Trickle down economics; economic lie number one…

The first of a little mini series about Capitalism that has been nagging at me for a while…

trickle down economics

There was an article in out local paper last week- Argyll and Bute council, like most of our councils, has to make significant cuts to the budget. Despite our large geographical area, Argyll has a low density of population and services are already stretched tight. The article listed the sordid detail of the cuts- older peoples care, youth rehab, road schemes, outsourcing services to the private sector who will do the support of our most vulnerable more cheaply etc etc.

And what is all this about? Why is money suddenly so tight? Why do we all buy into the collective idea that ‘times are hard’ and so ‘we all have to tighten our belts?’

The fact is that not all of us do tighten our belts. Many people are doing very well out of the crisis. This from the Guardian;

The super-rich – the top 1% of earners – now pocket 10p in every pound of income paid in Britain, while the poorest half of the population take home only 18p of every pound between them, according to a report published this week by the Resolution Foundation thinktank, which reveals the widening gap between those at the very top and the rest of society.

Inequality has grown sharply over the past 15 years, according to Resolution’s analysis: the top 1% of earners have seen their slice of the pie increase from 7% in the mid-1990s to 10% today, while the bottom half have seen their share drop from 19% to 18%.

And then there are those right at the bottom- the Strivers who are forced to become Scyvers, or the Skyvers who have lost hope, or those who never had a fair crack of the whip in the first place. Have you noticed that when the economy takes a dip, they always take a hit? They become the problem– the scapegoats.

So we see all these regressive punative policy decisions being pursued by our current government- lower benefits to fewer people, changes to housing benefit to force people to leave their homes if they have an extra bedroom. All this in the context of reductions in care provision, and less funding for voluntary bodies and charities. Our current government is doing things that even Thatcher at her most strident would have baulked at.

But again- why? Where does all this come from?

What the neo-liberal economists will tell us is that the problem is caused by natural adjustments made by a self regulating economic system. That the job of us all is to get out of the way and let it all sort itself out like some kind of higher intelligent life form. The problem, they would say, is an over inflated public sector, whose interference in the natural order of things by public spending, taxation and welfare provision means that the economy fails to self regulate.

This kind of economic thinking has become so pervasive, so wrapped up in the political system, so much in service of powerful self interests, that we all wriggle on its hook. We are compliant because we have bought in to some of the lies that the system has sold to us- perhaps the biggest one is this one- Trickle down theory.

In a nu­tshell, trickle-down theory is based on the premise that within an economy, giving tax cutsto the top earners makes them more likely to earn more. Top earners invest that extra money in productive economic activities or spend more of their time at the high-paying trade they do best (whether that be creating inventions or performing heart surgeries). Either way, these activities will be productive, reinvigorate economic growth and, in the end, generate more tax revenue from these earners and the people they’ve helped. According to the theory, this boost in growth will ultimately help those in lower income brackets as well.

So, the argument is, if we have lots of rich people, and they are encouraged to become super rich, then our country, and our economy, will benefit- right down to the roots.

This analysis does not regard the wealth of the few as contingent upon the poverty of many- in this country and even more crucially in the poor countries around the world whose raw materials and cheap labour we are entirely dependent upon.

It also does not conform with the facts, as the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

As the worlds resources are over consumed by the few and our environment continues to be damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

As austerity plans are still touted as ‘good housekeeping’, as if the UK economy could be compared to a household budget.

So, what is the alternative? Fairer, more progressive tax systems? This might be a start- but I think the problem is the system- and we are all part of the system aren’t we? It is really hard to get out of it- the mortgages, the gadgets, the foreign holidays and the dependency on technology to deliver distraction, entertainment and connection.

Where is the Kingdom of God in all of this? What are we, the agents of this Kingdom , to put our energy towards? I am convinced that we need to be engaged critics of injustice wherever we see it- particularly towards the poor and the marginalised.

And the beginning of how we can do this is to take a look at the system through a different set of lenses…

‘Problem families’…

So, the government has revealed it’s plan to deal with all those anti-social, work shy, boozing and school absconding families that are the scourge of our towns and cities. Hear what a rather belligerent Eric Pickles had to say about it all on the Today programme here.

It is the latest in a long line of government attempts to intervene in the lives of those who have fallen through the holes in our society. We used to talk about social class of course, but this has been out of fashion for some time. The last Labour Government used the language of ‘social exclusion‘, and poured resources into education and measures to deal with child poverty. There is some evidence of success, in that by the end of their term of office, 900,000 children appeared to have been lifted out of poverty- see this article in the Guardian for some discussion about this.

