The article by Philip Booth “Are benefits OK biblically?” appeared in IDEA, the magazine of the Evangelical Alliance, July/Aug 2014. Please read this commentary in conjunction with our previous statement on ‘End Hunger Fast.’
Dr David Golding CBE
Philip Booth has a right to advocate the Darwinian economics so beloved by our co-religionists in the U.S., but he betrays gross insensitivity in stigmatising the unemployed by insinuating that their condition is in “large part” due to the existence of a safety net of benefits. [“Disincentives to work within the welfare state are a large part of the problem” of unemployment.] As my MP, Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) put it, “The Chancellor of the Exchequer might…reflect on the accuracy of his attacks on the workshy and benefit scroungers. The fact that 660 people applied for just 9 jobs [probably paying less than a ‘living wage’] at a local Tesco demonstrates how most people out of work are keen to get back in”.
Mr Booth states that “Modern governments spend nearly 50% of national income” – this is false: the UK figure was about 40% during the 2000s, until it rose to 43% in 2008/09 with the onset of the recession (Institute of Fiscal Studies; Reference 1). He says, “The vast majority [sic]… is on welfare” – this is a gross exaggeration: social security actually rose to 27.5% of government spending in 2008/09 (IFS; Ref. 1). Likewise, “The state should not be taxing and spending 50% of families’ incomes” – but it isn’t doing so: middle income households paid 33% of their incomes in taxes of every variety in 2011/12 (Office for National Statistics; Ref. 2), and even the top quintile only paid 35.5%. [The poorest paid 36.6%!]
And on what does the state spend its welfare budget? What Mr Booth conveniently failed to mention was that by far the biggest component goes on pensions, to which most recipients have contributed. The euphemistically re-named ‘Jobseekers Allowance’ cost less than £5 billion in 2011/12, compared with a bill of £74 billion for pensions – and £107 billion for health (Ref. 3).
Given the glaring factual errors in Mr Booth’s article, can we take seriously his claim that few children in poverty have “married parents where one is in work full-time”? According to the recent findings of the Poverty & Social Exclusion project, led by Professor David Gordon at Bristol University, “The available high quality scientific evidence shows that poverty and deprivation have increased.” Furthermore, they “dispel the idea that poverty in general and child poverty in particular is a consequence of a lack of paid work. The majority of [poor] children live in small families with one or two siblings, with both parents, have at least one parent who is employed, and are white” (Ref. 4).
The way the most vulnerable in our society (whether unemployed, disabled or low paid) are being stigmatised by the ‘strivers/shirkers’ rhetoric is a national disgrace – exceptional, egregious examples of abuse notwithstanding. What the late Cardinal Basil Hume said about Third World debt applies with equal force to our current financial crisis: “Those who could be blamed the least, the poorest people… have suffered the most”.
Robert Walker, professor of social policy at Oxford University, says, “People in poverty feel humiliation on a daily basis… they are invariably ashamed that they cannot live up to society’s expectations… they desperately want to avoid the bullying at school that occurs because their children come from a ‘poor’ family…. For one man, it was an assault on his masculinity: ‘I am meant to be a man… to take care of the missus and my kids. And I don’t and I hate feel like I do with myself because of it’. Others explained, ‘They look at you like you’re crap’; ‘It makes you feel like you’re scrounging’; ‘It makes you want to give up’.”
Professor Walker continues: “So why do politicians continue to abuse the weakest members of our society? Possibly because, in a society characterised by gross inequalities, it allows the privileged to vote in accordance with their own self-interests, free of guilt. After all, it is good to be told that poverty is not your responsibility, but the result of people making the wrong choices and not working hard” (Ref. 5).
Mr Booth’s article was meant to be a response to the question, “Are benefits OK biblically?”, but he chose to restrict himself to that small part of the relevant biblical evidence which relates to voluntary benevolence. In contrast, the Westminster Dictionary of the Bible (Ref. 6), having observed that “The unequal distribution of the blessings of life is not ideal in the sight of God”, then proceeds to describe the extensive system of ‘benefits’ for the poor provided by the law of Moses. They included their right to forage on the land of others (Deut 23, 24-25), glean (Deut 24, 19-21), freely gather crops produced during the sabbatical years (Lev 25, 4-7), and benefit from the tithe paid by all Israelites with resources (Deut 14, 28-29). Most important of all, a regular and radical redistribution of wealth resulted from the laws governing the sabbatical and Jubilee years (e.g., Deut 15, 1-3; Leviticus 25). Note that all of these provisions were mandatory – and the responsibility laid on the godly to engage in voluntary acts of ‘charity’ was additional to them.
Of course, the mosaic laws cannot be applied literally to modern, industrialised economies, but the principles underlying them have much from which we can learn. The Apostles regarded the Old Testament scriptures as having been “written to teach us” (Romans 15, v. 4), “that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3, v. 17).
It is surely no accident that the statement, “There should be no poor among you” (Deut 15, 4) follows immediately after the requirement to cancel debts in the Sabbath year (verses 1-3) – voluntary actions alone will never provide an adequate safety net. However, this implies no lack of esteem for such. Thus Deuteronomy 15 goes on to warn against being “hard-hearted or tight-fisted” towards the poor (verses 7-8). I often quote the words of Archbishop Helder Camara, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.” To which I add, “But the great man said, ‘WHEN I feed the poor, not IF I do so!’”
David W. Golding CBE PhD DSc DCL
Associate, Institute for Research on Sustainability (IReS)
and Honorary Chaplain, Newcastle University
Dr David Golding CBE
Devonshire Building (c/o IReS)
Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU
0191 208 4866, david.golding[at]ncl.ac.uk
1. “A survey of public spending in the UK”, Institute for Fiscal Studies, Sept 2009.
2. “The effects of taxes and benefits on household incomes, 2011/12”, page 7, Office for National Statistics.
3. “Government spending by department, 2011-12: get the data”, The Guardian, 4th December 2012.
4. “Poverty doubled in 30 years, study shows”, The Guardian, 19th June 2014.
5. “It’s politicians who are shameless, not the poor”, The Guardian, 30th June 2014.
6. “The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible”, by Davis J.D., The Westminster Press, 1944.