THE poor you will have always with you. An understanding of relative poverty explains the enduring truth of Christ’s statement.
The latest analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation uses what is now a standard measure of poverty: a family with a disposable income (i.e. after tax and housing costs) of less than 60 per cent of the median income for their family type. In every society there will be a differential between the highest earners and the lowest; but the 14.3 million people in poverty have slipped below a line that, in most instances, marks the difference between comfort and hardship, security and instability.
The Church must always speak counter-culturally on this issue. Just as material wealth does not equate with happiness, and often hinders spiritual wealth, poverty does not equal shame or misery. Many Christians in extremis have encountered the particular joy of God’s miraculous provision.
This, though, might be compared to similar blessings experienced by those who suffer chronic pain: God is to be praised, but they would not wish their circumstances on others. The stress of living on the edge — one in three of those below the poverty line has no savings at all, one in six admits to being in problem debt — needs to be recognised by the majority in society who remain complacently comfortable.
In general, God’s care for humanity is properly mediated through human action, and it is this that makes poverty a political issue. At perhaps the simplest level, the system of state benefits is a manifestation of God’s care through mutual aid. It is of deep concern to the Church, therefore, when these benefits are shown to be inadequate, as in the blundering and often cruel introduction of Universal Credit.
A more complicated issue is exposed by these latest figures, however. The fastest-growing category below the poverty line is among working families: 8.3 million, more than half, live in families where at least one person is in work. Half this number are the children of working parents.
For one thing, this gives the lie to the persistent denegration of the poor as idle: there are twice as many working-age adults in working households below the poverty line (5.5 million) as adults in workless households (2.7 million). For another, it exposes the inherent unfairness of an economy reliant on depressing salary levels as the simplest way to reduce costs. As Archbishop Welby remarked in Reimagining Britain, to the scorn of right-wing commentators, the balance of power between employer and employed has tipped too far towards the former, so that a worker on low wages has no recourse against ever greater demands or shorter working hours.
Christ’s reference to the poor is often read as a dismissal. It is, in fact, a conversation-starter. When the comfort of the many is built on the hardship of the few, Christ’s question is “What are you going to do about it?”