Since then, austerity has opened the door to widespread reductions in benefit, an undermining of family support services, and now, the measures to help ‘problem families’.  Note the subtle change in emphasis. No longer is poverty, crime and family dysfunction a matter of economics or a measure of the failure of society- rather it relates to the failure of individuals. We are using the language of blame.

But what can be done, particularly in these times of austerity, to change the lives of those people in our society who are most vulnerable? Might Pickles’ policy of identifying these ‘problem families’, then bringing to bear a wide range of support along with some targeted spending actually help? Is he not just applying good common sense?

By the tone of some of Pickles’ comments over the past few days, it is clear that he has little interest in learning from those of us who have been trying to work in support of the poorest and most broken in our society. They are fluent in social work he said. The Daily Mail loved it;

‘Sometimes we have run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame,’ he said. The Government is spending £450million to try to lessen the problems these families cause, which are calculated to cost taxpayers £9billion a year.

The problem of course, is that in the UK (as in the USA) poverty is politics. And politics loves to simplify and make one dimensional protestations. Often there are scapegoats.

Again, what can be done about these ‘problem families’?

It seems we have two broad approaches, which I will characterise as ‘Pickles’ and ‘Politically correct’ (or ‘PC’.)

Pickles

Poverty is a matter of morality. It is about poor choices made by people who are a drain on everything that is good about our society.

There may be some who are the deserving poor- Tiny Tim on his crutches, the elderly yokel who has run out of turnips. For these people, the parish has its Poor House.

However, there are also those who have found a way to sponge of the system. What is worse, there is a whole industry of people whose job appears to be about supporting them in this.

These people are a threat to middle England- to those of us who do work hard, cut our front lawns and live prudently within our means. They are the source of disease, crime and noise pollution.

What is needed is a good sharp shock, delivered in a targeted way.

All this liberal research about the causes of poverty is left wing twaddle dressed up as ‘science’.

PC

Poverty is about economics. People are shaped by the place in society they are born into- their opportunities and life chances are largely given to them, not matters of choice.

There are huge vested interests in society that keep things this way.

Poverty brutalises. If you live in a survival economy, and have few opportunities for escape, then small wonder that you will be more likely to find release through drugs or alcohol. Why are we surprised too that some turn to crime?

The human spirit is unquenchable – after all, many still escape the poverty trap – but many others need nurture. They need hope, not condemnation. To blame poor people for poverty is like blaming Jews for the  Holocaust.

People do not chose to be poor. Neither (with a few exceptions) do they chose to live on benefits. They do this because they do not have hopes for a real alternative. This is a failure of society, and one that any good society should try to change, no matter how difficult this might be.

The most effective means of changing the lives of the poor is to raise their income.

In the absence of this, a whole range of community based activities are required, guided by careful research, learning from previous interventions so as to avoid the many mistakes of previous attempts at social engineering.

Regular readers of this blog will already suspect which of the two camps I belong to.

But they might also be surprised to hear me say that I believe that both have merit. There is a moral dimension to all of life that we ignore at our peril. Remember Durkheim and his Anomie? We all have personal responsibility for the choices we make, even if for many of us, these choices are limited by our experience.

There is that old parable that Jesus used in Matthew 25- another one of those passages where Jesus was trying to explain something about the Kingdom of God;

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,[a] each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This parable always seemed so unfair and cruel to me- un-Jesus-like. I have heard it used as a capitalist manifesto, but I do not think it has anything to do with money- I think it is something to do with wasted lives though. We have a call to live abundantly- not in terms of how much we gain and consume, but rather in terms of how we love and create.

However, there is more. Jesus had much to say about our duty towards the poor. He was never into the blame game. He seemed to prefer the company of those who had little. He seemed to invite his followers to do the same;

Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

These are not easy issues. They can not be dealt with by one dimensional politics, or well meaning liberal intentions.

Ultimately, the success or failure of Pickles’ latest pet project will not be at his cost- it will be felt by those most vulnerable people in our society.

International Woman’s Day…

Today is International Woman’s Day.

I wondered about the need for a day to celebrate half of us- seems a wee bit of an over generalisation. Perhaps it might suggest too that all the rest are ‘men’s days’.

But then again perhaps they are right;

  • Women make up half of the world’s population and 70% of the world’s one billion poorest people.
  • Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food, but earn only 10% of the world’s income.
  • Of the 500,000 women who die in childbirth every year, 99% live in developing countries. In other words, in developing countries, a girl or a woman dies every minute giving birth.
  • Two thirds of the 800 million adults who lack basic literacy skills are women.

(Figures from Traidcraft. You can donate a few quid towards their work to support women to help themselves here.)

I can change little about the justices and injustices of this wonderful broken world we live in, apart from little bits of money here and there, and perhaps some words.

