Report-back by Mary and Peter West, Saturday, Jan 24th 2015, on the joint Christian Aid/Church Action on Poverty Conference in Manchester
On November 8th last year we went to Manchester for the joint Christian Aid/Church Action on Poverty conference “Two Sides of the Same Coin”. This has been the second example of co-operation between those two agencies- in the 1990s a link was set up formed between people on an estate in Thornaby on Tees estate, where Church Action on Poverty was working, and a Christian Aid Partner in Manila, Philippines. This carried on for some years, but then faded, because the Manila people thought English people were too pessimistic about the chances of bringing about change. When Lesslie Newbigin returned to the UK in 1974 from work as a missionary in India he said that the biggest difference was that in the UK there had been a “disappearance of hope”. It is worth asking ourselves why this might be the case (though we are not likely to answer that question in this meeting today).
In 1994 Christian Aid published “The Gospel, the Poor and the Churches”, research based on interviews with clergy and laity in 16 congregations (from a spread of denominations and situations)- this reported more sympathy for “overseas” poverty than for UK. Overseas poverty was seen as due to a lack of resources, with people struggling hard against overwhelming odds, whereas in UK with its welfare state, poverty was seen mainly as a result of moral failure.
In 2011 the Church Urban Fund interviewed a number of Anglican clergy about their views on poverty, and compared them with the earlier British Social Attitudes research (from 2009?)- 73% of clergy said that poverty in the UK is due to structural injustice, but only 22% of regular church-goers, and 20% of non-church goers agreed; only 1% of clergy that it results from laziness or lack of will-power, compared to 23% of laity and 27% of non-churchgoers. 16% of clergy said that poverty is an inevitable part of modern life, compared to 38% of both laity and non-church goers- is this perhaps consistent with Newbigin’s comment about the decline of hope?
The Manchester November 8th Conference reported on the visit of four local church leaders, all of whom were involved in poverty work in the Manchester area, to visit Christian Aid Partners in Angola. They had returned saying that the links between global and UK poverty are obvious, but what are they? Did the conference clearly define the links?
Videos from the conference are available on the Church Action on Poverty website: http://blog.church-poverty.org.uk/2014/11/28/two-sides-of-the-same-coin-watch-the-videos/ Information about some of the poverty projects in the Manchester area discussed at the conference can be found here: http://www.petrus.org.uk/ and http://www.porchboxes.org.uk/
The conference concluded that dispossession was the key cause of poverty- whether of families losing their secure housing because landlords wished to make a better profit, or of whole communities evicted from their place and abandoned in areas far away from their cities and their workplaces. In both the UK and the wider world, the interests and needs of many people are pushed to one side by the interests and demands of richer and more powerful people.
In the week before our report-back on January 24th Oxfam published a report that nearly half of all wealth (that is, the ownership of property and assets) was now in the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population. On Channel 4 News there had been a debate about this between someone from “Save the Children Fund” and the editor of the Spectator. The editor argued that, although what Oxfam said is true, and perhaps something should be done about it, if Oxfam was implying that this was the cause of some other people’s poverty, they were wrong. In fact at precisely the same time that this trend to the greater concentration of wealth has been happening, more people than ever before have been brought out of absolute poverty (defined by the World Bank at living on less than $1.25 a day), a reduction in the percentage of people, according to other statements made by the UK Government, of 80% (adjusted for inflation).
It is obvious that the spread of capitalist “free”-market economics has brought this about, not the efforts of aid agencies. The market economy can effectively create a great deal of wealth, and enrich many, perhaps the majority, of the population. But the way it operates inevitably creates a margin of poverty and poor people- if goods are supplied to satisfy all the demands being made by people’s purchasing power, the price drops to below levels that are profitable to producers. An optimum “supply” (in economic terms) must therefore be one which creates a level of shortage. Similarly full employment gives a great deal of power to workers and pushes up the level of wages- a degree of unemployment is therefore necessary (in purely economic terms) to make the system work efficiently. And if the market system works efficiently (eg if schooling trains people well for the available jobs), the people who fail will be those whose labour and skills, for whatever reason, are not profitable enough for an employer to offer them jobs- and so they (rather than the way the system works) can be blamed for their own poverty.
It is a political decision to retain the benefits of a market economy, with all the wealth it produces, at the cost of a margin of poverty. In that sense, the 38% of the population who said that poverty is “an inevitable part of modern life” would be correct, if in a democratic system the majority continue to vote for an economic system that suits them at the cost of a minority.
This is a vital debate for our society in the future. It will not be solved in the 2015 General Election, nor perhaps even in the one following. Perhaps, however, over a longer period reality can dawn on our society, just as in the 1940s people realised the failures and weaknesses of the existing economic system, and created something new, even though that proved to have its own weaknesses and failings which we now much work to solve.