Who will speak up for the poor in a time of cuts?
Research commissioned from the Institute for Fiscal Studies last week showed that the Coalition���s emergency budget hit families with children hardest, and that the poorest families are set to lose most.
The consequences will be dire for many people. Even a five per cent loss of income may not sound like very much, but it is enough to tip some people over the edge. The cuts are creating huge hardship.
Take Kath Carter from Stockton-on-Tees. Kath ��� a pillar of the local community, and a key member of Church Action on Poverty���s local partner, Thrive ��� knows what it is like to struggle to make ends meet. Shortly after the General Election, Kath wrote to share her concerns with the new Prime Minister:
���I was happy for you to gain your goals as a Christian woman, but sad that my son cannot find a job even though he is a full apprenticed engineer in the aerospace field. He lives on the dole in a house that he cannot afford to heat, in an area that used to have jobs galore in shipbuilding and the chemical industry. 1,400 steel jobs taken away at the stroke of a pen. It is easy to blame the benefit society ��� pride comes from working, but there aren���t any jobs for people to do. It is a continuous circle of training followed by a short-term job, then back to benefits.
"I saw you on the TV driving in your big shiny cars from your warm comfortable houses in the best part of town. Funny, I didn���t see one deprived council estate in view. I used to live in your area, said hello to my neighbours but never crossed the threshold. Now on a council estate through being a failed businesswoman (I tried), I see my neighbours talking and visiting each other as communities do.
"They may not have the trappings of wealth, but their spirit is strong despite the hardships they endure. These people are the people that made this country great. Please, I ask you, take notice of the big divide and heed that God has not been introduced into government. All people are equal in God���s eyes, and so the government must look to God to see the way forward.���
Kath ��� and thousands like her ��� are already just keeping their heads above water and struggling to keep up with their debt repayments and living costs. They are not people in a position to see their income further reduced.
Back in May, the Coalition Government made a commendable commitment to fairness, and specifically to protecting the poorest and most vulnerable from the cuts. What is vital now is that they follow through on that commitment.
Clearly, given the state of public finances, some cuts need to be made, but they should be borne by those with the capacity to bear them, rather than those who are already struggling.
The results of the Public Spending Review ��� to be announced on 20 October ��� will be another critical point to assess whether the Government is holding true to its commitment to fairness. There has been much talk about major cuts to welfare spending ��� and cuts of up to 25% in public services, police, schools, libraries, social services, community care and much more. Many local authorities are already starting to cut grants to local voluntary and community organisations, in anticipation.
But what has all this got to do with us as churches?
Concerns for tackling poverty and injustice are at the heart of the biblical story, from the Old Testament prophets through the Gospels and New Testament. Would the Old Testament prophets have remained silent as the rich and powerful take from the poor and the vulnerable even the little that they have?
���Defend the helpless and oppressed; don't harm strangers, widows, orphans, or other innocent people.��� Jeremiah
Jim Wallis describes it in these terms: churches are very good at pulling people out of the river ��� but our task is also to go upstream and ask who is throwing them in in the first place.
For this reason, Church Action on Poverty is backing calls for the Government to introduce a ���Fairness Test��� ��� a transparent process for assessing the impact of proposed tax rises or spending cuts on inequality of income, assets and access to services.
But the task of holding politicians to account for what they do on our behalf in Parliament is something all of us have a responsibility for ��� and churches can play a key role in this task. Many already organise parliamentary ���hustings��� with candidates during the election campaign - but holding MPs to account is not something to be done only once every five years! Already, over 70 local churches and Churches Together groups have signed up for Church Action on Poverty���s MP Accountability Network ��� to hold our MPs to account for their own commitment to fairness and to protecting the poorest and most vulnerable through the difficult times ahead.
In a time of deep disillusionment in politics, hope is needed.
In a time of denial that there is any alternative to ���more of the same��� economics, hope is needed.
In a time when despair seems the only rational course of action, hope is needed.
Can we inspire hope? Can we inspire belief that change is possible? Can we, in the churches and in other faith communities, build a powerful movement for change?
Yes we can.