Because I still hope that poetry might find cracks and widen them.

I read an interview in which the opening lines of this poem were spoken by a mother over her daughter, and they did something to me. I hope that you will forgive this white, middle class man for presuming to use the voice of a woman in this way- as some of the words were hers…

I have a dream for my daughter

That she may live a life

Better than mine

That this plastic bowl I fill with water

Might one day be plumbed-in porcelain

That the cotton dress worn thin by the rocks I wash it on

Might become a pressed skirt and blouse all office white

That these Flip Flops sewn with telephone wire

Might be breathed upon by some God-mother

And become instead

An English bicycle

.

I have a dream for my daughter

That she may not be owned

Or used

Or victimised

She will be strong

Like bright green bamboo

She will speak

And men will listen

Poverty in small towns…

A few years ago I found myself in the middle of one of those internet ‘spats’- you know the sort- a discussion forum kind of thing that becomes increasingly acrimonious and strangely hurtful.

It was a surprise for several reasons- firstly the discussion ranged across several different Christian sites, and a FB group which I had set up in an attempt to make connections around ‘emerging church’ types of issues. You would have thought that Christians would know better than argue about doctrine and practice wouldn’t you?

Secondly I was surprised how difficult I found the discussion. Insulated by cyber-space and in discussion with people I did not really know, I was still vulnerable. I think this was because I was so hungry for connection at the time, and the end result was the opposite of this. It felt like such an opportunity lost.

And finally because I felt something that I carried as a strength (my commitment to social justice) came under direct attack.

The issue raised was the ‘Emerging Church is middle class’ one. The evidence for this was that it tended to attract white, male, professional Christian malcontents, who lived in the suburbs.

Mixed in with this was a bit of a issue of funding- it was suggested at the time that the resources released to and by these groups tended to go no-where near the disenfranchised and marginalised parts of our society.

One of the protagonists was part of a church planting movement, whom I will not name, but clearly was fired with a passion for urban outreach, which for him meant moving out of the suburbs to live and witness in the city amongst the people in the greatest poverty and the greatest need. I admired and was challenged by his zeal, but pointed out that this was not the only way that the emerging church communities might engage with their context. I listed some of the ways that my own community tried to do this-

1. Many of us worked within caring professions- social work, community work, youth work.

2. Several of us where unable to work for health reasons, but still volunteered in LINK clubs, charity shops, community action.

3. Our group itself was made up of a fairly broad spectrum of people- several with acute MH problems, others in later years, and our activities were certainly not heavy on resources- everything we did was on a shoestring.

4. And we looked for partnerships with other community groups all the time- locating what we did in the middle of our town, not out in the comfortable outskirts (if indeed there are any!)

I also talked about the nature of living and working in rural/small town Scotland- the hidden poverty and stigmatising that can be part of such places- and how suggesting that poverty only existed in cities was rather silly.

None of this cut any ice. From his point of view, I think that social work was part of the problem, certainly not the solution, and all the rest was justification for not doing what Jesus wants us to do- which was to move to the city and work with the poor.

I think in some ways, I kind of agree with him. The comfortable life we live in Dunoon is a far cry from inner city streets. The question of how this integrates with a trying to live as followers of Jesus has exercised my thoughts constantly.

And no-one is a harsher critic of Social Work than I am- even though to blame my profession for poverty makes as much sense as blaming the police for crime, or ambulance drivers for car accidents.

But the fact is, I am here. My kids are here. My friends and my community are here. The measure of the life we live is how we might seek to live out lives full of Grace wherever we find ourselves.

And we should be careful about imposing our own passions and our calling on others. I wonder how things have gone for my friend. I genuinely hope that they have gone well, and that  good has been done in situations of real need. But my experience has been that wisdom comes with miles travelled- and a few failures/successes along the way.

The discussion is ancient history now but the reason I am raking it up again is because of a newspaper report I read today about my little town. Mortality and poverty rates are the third worst for any area across the whole of the Scottish Highland area. Only the Merkinch area of Inverness and Alness, south Wick have poorer measures. I sort of knew this instinctively, but it is still a surprise to see it confirmed by wider measures.

The picture of the whole county is similarly challenging- 18000 of the 60,000 people of Argyll and Bute live in poverty, and our take home pay is 9% less than the national average.

In the mix are high levels of alcohol abuse. Reports from the courts in our local paper are almost all alcohol related.

All this means that inequalities in health have worsened- those in poverty are likely to suffer poorer health than 10 years ago- and these people are also more vulnerable in the current economic climate, as public services are squeezed, and low paid jobs become more competitive.

