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Not ‘feckless’, but fellow humans with dignity

19 April 2013

There is much that Christians can do to counter the scapegoating of people on benefits, argues Kate Sainsbury

I joined a march in Glasgow earlier this month to protest against the reduction in housing benefit for those deemed to have a spare bedroom (Comment, 5 April). I marched for two reasons: first, to show support for those who are being penalised by the move; and, second, to demonstrate to the Government that we want reform that is fair in how it is imple-mented.

For me, the message of this season of Easter is that we should try to bring about God's Kingdom in the present, carrying it into the situations that we encounter in everyday life. The so-called "bedroom tax" is intended to move people into smaller properties, freeing family-sized housing for those on waiting lists. While the aim may be good, this is a clumsy means of carrying it out. "This isn't the way to go about reform," one small-businessman said to me.

In addition to the substantive issue of reform, the increasingly hostile language used about people on benefits - "feckless", "cheats", "spongers" - encourages the majority to scapegoat them. In reality, benefits have become the norm for many people in this country in the form of pensions, which account for the greatest part of the benefits bill; child benefit, which has underpinned family life for nearly 50 years; and working-family tax credits, which top-up many incomes.

Furthermore, the whole country has benefited from the employment generated by a welfare state whose jobs replaced those that were lost in manufacturing industries. Through this transition, as the rights culture has grown and medical technology has advanced, benefit-dependency has been created by the very professionals who were charged with caring for us.

I have experience of this. When my baby son was dying of meningitis, I asked the consultant paediatrician to let him go peacefully, to save him from lifelong dependency; but the doctor insisted on treating him. "Society will always care for him," he promised.

As a mother, even though I was facing a lifetime of care, and loved my baby in a way that the professional did not, I was powerless. My son survived, but with such profound learning disabilities that he will need care and benefits all his life.

AS A society, we have chosen to support individual human rights, and to value all people; but there is a cost, which the whole of society must uphold. My son, my family, and I have paid the price in our lives, and through the social contract that was created by the paediatrician and us, society has to pay its part.

The same could be said for soldiers injured in combat, and older people, who now live longer. There is no difference for those who, for a variety of factors, find themselves living on benefits in places that offer no employment and little hope. Our Governments took decisions that shaped our economy, while ghettos of benefit-dependency and unemployment developed: there was an invisible social contract with those who lived in them, too.

On Easter morning, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, and the Baptist Church reissued their paper The Lies We Tell Ourselves, (Leader comment, 5 April). It provides an alternative narrative to the "scapegoat" language. Christians everywhere can use it to help challenge perceptions of those who are termed "benefit cheats" - in intercessions, preaching, and ordinary conversations.

Churches can make clear that social issues - including justice, work, education, human rights, and peace - are the business of us all. As communities, we can urge local authorities to ensure that welfare reform is done slowly, people are treated with dignity, and costs borne by everyone, with efficiency balanced against community.

AS A carer who has had to go through stressful application and appeals processes, I know how cumbersome the system is: evidence suggests that it is harder for people with literacy problems and those who are different culturally from the professionals whom they meet.

We can find practical ways to accompany those who are affected by these changes. A number of Christian websites include resources to help, including the Church of Scotland's leaflet on welfare reform (faithincommunityscotland.org/resources/welfare-reform-leaflet-2/); and the main Church of England site, which offers material on debt, mental-health, alcohol, and drugs.

The URC National Synod of Scotland signed the "See me" pledge to work towards ending stigma around mental health; and it offers signposting to services from its website. Street Pastors is a Christian organisation ministering on the streets to people with alcohol and drug problems, three-quarters of them between the ages of 18 and 25 (Features, 30 January 2009).

Many other congregations and individual Christians are supporting initiatives to develop food banks, distribute food parcels, run lunch clubs, and support homeless people.

By these and other means, and by taking the issues seriously, we can be assured that we are all beloved children of God, sharing the benefits of his creation.

Kate Sainsbury is a Lay Reader in the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the winner of the 2012 Fraser Prize for theological writing.

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