What would you do if you needed a new boiler but had no money in the bank? Or lost your job and didn’t know how you were going to heat your home or feed your family? In this guest blog, the Children's Society explain how they are campaigning, like Church Action on Poverty, for decent support for people in crisis.

We all would like to think that if the worst happened, there would be someone or something there to protect us. For some of us, that might be friends and family we could call on, or savings that could help us get out of a difficult situation. But there are many people for whom there are no savings, and no one they can turn to for help.

In these situations, a strong local safety net can help. Churches are part of a vital network of faith, voluntary, and community services that provide refuges, shelters, food, donations and advice to those in need. Along with council-run emergency funds, these schemes and projects provide a vital lifeline when crisis hits that can help prevent people spiralling into debt or destitution.

Under threat

But with increasing financial pressure, and a lack of support from national Government, these schemes are facing unprecedented challenges. Since 2015, councils have not received ring-fenced funding for welfare provision. Inevitably this has had a devastating impact. One in every seven councils has had to close their welfare support scheme – and of those still running, two-thirds have cut their budgets.

This means fewer people can access the support they desperately need from their council. In turn, this is putting more pressure on voluntary and community services to plug the gaps.

The time for action is now

Help from volunteers cannot, and should not, entirely replace a well-functioning local safety net. And that’s why we’re taking action. The Children’s Society, Church Action on Poverty, The Trussell Trust and others are working with churches like yours to tackle this hugely important issue. Your church might run a food bank, or support families and vulnerable people living in poverty. As such, you are an important part of the local safety net.

As Autumn approaches, it’s a critical time to raise the importance of proper funding for local welfare support with councillors and MPs and push this up the agenda. Now is the time councils begin to plan budgets for the year ahead, and the Government sets out its spending plans nationally. This small but vital part of our incredible social security system is too important to be forgotten.

How you can help

The Children’s Society has an interactive map on our website that shows you what the situation is in your area, and how you can contact your councillors and MPs to take action. 

We know that meeting decision-makers face to face can be really impactful. If this is something you would be able to do, please get in touch with the Children’s Society, and we can provide support, briefings and bespoke local information to take with you.

Compassion in Crisis

Church Action on Poverty is also campaigning to restore proper support for people in crisis. Click here to see our report and background information.

Scripture from the Margins: Bible bookmark

Scripture from the Margins: Untold Stories

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

Annual review 2018-19

A Good Society? We failed

Speaking Truth to Power: reflections from our North East gathering

What does it mean to be a church on the margins?

Edgelands

Why End UK Hunger?

Communities unite to say: Act now to end UK hunger

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

Father Bill Rooke RIP

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

A Good Society? We failed

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously suggested that, "The Church is not simply called to bandage up the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice but to drive a spoke into the wheel itself."

In our three-year  ‘Life on the Breadline’ project (funded by the Economic Social Research Council) we are asking ourselves whether Christian action on poverty during the ‘age of austerity’ is bandaging up its victims’ wounds, or moving beyond this to challenge structural injustice and drive a spoke into the wheel of unjust structures and systems. The Church is better placed than almost any other institution to challenge grassroots poverty in a coherent and sustained way, because it is deeply rooted in local neighbourhoods across the UK. What does the Church do with this power?

After 10 years of austerity, our ‘Life on the Breadline’ team (Chris Shannahan, Robert Beckford, Peter Scott and Stephanie Denning) is exploring Christian responses to poverty through a survey of regional church leaders across the UK, interviews with national church leaders and six in-depth case studies in Birmingham, London and Manchester. Ours is the first theological project to explore Christian action on poverty since the global financial crash. We want our research to make a difference. Martin Luther King compared poverty to an octopus – one beast with many slippery tentacles. Our case studies demonstrate that poverty comes in all shapes and sizes – food poverty, low pay, insecure zero-hours work, poor housing, homelessness, holiday hunger, fuel poverty and rising levels of debt. Like a perfect storm, these different aspects of poverty, when combined with a failing Universal Credit system and a culture that blames people living in poverty for being poor, come crashing down on our heads like some inescapable wave. 

The Church meets the immediate needs of many thousands of people who are living in poverty … but is caring alone enough? For more than 20 years our project partner Church Action on Poverty has been engaged in the battle to defeat poverty. Its work moves beyond caring to raise awareness about social exclusion in churches across the UK. Church Action challenges unjust government policy and business practice, addressing the root causes of poverty and works with other to try to build a ‘Church of the Poor’.

First articulated in 1984, the ‘Marks of Mission’ summarise the calling of the Church. Adopted by a wide range of denominations, this checklist is intended to guide Christian mission. The fourth of these marks is to ‘challenge unjust structures’ within society. In spite of the vast amount of work they do, churches are perhaps less keen to challenge the structures and the systems that give rise to poverty. Together with Church Action on Poverty, the Life on the Breadline team want to do something about this….

We are hosting a participatory one-day workshop entitled ‘Transforming Structural Injustice’ on 13 September at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.

