The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights recently undertook a 12-day tour of some of the poorest areas of the UK as part of an investigation into poverty in Britain. Professor Philip Alston is one of the legal global experts in the field of economic and social rights.
He begins his preliminary findings by pointing out a glaring contradiction at the heart of our nation. We are a very wealthy country, but a fifth of our citizens, including a third of our children, live in poverty. We have become used to this fact, and it barely makes the news –but to this outsider, making a rational assessment, it seemed extraordinary.
"Open your eyes – there is very real poverty out there."
UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston says there are people in the UK "living in destitution" and that "government people haven't been out in the field to see what the real circumstances are." pic.twitter.com/wb7oPhXG93
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) November 16, 2018
UK poverty is real and deserves attention
The Rapporteur makes clear that this poverty is causing a real and growing distress in communities throughout the country. We know this to be true both from our own churches’ experiences and also from wide swathes of research rolling in from academia, think tanks and charities. It is not a controversial observation.
Each week more and more evidence piles up. Just last week Trussell Trust’s mid-year statistics showed a 13% rise in foodbank use. On the day that Philip Alston delivered his findings, Gateshead Council published a study saying that Universal Credit is putting people at risk of serious mental health problems and suicide. We are used to it – most of these reports don’t even make the news. But to someone viewing our affluent country from outside this too is extraordinary.
It is clear that the enormous £47bn of cuts to benefits that support working age adults and children is a major cause of this poverty. It is also clear (but much harder to mathematically demonstrate) that the 49.1% cut in council funding since 2010 has driven many of these problems.
In-work poverty rising faster than the number of workers
While there is rightly a great deal of focus on jobs, rising levels of employment have not come close to counteracting the effects of cuts to benefits. As employment increased, so did child poverty. Moreover in-work poverty is rising faster than employment. It is important to recognise that the maths were always clear: this outcome was both predictable and predicted.
UK poverty is the result of our choices
But perhaps the most obvious yet extraordinary thing that Prof Alston pointed out is that poverty it is the result of our choices as a nation. The economy is a complex machine that we design, maintain and run. It operates in a framework of rules we create, and it distributes resources according to those rules. Our economy deals with a great deal of wealth, but its design ensures that a huge proportion of people – both working and not – do not have enough to live. Worse still people are increasingly are allowed to flounder without help, dignity or support. That too is a choice.
In 2011 the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches neither supported nor opposed cutting government spending. Rather we argued argued that if cuts were to happen we should choose to maintain support for the poorest. If borrowing was to be reduced the most fragile communities should be protected and nurtured. It is clear that if any groups have been nurtured it is not them – and this lack of care has come at an enormous human cost.
Hope and action
Perhaps surprisingly, I find the UN Rapporteur’s statement deeply hopeful. The hope comes from knowing that this is not the result of mysterious forces beyond our control nor is our nation so poor that poverty like today is inevitable. Our choices brought us to here and our choices can bring us back.
As Christians we are called to have a preferential option for the poor – the Bible leaves us no choice. We are also called to be hopeful. I encourage you to read this report and to be appalled. And then to take heart because we can act together to make better choices – ones that put our most precious and fragile communities at the centre, ones which promote dignity and respect.