In an event on food insecurity run by the Religious Resources Centre on Tuesday last week, the former Bishop of Jarrow, Mark Byrant, recounted the story of a parishioner who came to him after a service and asked why the church isn’t angrier about the food bank crisis.
Now, more than ever, anger seems like the most appropriate response to the soaring want evident across the UK. According to the Food Foundation, 5 million people are now going hungry. Average pay is in decline, after a decade of stagnation (something not seen in 200 years), which makes food (let alone healthy food) even harder to acquire for many. The Government, wedded to the idea that work is the best way out of poverty, seems oblivious to the fact that there are 2.8 million people claiming Universal Credit and being forced to apply for the 470,000 jobs that are currently available, and the body of evidence that says that many in work are also in poverty (as Marcus Rashford’s letter said).
Private Eye reported this month that only one in seven of those on the Government’s retraining scheme got work within a year, a worse outcome than the scheme it replaced, and yet more money is being sunk by the Government into Job Centre Work trainers. But no amount of training will get you a job that doesn’t exist. Forty years of research in the USA as well as the most extensive examinations of the UK’s food banks show that food banks do not solve the issue of hunger but the Government is making more cash available for food banks and food parcels. This is anti-realist Government policy masquerading as a pragmatic integration of sympathy and economic necessity which is, in reality, neither sympathetic, necessary or effective.
So, Byrant was right to ask: why isn’t the church angrier at these flagrant and neglected social inequalities? How could such deprivation and the lack of a serious attempt to fix it be seen as legitimate?
Richard Wilkinson, co-author with Kate Pickett of the influential The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, wrote earlier in his career that "the most fundamental rationale for inequality is always scarcity." It is by believing in a scarcity of resources that it is possible for one to imagine that some needs won’t be met and that this is inevitable. Conversely, if one believed that there is enough for our need (but not for our greed) it would be inconceivable that every day, routine and systemic hunger would stalk our streets.
The truth is: there is enough food to go around and there are policy options which the UK could have implemented that are proven to reduce poverty and inequality. In her book on how austerity effected disabled people, Stef Denning notes that "raising taxes, putting more effort into fully collecting tax, or targeting cuts at highly paid individuals" were all options the Government failed to explore. The Canadian academics Valerie Tarasuk and Lynn McIntyre write that "the evidence-based alternative to food charity is a basic income [guarantee]," while there are other options like a ‘maximum wage’, land value tax, wealth tax or tax on financial transactions which have been floored and ignored.
When another Anglican Bishop, Tim Thornton, wrote in a report produced by the All-Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger, at the height of austerity, that "we are living at a time of difficult financial circumstances. The Government has to make hard choices with limited resources", the logic of scarcity is doing its work. Expressed by such a senior member of the Anglican Church’s leadership, such resignation to austerity suggests that a tentative answer to the question of anger in the church is that too many in her body have accepted the idea of scarcity. It follows that in doing so, the church and her people have shown compliance with the mainstream trajectory of contemporary politics and economics and been rewarded with capital and some degree of begrudging credibility by the establishment. In turn, those savings and capacities have made the church complicit in the stability of the current order and invested, practically and imaginatively, in its indefinite extension into the future. All this together makes the hunger of a mother who feeds her children and tells them she has already eaten indefinitely unlamentable to many parts of the Christian community.
Via fidelity to want, the church has grown rich; if we commit ourselves to plenty, must we accept Pope Francis’ call to become poor and angry?
Charles Roding Pemberton is an academic at the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University. He is the author of Bread of Life in Broken Britain (scm press). He was a member of the inner-city youth project Eden in Manchester before becoming involved in the provision of services for homeless people and the food bank movement.
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