THE link between the age of austerity and Christian engagement with poverty in the UK is to be the subject of a three-year study.
The research, Life on the Breadline: Christianity, poverty and politics in the 21st century, will analyse the relationship between Christian theology and poverty activism, in the hope that it will bring about better informed government policy, and more effective faith-based activism.
It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and supported by Church Action on Poverty. The academics involved in the project come from Coventry, Canterbury Christ Church, and Manchester universities.
Speaking on Tuesday, the principal investigator, Dr Chris Shannahan, of Coventry University, said that, since the financial crash in 2008 and the introduction of austerity politics, Christian poverty activism had become more visible. “As Government has withdrawn and the State has shrunk, the visibility of Christian action on poverty has become more and more prevalent.
“The Church has notably not only become more visible, but has become more confident in speaking out against government policies.”
Dr Shannahan explained what inspired the project. “Living in London, and then Birmingham, and now Coventry, I have always worked alongside socially excluded communities, and have seen levels of poverty go through the roof, whether that is through the rise in foodbanks, rough sleeping, or child poverty.
“Those things that are in people’s faces every day have been troubling me for many years, and I have been interested in the relationship between discipleship, theology, and Christian activism on poverty for a long time. . .
“Although there have been a number of church reports on the topic, if you search for academic theology projects there are none; so that is the gap we are trying to fill.”
The other academics working on the project are Professor Robert Beckford, of Canterbury Christ Church University; Professor Peter Scott, of the University of Manchester; and Dr Stephanie Denning, of Coventry University.
Dr Shannahan said that there had been a return of poverty in the UK “not seen since the 1940s”.
He said: “There has been a significant growth of Christian action against poverty — in the use of foodbanks, credit unions, and meal clubs. Though less obvious, churches have also begun to organise in the community. The age of austerity has stimulated a greater level of response by Christian groups, and also shone a light on it.
“There are three different responses to austerity in the Christian theological tradition: some welcome it, seeing it as a call to self-discipline and restraint; we have seen a significant growth in the caring response to poverty; but also a growing recognition that caring responses don’t go far enough, despite being invaluable — this has created a resurgence of a more radical response to poverty, through liberation theology.”
When asked what the outcome of the study would be, Dr Shannahan said: “We will see that austerity has had a direct impact on the Christian approach to poverty, and shone a light on different theological responses.
“While it is tempting to pin everything on the 2008 crash and austerity, there are significant numbers of people for whom the suggestion that austerity began in 2010 is a bit of an unfunny joke.”
The project will be developing six in-depth case studies in London, Birmingham, and Manchester, and the researchers will interview more than 100 activists and church leaders.
The UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, said on Friday that the Government had caused “great misery” for British people, with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies.
At the end of a two-week fact-finding mission, Professor Alston said: “It is patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty.” He added that levels of child poverty were “not just a disgrace but a social calamity and an economic disaster”.
He said, however, that he had “seen tremendous resilience, strength, and generosity, with neighbours supporting one another, councils seeking creative solutions, and charities stepping in to fill holes in government services”.
On Monday, the new Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, criticised the UN report for its “extraordinary political nature”.
In response, Professor Alston told The Guardian: “I think that dismissing a report that is full of statistics and first-hand testimony on the grounds that the minister didn’t appreciate the tone of the report rather misses the point. I remain hopeful that Amber Rudd might actually take some of the steps needed to address the worst aspects of the existing approach.”
Read comment on the United Nations report on extreme poverty and human rights