poverty in which benefit claimants find themselves. (For example see any of the many letters in the press by Paul Nicholson of Tax Payers Against Poverty.) Yet the justice and peace activists at Swanwick clearly felt that their faith strongly supported the idea of welfare.

So began a chain of reflection for me which has led to this talk today.  I’m going to speak very briefly about the history of welfare provision and the definition of some of the terms we bandy about. Then I’ll look at some theological thinking about welfare – from Catholic Social Teaching, Anglican Social Thought and from Scripture. And finally, in the best practical theology manner, I’ll use some of those ideas to critique some aspects of life today: particularly Housing Benefit caps, benefit sanctions, the Household Benefit Cap, and the unaffordability of housing; and so, taking the whole talk together, we’ll end up with a theological reflection on ‘welfare’ – and plenty for you all to reflect upon and discuss as the day progresses.

A bit of history and some definitions of terms

Societies have always had to find ways to ensure that all their members have adequate food, clothing and shelter. This has been done in different ways at different times but most commonly within families, by landowners, by employers, by church organisations, by charities, by government or a mixed economy or blend of some or all of these. Through the twentieth century the role of government increased as the provision of welfare programmes became more and more centralised and the role of charities and other players decreased. The corollary of this is that the amount of money spent by government on welfare increased (although Britain still spends a smaller proportion of GDP on welfare than many of our EU partners). Nevertheless the amount of money spent means that there are two key aspects to considerations of welfare reform. One is whether the programmes actually achieve the desired ends of ensuring that all members of our society are adequately provided for. The other is whether the government is getting value for money – are we, as the taxpayers, paying more than we need to for the programmes that deliver the desired ends?

I’m going to put on one side for today the very necessary discussion of what ‘adequate provision’ actually looks like, along with discussion about who the members of a society are – you can see that we could easily spend a lot more than the allotted time on this topic.

I’m going to take welfare in a neutral way as being the provision of a minimal level of well being and social support for all citizens.In most developed countries, welfare is largely provided by the government (central and/or local), in addition to charities, informal social groups, religious groups, and families. The welfare state expands on this idea to include services such as universal healthcare, education and unemployment insurance.

Social security as a concept is enshrined in Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realisation, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organisation and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for their dignityand the free development of their personality. I take this to mean that the State in which a person lives should, so far as its resources and those of other countries allow, help them to live and to develop as a rounded human being.

Social security is also the name for government programmes intended to provide for the welfare of the population by guaranteeing access to sufficient resources for food and shelter, to foster health and well-being for the population at large and especially to provide for the needs of vulnerable groups in society such as children, the elderly, people who are sick, unemployed, or indeed, homeless.

As I suggested earlier, terminology in this area in the United States is somewhat different to that in the rest of the English-speaking world. The general term for a government programme to support the well being of the population in the United States is welfare programme, the general term for all such programmes is simply welfare and in American society, the term welfare  has negative connotations.

The final definition is social insurance, which is a type of social security programme and perhaps has these characteristics:

  • the risks insured against are transferred from the individual to an organisation (which could be governmental) which then has a legal obligation to provide the benefits;
  • so the benefits, eligibility requirements and other aspects of the programme are clearly defined;
  • and there is a contributory element to the funding of the programme;
  • the programme serves a defined population, and participation is either compulsory or it is subsidised heavily enough that most eligible individuals choose to participate.

Some theological thinking

I’m going to begin with Anglican social thought, and with one Anglican in particular, William Temple. Temple is a hero of mine. He was born into a clerical family in 1881 and died as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1944. In 1942, when he was Archbishop of York, he wrote a popular Penguin grounded in Anglican social thought which argued in favour of the sort of welfare state Beveridge recommended in his report, also published in 1942, to defeat the five giants evils  of ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Temple argued that the Church had the role of fulfilling God’s commission by building up Christian men and women who then fulfil their roles by acting as Christians in the world. So Temple’s book, Christianity and the Social Order, set out to provide members of the Church of England with “a systematic statement of principles to aid them in fulfilling their moral responsibilities and functions and exercising their civil rights”.