We will explore some of the ways in which the Church can live up to its calling to tackle the root causes of poverty and build a just society. An exciting range of speakers – some activists and some academics – will stimulate our small group conversations and help us to begin to identify ways in which we can begin to transform structural injustice in breadline Britain. It would be great if you could join us and be part of the conversation. Together we can make a difference!

Chris Shannahan is lead researcher on the Life on the Breadline project.  

Scripture from the Margins: Bible bookmark

Scripture from the Margins: Untold Stories

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

Annual review 2018-19

A Good Society? We failed

Speaking Truth to Power: reflections from our North East gathering

What does it mean to be a church on the margins?

Edgelands

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

A Good Society? We failed

With love and determination now, the UK can end food poverty

Our director Niall Cooper sets out how the Government can make sure the UK ends hunger - and why it must. ​

ON a recent visit to a community food project, a colleague and I got into conversation with one of the volunteers.

In her most difficult moments, this place had been her lifeline. Now, she was recycling that kindness and warmth, welcoming people in and providing a listening ear, a cup of tea and vital relief.

Such stories are not rare. We should be consistently appalled and agitated by the scale of food poverty in the UK, but the compassion that prompts many recipients of food to return as volunteers reflects the prevailing goodness in our society.

It is no surprise that those who have experienced great difficulty want to help others, but the desire for justice runs deeper than that. We see that in the generous donations made to so many food banks, and in the stop-gap projects that provide meals for families in the holidays. It’s clear: nobody is comfortable with people going hungry in this country.

Sticking plaster solutions, however, are unsustainable and inadequate. We must channel the public’s compassion and look to the greater challenge, of tackling the underlying causes of food poverty.

What does this mean in real terms? It means coming together and making a shared and unrelenting commitment to ending hunger in the UK. And it means calling for boldness and determination from our new Prime Minister.

National leaders have seen and embraced the vision of a country free from hunger. In 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, pledged to end hunger in the UK by 2030, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals.

To reach this goal requires action now, because the crisis is immediate and severe. In 2018/19, food banks run by the Trussell Trust, the country’s largest operator, distributed 1.6 million three-day food parcels, including 89,841 in Yorkshire. During last year’s summer holidays, the need in this region increased by 14.49 per cent – and these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. 

Researchers from The Food Foundation estimate that the number of people in food poverty in the UK is 17 times higher than the number accessing Trussell food banks. Unaffiliated community projects and independent food banks are also meeting need every day, and recent research in York reaffirmed that many people are simply put off visiting a food bank by personal pride and a fear of stigma. 

All of this can change. Poverty, and the hunger it brings, are not inevitable. There is absolutely no reason why there should be hunger in this country, nor any reason whatsoever why we cannot end it. Our economic and political systems have been designed by human hands and they can be redesigned but we need Government leadership and vision.

Specifically, we need a commitment to halving food insecurity by 2025, as a stepping stone to ending hunger by 2030. It will be for successive Governments to lead on the detail but we know some of the principal issues that must be addressed early: we need to safeguard childhood nutrition all year round; we need the return of effective financial assistance that people can access in times of crisis; we need a Government that will truly listen to those at the sharp end of poverty in the UK; and we need a benefits system that does not push anyone into food poverty or destitution.

What that last point means, in practice, is that benefits must provide an income that allows people to live and that the system must be fit for purpose. Therefore, we must end the five week wait for initial Universal Credit payments, a design flaw in the policy that is causing hardship. 

Compassion, coupled with ambition and resolve, is what the country needs in abundance right now.

A food bank we work closely with in Parson Cross, Sheffield, says it has come close to breaking point since Universal Credit was rolled out in the city last year. They now spend £652 a month to keep the shelves stocked, up from £379 previously. In York, meanwhile, one parent told researchers: “Universal Credit has wrecked us. We have just gone on it and I have been told me and my five-year-old will have to go at least seven weeks with no income at all.”

It simply isn’t right that this is the reality for some of our most vulnerable citizens. We cannot be happy with an economy that leaves millions at the mercy of insecure and low-paid work, rising living and housing costs, and a benefits system that leaves many people unable to keep their heads above water. Hard pressed families trying to keep children adequately fed this summer deserve better.

Visit any food bank, community café or breakfast club and you will be struck by the love and neighbourliness that underpins the work. Such compassion, coupled with ambition and resolve, is what the country needs in abundance right now. Let this be an invitation to Mr Johnson and his Government, as he seeks to unite the country. Come and listen to those who are going without food, and resolve to end hunger in the UK

 

This article was first written for The Yorkshire Post, and was published in print and online on July 31, 2019.

Scripture from the Margins: Bible bookmark

Scripture from the Margins: Untold Stories

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

Annual review 2018-19

A Good Society? We failed

Speaking Truth to Power: reflections from our North East gathering

What does it mean to be a church on the margins?

Edgelands

Why End UK Hunger?

Communities unite to say: Act now to end UK hunger

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

Father Bill Rooke RIP

A decade of action on poverty

Reflecting on the first two years of Food Power

A Good Society? We failed