Welfare into work: a theological perspective

With the ‘welfare to work’ debate continuing to rage, we reprint the article Angus Ritchie wrote in the January edition of Christianity magazine – responding to a piece by Peter Oborne hailing the Christian inspiration of Government policy
Poverty has spiritual as well as material causes.  This is why Jesus told his disciples that the poor would always be with them.  From Amos to St James, the Bible identifies these causes as the greed and indifference of the ‘haves’ much more than the indolence of the ‘have nots’.
So Peter Oborne’s article tells only one part of the story.  He is right to criticise new Labour for treating poverty as a purely material matter.  And he is right to denounce the welfare system for incentivising unemployment, and for its bias against families.
However, unemployment has not shot up because of an epidemic of laziness among the poor.  Its rise has been caused by a deep and prolonged recession –itself generated by an under-regulated, over-greedy financial system.  That is the real issue, both spiritually and materially.
The poor have not lost their appetite for work.  Across the East End, members of London Citizens (an alliance of churches, mosques and other civil society organisations) have been running ‘Olympic Recruitment Fayres’.  They are on track to secure over 1500 jobs for local people.  The energy local people have put into this process speaks volumes about their hunger for gainful employment.  
Here, as across the UK, there are real obstacles to the move from welfare into work.  If an unemployed person gets any job offer at all, it is likely to be time-limited or insecure.  When such jobs end, the welfare system cannot be relied upon to start payments again in a timely and accurate manner.  That is one reason for the profusion of Food Banks up and down the country.  People who are willing to work still lack the means to eat.  
In this economic climate – where unemployment has been caused by a morally bankrupt financial system, and the benefits system makes it hard to move from welfare into work – we should be very wary of a narrative which blames the poor for their lot.
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