However, he also felt that the Church should be challenging the existing system on the grounds of injustice and inequality. Temple used the concept of Natural Law to frame the right relationships between human activities (such as business for example) and the people engaged in them. He also drew out the consequences of the principle, still widely, if not universally, held, that the family is the primary social unit of our society. From this flows the imperative that homes should be available for all citizens in which a family can be brought up in benign conditions, and that pay should be sufficient to cover family holidays and leisure time, as well of course as adequate food, heating, clothing and housing. Temple summed it up like this: “The aim of a Christian social order is the fullest possible development of individual personality in the widest and deepest possible fellowship.” A summary that seems to me to be very close to Article 22 of the UN Declaration.

But to go back to Temple’s first point about the mission of the Church, I think that means that we have a role, as lay people and as agencies, by acting as Christian citizens, to re-shape the current system in closer conformity with Christian social order.

Next I’m going to take you on a brief excursion into Scripture. There are two parts of the Old Testament that I want to draw to your attention. The first is the rules of life for the people of God set out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These state very clearly the responsibilities of the community to provide for widows, orphans and strangers. That is, for all the people for whom there was no other source of provision because they fell outside the normal scope of the family group, outside the bounds of the main provider of ‘welfare’ at the time. Then there are the jubilee provisions, designed to ensure that society returns to a fair distribution of fixed assets, that no one is condemned to perpetual indebtedness and enabling fresh starts.

The second is the writings of the prophets, critiquing their society and the rulers of their day, calling people to account and, again, requiring them to provide for the needs of the poor in their midst. In all this there is a bias to the poor, to the outsider, and against exploitation of any kind. So Isaiah tells us that God wants his people to take in the homeless poor, to support their family members and to share their food with the hungry (Is 58:6). Micah instructs us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God (Mi 6:8). And Nehemiah speaks out against the oppression of some members of the community by others and shames them into changing their ways. (Ne 5) So in the Old Testament there are specific injunctions to collectively and individually care for all members of the community as well as a strong critique of exploitation as disobedience of God.

In the New Testament there are clear statements by Jesus in the Gospels which call us to love and care for others but these tend to be framed in an individualistic way which can perhaps be summed up in the statement of the second greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. (Mt 22:39) However there are sayings and reports and reflections on how Christians should live corporately in the other parts of the New Testament. So in Acts 4 we read how the believers pooled their possessions and distributed their common resources so that no one among them was in need. Paul’s vivid imagery of the Christians as the body of Christ in Romans and 1 Corinthians surely also suggests a high degree of commonality and sharing. Perhaps most telling is his criticism of the wealthy Corinthians’ corruption of the Eucharist by not sharing their food and his calls for radical equality of all in Christ. But Paul (in Romans 13) and Peter (1Peter 2:13) also require church members to be model citizens, participating in civic life, obeying legitimate civil authorities and paying taxes, a vein picked up by William Temple, and a key means of living as a witness to the Kingdom of God.

This brings me, finally, to Catholic Social Teaching. I’m not going to rehearse again the key principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, option for the poor and human dignity, with which I hope you are all familiar. Instead I want to focus on the Common Good. Like my starting point this is a theme which I have picked up from a conference. In September there was a conference in Liverpool reflecting on the work and legacy of David Sheppard and Derek Worlock and the golden thread running through it was the concept of the Common Good.  A good number of you will no doubt remember the Common Good document produced by the Catholic bishops of England and Wales before the 1997 general election. (If you haven’t read, or read recently either The Common Good or Christianity and the Social Order, I can’t recommend them highly enough.) The introduction to The Common Good places it in the same tradition as Temple’s book 55 years earlier. Basil Hume writes about the right and duty of the Church to “advocate a social order in which the human dignity of all is fostered, and to protest when it is in any way threatened”. He is clear that human dignity requires that people’s basic needs are met and that policies should be compassionate.

At the conference in September there was some worrying about whether we could arrive at an agreed definition of the common good. I think this falls into the category of things to discuss at another time but for the moment I am taking as my definition a society which is good and fair for all its members – where everyone can see that their benefit is valued  equally with everyone else’s.

