Let’s Tackle Poverty and Social Inequality

Anglia_Ruskin_University_013.jpg&p=toWidth&o=jpg&a[width]=260The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

Saturday 9th June 2012

The Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu today writes in the Yorkshire Post newspaper about the importance of tackling poverty AND social inequality – it isn’t a choice between the two. His article follows….

Recently, the Centre for Social Justice launched their “Rethinking Child Poverty” report. You may have missed it, but they recommended that the Government should abolish “income-based definitions of poverty”.

It says: “The poor will always exist statistically, as it is inevitable that some in society will have less than others. However, simply having less money than others does not necessarily render an individual to be in poverty. The measure confuses poverty with income inequality.” However, the fact that income inequality exists, is not a reason that we should ignore it. Indeed let us not misapply Jesus’ teaching as an excuse to ignore the cries of those in poverty.

For example, in some of our top FTSE100 companies, CEOs receive 300 times as much as the least well paid employees in their companies. Can that be fair? Paying someone one-third of one percent of your own salary is not only insulting, but cannot be good for the well-being of the individual, the company or the wider society.

Very large income differences between rich and poor weaken community life and make societies less cohesive. We can fool ourselves that it’s not important or relevant to tackling poverty or societal unfairness, but the truth is the issues are often interlinked.

Let us look at the facts – families in poverty don’t have enough money to live on. Too many children live in cold houses because their family can’t afford to heat their home through the winter. Too many live in dark cramped flats, smelling of damp and with no outdoor space because they can’t afford a suitable home. Too many parents are terrified of the knock at the door from the bailiffs because they have taken out a payday loan they now can’t afford to pay back. The spectre of unemployment looms large for many – indeed around 1 million young people are already out of work. Think of that lost talent, and the missed opportunities for something better.

The pressures caused by life on a low income can lead to health problems, the stresses can lead to a bad home environment. But we should be careful not to misrepresent the nature of poverty.

Families with parenting problems need more parenting support. Families affected by mental health problems need appropriate care. Families in poverty need more money. In some cases families may need all three – my worry is that an austerity drive can cause us to pick and choose which of these social evils must be tackled, when in reality we have moral duty to tackle each. Unfairness and inequality can never be acceptable.

When austerity measures are squeezing the incomes of the most vulnerable more than any other group, when the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that rather than ending child poverty by 2020 child poverty rates are going to soar, when food banks and charities are seeing children and families coming to them hungry in greater numbers than ever, when all of these warning signs blaze furiously around us, yes, it would be convenient to turn a blind eye to poverty. It would be easy to say money doesn’t matter to the poorest families, and to simply “rethink” the problem out of existence.

But it would be turning our backs on the greatest blight on the face of modern Britain. Even the Government’s own social mobility adviser is saying we are going to miss child poverty targets. This is a scandal we cannot ignore.

Let us look at how Beveridge tackled the giants of inequality and use that as a blueprint for a new social covenant. We shall not tackle poverty by cutting back to the bone – the only way we can move forward as a society is through investment, growth and a trust in each other.

Instead of redefining Child Poverty, we urgently need to do something about it. 29% of children living in the UK live in poverty. We lag behind many other Countries in Europe and set to get much further adrift as cuts to support for the poorest families start to bite. We need to invest to end child poverty.

The Government has already announced billions of pounds of cuts to welfare support in the course of this Parliament – cuts that will hit children and families hardest of all. As indicated in work by The Children’s Society, these include cuts to support with childcare costs, cuts to housing support to keep a roof over the head of every child, and cuts to the support for people who need extra help as a result of disabilities.

Reductions in the rate at which support is increased to keep up with price rises mean that support will be gradually worn away over the coming years, a gradual grinding down which is pernicious. And we are told this may not be the end, the last budget announced the possibility of a further £10 billion of welfare cuts.

It is the policy of cuts to support for the most vulnerable in society which needs abandoning. Yes, there will be a price attached – but why do we pay our taxes in the first place? Is it not in part to provide a safety net to those most in need?

We have a deeply unequal society. Overall income inequality is higher than at any time in the last 30 years – and whilst the poorest see their incomes slashed, incomes at the top have been rising rapidly. One study found that the top one percent of highest earning households saw a 13% rise in incomes in 2009-10.

We can only provide the poorest and most vulnerable with the support that they need if the wealthiest pay their fair share to enable investment in the poorest.

Real action on child poverty helps everyone. More economically equal societies in the end produce lower levels of mental illness, lower levels of severe crime, lower levels of teenage motherhood. It is not just the poor who become happier and healthier, but those at the top and those in the middle too.

We should not forget we are a society living in community with each other. We have a responsibility to our neighbour – walking by on the other side will only make things worse for everyone.

Let’s tackle poverty AND social inequality – it’s not a choice between the two.

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Paul Champion

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