The government are intent on rolling out Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship programme of Universal Credit. My town, Oldham, was one of the places in which the system was trialled.
The problems with the system have been well-documented. You can read this, which is generally positive of the idea but critical of some of the unintended consequences. There is this, which outlines some of the more common criticisms that have been levelled at the new system. But, if you don’t want to read those, you really really should watch this video of Frank Field detailing some of the horrific consequences of the Universal Credit rollout and the reaction of Heidi Allen to his speech.
You can access a shorter clip here.
One has to have a heart of stone not to be so moved by the case raised by Mr Field. More than a few Conservative MPs have been critical of the Universal Credit rollout and have called for it to be stopped. Despite that, the government press on regardless.
What is so shocking is that many MPs are simply not moved by the reality on the ground. It is heartening that good men like Frank Field, who loves his desperately deprived Birkenhead constituency (a constituency in which I used to live and began my education), are raising such issues and giving them public profile. It is also encouraging that some Tory MPs recognise the devastating effects – albeit unintended consequences – and are moved to want to deal with them. It is, nonetheless, being pressed forward by those who appear to have little understanding of the daily lives of those in deprived communities and who, sadly, don’t really seem all that concerned at all.
What saddens me further still is that the church has often mirrored this sort of thinking. Great ideas are dreamt up by those with little to no knowledge of the impact on churches and people in deprived communities. Wonderful systems are set-up that, typically, favour the haves rather than the have-nots. Most of these things are not borne out of an active desire to damage or sideline the church in deprived communities, these are the unintended consequences of otherwise good ideas. The problem is that systems and solutions are dreamt up by those in unaffected communities and, despite claims to the contrary, it can sometimes feel as though the middle class church is not overly concerned about its impact, or lack thereof, in those communities with which they have no involvement.
Like Frank Field, I have had to sit and speak to those whose situations have meant they would rather kill themselves than deal with the problems they so clearly face. I have sat in my church with people in tears over potential evictions, the inability to eat, the evident hunger of their children and all sorts of other messy problems. One of the major costs facing our church is helping those who, without our support, would neither be able to turn the lights on at home, heat the house in the midst of an Oldham winter (and if you have experienced winter in Oldham you will know why this is a problem) or feed their families. How can our hearts not break for such people?
What is more, we ourselves face a monthly deficit of £1500 per month partially (though by no means solely or principally) because of such situations. We would love to help every time somebody comes with these sorts of stories but we don’t have the resources to do so, not least given the frequency with which they arise. Like many MPs, it so often feels like many wealthier churches simply have no desire to hear or understand these things. Those that might be astounded to hear these stories go away and forget them as quickly. We are patted on the back and given a ‘well done’ for our ‘wonderful ministry’ whilst the elephant in the room – our inherent need of human and financial resources due to the constituents we are reaching – is conveniently ignored.
Would that the Evangelical church was so moved by the plight of the poor – and the churches seeking to reach them with a gospel that Jesus proclaims as good news particularly for them – as even backbench Tories over universal credit. When was the last time you wept over the lost estate of the poor? When was the last time you even spoke to someone who could be genuinely described as ‘in poverty’? If we so rarely even engage with the poor, is it any wonder they remain unreached? If our missions budgets and giving includes no churches and/or planting initiatives aimed at reaching those in deprived communities, is it any wonder the Evangelical church remains overwhelmingly white and middle class?
Even if you don’t subscribe to the thinly veiled left-wing bias, I encourage you to watch the film I, Daniel Blake for a sense of what faces the poor. It is devastating in its portrayal of the mundanity, yet disastrous consequences, of poverty. It is all so ordinary and yet horrendous in consequence. Let me encourage you to seriously consider supporting churches and planting initiatives seeking to reach the most deprived parts of our country. If you are at all moved by the plight of the poor, why not support those who have been willing to go into their communities and love them enough to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with them in word and deed?
If you would like to know how you can support Oldham Bethel Church as we labour in the most deprived town in England, and one of the most deprived wards in the country, please do get in touch using our contact form.