May 2013

Myths about Poverty

At Easter this year, I was surprised to hear of the United Reformed Church being quoted (along with a few other churches) in the headline story of the BBC News. It could be that it was a ‘light news day’ but it’s nice to know we get a mention every now and then and for the right reasons. The cause for the media reference was a report published by the Churches Joint Public Issues Team entitled “The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty.”

The report looked at 6 popular myths concerning poverty, the kind of things that are so often stated in the media and by politicians and then talked about at ‘The Bull and Boar’ so that they become accepted as obviously factually correct. The one minor problem is that an analysis of the statistics point out a different and rather more complicated set of truths than the sound bite from the evening news would have us believe.

I don’t have the space in this article to go into each of the so-called myths but, for example, received wisdom would have us believe that welfare claimants abuse the system by having more children than average to get child benefit and extra housing allowance. The one minor problem with that is that only about 8% of families who claim benefits have 3 or more children, which also just happens to be roughly the percentage of society as a whole. If the accepted wisdom of many claimants abusing the system in this way was true, welfare claimants would simply have to have more children! Somehow appalling cases like Mick Philpott, who has been convicted of murdering 5 of his children, are often seen as an example of the welfare norm, rather than the horrendous exception that they are. Few would argue that the mass murderer Dr Harold Shipman proves all or at least a large percentage of GP’s are mass murderers, but somehow when it comes to the poor, unlike respected doctors, sweeping and often unfounded generalisation seem quite acceptable.

Another myth is that the welfare budget is out of control, and the deficit is at least partially the fault of the welfare claimants. Unfortunately the proportion of our tax bills spent on welfare has remained roughly stable for the last 20 years and, mainly due to an aging population, pensions now make over half of this cost. There are real problems with the national budget and at some stage deficits have to be reduced and debts paid back. But demonising one part of society, a part where 3.6 million children live in poverty, does little to help sort the very real problems that exist.

To quote the report, ‘The Bible is clear in its warnings about injustice. The prophet Micah warns that when privileged people oppress those at the bottom of the pile, society will fail. Likewise the prophet Isaiah warns that without truth there cannot be justice and righteousness in a society. “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter.” Isaiah 59:14 (NRSV).’

I’m pleased that our church is part of the prophetic tradition of naming uncomfortable truths to the powerful. Not to be annoying or anti-establishment but so that society can be transformed into something more truly just and a reflection (ever so hesitantly) of God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

If you want to find out more about this issue and explore the welfare myths, please look up the website


May 2013