Echoing Temple’s concern with the family as the basic unit of society, The Common Good argues that a key test for legislation is to consider its impact on family life and especially on children. It also picks up the human rights aspect of social security: “individuals have a claim on each other and on society for certain basic minimum conditions without which the value of human life is diminished or even negated”. (36) It is interesting that throughout there is as much emphasis on the duties we have to each other as on the duties of government. So in paragraph 70: “ every individual, no matter how high or low, has a duty to share in promoting the welfare of the community, as well as a right to benefit from that welfare”.

A theological critique

So how can we use these ideas and concepts to critique policies being implemented in our society today? Arguably (and I have said this in other places) the deficit reducing cuts that the coalition government have made, together with the introduction of Universal Credit, mean that the welfare state no longer exists in Britain , or at the very least is on its way to extinction. Will Hutton wrote in The State We’re In that “the vitality of the welfare state… is a symbol of our capacity to act together morally, to share and to recognise the one totality of rights and obligations that underpin all human association. It is an expression of social citizenship”. And yet we’re letting it slip away and be dissolved without debate or defence under the guise of cutting the deficit and reducing the shibboleth of welfare dependency.

So is the dissolution of the welfare state a problem for us as Christians? Were the NJPN activists right to be outraged at the negative connotations that have become attached to ‘welfare’?

Focusing particularly on the changes to homelessness and housing benefit regulations Pope John Paul II and the bishops of England and Wales have been there before us. In 1987 and again in 1997 the Holy Father addressed the issue of homelessness and called for action from governments. In 1985 the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales issued a statement recognising the scandal of homelessness and the responsibility of the government to ensure that the housing system works effectively. I cannot see that anything has changed to relieve the government of this responsibility which they exercise on behalf of us all. The unaffordability of housing, whether for rent or for purchase, for the majority of the households in our country remains a significant failure of the government to act for the common good.  It can be argued (and was by CHAS in a resource produced in 1985) that “the moral imperative to provide adequate housing is surely second only to that of providing clothing, food and drink”.

However, the benefit sanctions and caps such as the cap on Housing Benefit and the Household Benefit cap mean that clothing, food and drink are also no longer normally provided for some of the poorest in our society. Families with three or more children do not receive sufficient income, after the Household cap, to cover the costs of food, fuel, clothing, travel and rent without additional discretionary payments from their local authorities.  This flies in the face of Temple’s call for the family to be taken seriously as the basic social unit. It fails the compassion test suggested by Basil Hume. And it definitely does not live up to the corporate responsibility put forward by Scripture in both Old and New Testaments.

The great wisdom of our faith and our tradition is that we are, as individuals and as a society, accountable to God for our actions. We have personal responsibility for living well and for upholding the common good. The principle of solidarity means that the hurt and distress and deprivation suffered by our brothers and sisters who are having their benefits sanctioned and capped, who find themselves unable to afford housing or sufficient food or adequate clothing, affects us as well. This is not to deny that there are people who abuse the system, who perpetrate fraud and who do not take responsibility for themselves and their families. But we must balance against this the frail and fragile who are not able to hold down a job, the carers who through their efforts are saving the health service money, the mothers looking after their pre-school children. And we need to keep in mind the many people in low paid jobs, the disabled, the sick and the pensioners who can only make ends meet because of the benefit system.

Somehow we have lost sight of the recognition “that a range of tax-funded services have to be provided for the basic living and social standards of a civilised society” (Taxation for the Common Good 2004).  This is not a political judgement but a moral one. Our role as Christians is to shoulder the responsibility placed upon us by living up to the tradition of our church and the practice of our faith. Our role is to articulate the meaning of the common good, and of our common responsibilities, and to ask our politicians how they propose to work with us to deliver a civilised society where all can play their part.

© Alison Gelder

Alison Gelder supports Together for the Common Good as Director of Operations in a part time role. Formerly, she was Chief Executive of Housing Justice (formerly the Catholic Housing Aid Society) after a career in senior management at British Telecom. She has studied theology and research business ethics and worked as a social researcher specialising in church-based social action.