How do you do anything about this? What combination of micro and macro interventions might begin to change it all? Whole reports have been written about all this (remember the Black report?)

It is never easy- but for sure, one important component is the heart and strength of the communities we are part of. The wellbeing we experience through connection and shared purpose and meaning. The learning of tolerance and respect despite all the usually opponents to these things.

We do not have all the answers- I am no Messiah, but this sounds to me like a calling. A Jesus kind of calling…

A vicar in a riot…

Someone tweeted this today- which I think is a rather wonderful piece.

It tells the story of a Chaplain Hayley Matthews on her way home, suddenly ‘Kettled’ along with a group of looters and rioters- and their strange reaction to the presence of a dog collar.

In his piece, she said this- which I really liked…

The trouble is, we do have a two tier society without a doubt, and while bankers have been allowed their bonuses having stitched us up every which way, we will continue to pay for this in more ways than one, and tonight is just one of them.  With the cuts aimed primarily at the poor and the needy and the disenfranchised, things can only get worse.

And what will we do?  Continue to promulgate the values that have created this deadly cocktail of haves and have-nots, faithless, hopeless people who have been taught that consumerism is a recreational right and all moral and religious education completely nonsensical?  Surely THIS is nonsensical?!

Please God that we wake up and smell the coffee, before we condemn yet another generation (no pun intended).

Poverty and debt in the UK…

I have just been reading some research by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on UK poverty.

Poverty? In the UK? This from an article in the Church Times- here

What does it mean to be poor in the UK today? For many of us, the Victorian notion of poverty may still persist in our minds: ragged, barefoot chil dren, malnourished, overworked par ents, and slum housing. Yet in 21st-century Britain it is possible to be in poverty and own a mobile phone.

Poverty is a relative concept, explains Chris Goulden of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Where once it was measured on the basic principle of the “basket of goods”, the official poverty line is now set at 60 per cent of the national median income (currently £377 a week), i.e. £226.

For children who are classed as disadvantaged, it is as much about their participation in society as about their diet and clothes. While it may be possible to buy cheap tech nology such as mobile phones, these children may still not be able to af ford to go on the school trips, which can be relatively expensive, Mr Goulden says.

The number of people officially in poverty is increasing in the UK; and they are most likely to be children, pensioners, the disabled, or single-parent families. While New Labour made inroads into cutting poverty when it first came to office, this has now gone into reverse. According to the latest figures, after housing costs are taken into account, there are 13.2 million people in poverty today — about one in five of the population.

Of these, two to three million are thought to be in extreme poverty, living on just 40 per cent of the average income.

We live in a time when our obsession with ownership- of houses, of shiny electronic devices, of constructed and packaged experience- is at an all time high. This addiction to consumption has received some closer examination in the wake of recent economic upheavals, but the trend remains.

The IPRR research followed 58 low-income families in London, Newcastle, Nottingham and Glasgow aimed to understand what the expansion of household debt has meant for them. The research found that many low income families have become increasingly vulnerable and exposed because of debt, which has increased substantially in the last decade- from 93 to 161 per cent of disposable income over the last decade.

The study found that the main reason that families got into trouble was because of a reduction in income- the loss of a job to one of the working members, or the reduction of a benefit. The effects of this were often catastrophic.

Poverty, once some basic human needs are satisfied, is always relative.

Our sense of security, of personal value and of mental wellbeing is fuelled by lots of things, but in this world of shiny consumption, it is certainly influenced by our ability to make the same consumer choices that those around us are making.

It is very hard to resist the truth of this. Particularly for those whose finances are marginal. Choices that we make to stand aside from the consumer madness- to make decisions to live a simpler life- these may feel like middle class indulgences to many people when faced with kids who are fed a relentless stream of advertisements for gaming consoles, mobile telephones and expensive clothing.

This kind of poverty is no less brutalising.

Poverty is still the main predictor of lower life expectancy, poor educational outcomes, health problems, mental illness, family dysfunction, poor housing etc etc.

What is the answer?

I suspect that this relates to the need for much wider societal change- the need to find a different way of experiencing human society that breaks with the economic enslavement that our capitalistic system demands of us. To find meaning and relationships in other things.

Is this possible?

I think that it ought to be possible for the people of Jesus, if for any of us- despite our tendency to forget our call to be in this world, but not of it.

And I still hope that there will be enough of us prepared to live extraordinary lives, so that the huge loaf that is society will have a different leaven.

Or to put it a different way, we would learn to live up to the business of being salt to bring out the flavour in our communities, or light to illuminate the beautiful and small.

