21 September 2017

CONSIDER …

CONSIDER… THE GOVERNMENT PROPOSAL TO CAP SOCIAL BENEFITS.

From the outset I must raise my hands and admit that I am not in any way a knowledgeable economist, I deal much better with words than with numbers. Due to my discomfort with all things numerical I have tended to shy away from such topics as recession, the global economic downturn, and austerity measures. However, when the coalition government made their announcement in January 2012 that they were planning to cap social benefits at £26,000 the strength of public opinion really made me sit up and take notice. The response from members of our society was, and continues to be, powerful and polarised. On one hand there are those who decry the idea of capping the benefits, claiming that people will be made homeless and that children will suffer if this ceiling is introduced. In contrast, others have been shocked to learn just how much people can ‘earn’ by sitting back and receiving benefits, and this has caused hardworking individuals to speak out against a system they feel is deeply unfair.

Now, as I have already stated, I am no mathematical whizz, but I must say that £26,000 sounds like a lot of money to me. It is certainly equivalent to an annual salary for a professional job, and was about what I was earning when I was teaching full time. So, when I heard that the benefits were being capped at this amount I was agog, particularly as I began to realise that the term ‘capped’ intimated that many people were receiving in excess of this amount year on year. My flesh driven response was to feel angry that those who were not working were doing financially better than I was. However, I wanted to step back from my gut response and really ponder the issue from a Christian and Biblical perspective. So many voices are sharing their opinions on this particular issue, but I think it is most important at this time that we, as followers of Christ, really think about what He would say about this government reform. I invite you to consider this with me…

One of the most talked about TV programmes airing at present is ‘The Estate’. It is a fly-on-the-wall documentary based in Ballysally Estate in the heart of Coleraine, Co. Londonderry. Throughout each episode the viewer is brought into the homes of a number of individuals and families to witness how they are choosing to live their lives. In an early episode, mother of five, Louise makes the comment “Sure, it wouldn’t pay you to work.” I believe that this is at the heart of the problem with our welfare system, because Louise is quite right – with the present system (without the cap) it certainly is more lucrative for people to remain unemployed than to do an honest day’s work and be paid for a job well done. Our current system breeds idleness and laziness into people simply because, rationally, if people receive more money, tax free, straight into their personal accounts each month than they would in a pay packet, why would they work?

As Christians, this trap of idleness should be of grave concern to us and the Bible offers clear warning about this vice. In Proverbs 6:6-11 the dangers of laziness, or being a “sluggard” as is the term here, are clearly explained. “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest— and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man.” The warning is clear. If you choose a life of idleness you will be poverty-stricken. Now, this may not be evident from a financial point of view, (with or without the cap), but it certainly is descriptive of a person’s experience of life if they choose idleness. Proverbs tells us that the “poverty” comes on “like a thief”, this means it will insidiously steal so much worth from a person, namely their pride in tasks completed well, their sense of purpose for each day and their self worth as they see the impact their toiling has on those around them. Proverbs goes on to warn that “scarcity” will come upon an idle person “like an armed man.” This is a frightening image – it evokes a feeling of attack and has clear undercurrents of fear. The empty hopelessness caused by idleness can be a lonely and fear-filled place – did you ever realise that idleness could strip people of so much?

So, I realise that rather than feeling annoyed about the pounds and the pence of the welfare reform, my concern, and the concern I believe God has for His people, is based much more on what this uncapped and widereaching system is doing to people. They may be avoiding poverty in a financial sense, but they are paying elsewhere. We must do our best to guard against our neighbours, and perhaps even ourselves, falling into the trap of idleness born from a spirit of entitlement. The poverty is much deeper and damaging than having to do without a mobile phone or Sky TV. Speaking about the Welfare system in his interview to the BBC in January, Lord Carey succinctly stated that it has become, “an industry of gargantuan proportions which is fueling those very vices and impoverishing us all.” I hope that it is clear that, while the debate about the cap rages on, our prayer should be that each individual avoids the thieving grip of poverty and experiences life and life to the full as offered by Jesus.

Christine Cordner