But- for me, there is the seduction of middle class security, and the accumulation of more stuff. It may yet be the end of us- and what a sad way to go…

Poverty and the emerging church…

So- are ’emerging churches’ and the people that use the label middle class and self absorbed with their own little slice of post modern spirituality?

Check out this discussion thread, in which Paule Ede, who lives and works in a tough part of Glasgow as part of an ‘Urban Expression‘ church plant. I think the discussion rapidly got a little heated, which is a shame as it seemed to be digging into something that is very important. I have a lot of respect for the things that Paul was saying, and for the challenge it ought to bring to those of us whose lives are led in a different direction.

Poverty is not romantic. It is rarely a choice, and always brings the aspiration of escape. It brutalises and robs people of health and opportunity. But the presence of such inequality in our world is as much as anything, our shame. It’s presence in our streets and cities is a sign of our failure.

poverty2804_468x431

A consistent theme on this blog has been that of social justice. I have lived my life convinced that the call of Jesus is perhaps first and foremost towards the poor, broken and hungry. It pushed me towards a certain understanding of spirituality, and into a career in social work, and mental health work in particular.

But we can be creatures of contradiction and self congratulation in the face of contrary evidence. I live in a big house in a beautiful place. I have a fairly new car, and a well paid public sector job. Like most men I have a weakness for gadgets. I have accumulated lots of STUFF- most of which I do not really need. In short, I live a life like most of the other people in our affluent suburbs.

I discussed this with friends in my small ’emerging’ community the other day, and my thinking changed a little.
My own group is in Dunoon. Dunoon is a fairly affluent area, although has a significant underclass of folk who ended up here, almost washed up ‘doon the watter’ from the big city. We too have lots of difficulties- drugs, under age drinking. We also are a culture that has more than it’s fair share of loneliness, isolation and brokenness.

Last week we watched a Mike Frost DVD as part of a study we are doing around the book ‘Exiles’. Frost was thundering eloquently and movingly about the nature of our calling as Christians to get into ‘Dangerous criticism’ of the empire we are part of (Subordinate and secondary perhaps to our call to BLESS the empire where we can.) He spoke a lot about consumer driven over consumption, and the poor. Following on from the discussions on this blog, I began to shrink a little into the chair I sat in, in my big house, well heated and full of my friends.

But during the discussion that followed I looked around the room with tears in my eyes. Three of us have had serious mental health problems, two addictions, several have long term chronic illnesses, others carry other wounds. Some are on benefits, others are in work. Some will have a posh holiday this year, others will go camping when they can. But we have found a place of friendship and acceptance from which we are seeking means to bless others- particularly the poor.

Then there is the work and activity we do that is a direct result of the faith within us and the call of Jesus. I started to make a list of things that we are connected with-

One of us volunteers on the committee of a local addictions charity.

One runs the ‘time bank’
One supports volunteering opportunities and helps small community groups
One manages a charity that helps homeless young people
Two others work as life coaches and run stuff for young people
Another does suicide awareness training
Another is a counselor and has a particular interest in bereavement issues
Another is seeking to get allotments established to allow folk to grown their own food
Another has set a local charity to refurbish play equipment on the west bay
Another works in Greenock to help kids get some meaningful work experience
Another is a volunteer at a local old folks home
Another is a student who is studying addictions
Another is a reporter in the local paper, campaigning around justice issues

Does this get us ‘off the hook’ then?

Well, no.

I think the call of Jesus on our lives is always destabilising, always calling us out of comfort into the journey with him. As soon as we think we have it sorted- no matter how challenging the context, then we are destined to fall flat on our faces, or descend into mundanity. This is challenge for those of us in the emerging church as much as it is for any other church grouping.

And one of the ways that people who have lots of stuff are always going to be challenged is in relation to our comfort and wealth. We are challenged not because these things are bad, but because they can so easily be idolatrous and ensnaring.

So for those of us with big houses and cars- what use are we putting them to? How dependent are we on stuff in the chase for happiness and fulfillment- whether or not we have it, or just WANT it?

These are not easy questions, but Jesus knew that- remember the rich young ruler who Jesus ‘looked at with love’.

The emerging church, in it’s theologising and pontificating is indeed a middle class phenomenon. Perhaps it’s true test will be how it lives out the call of Jesus towards the poor.

Poverty in the UK- Blog action day

In the dying days of the ill fated Labour government in the late 1970’s, a report was commissioned from Sir Douglas Black into the causes and potential solutions to the inequalities in the health of the people of Britain.

This report, known as the Black report has become infamous amongst political and social scientists.

By the time the report had been completed, Thatcher had been swept into power on a platform of promises to break the power of the Unions, and to cut and control public expenditure. The report must have landed on her desk like an old kipper The Government wanted to bury it, but eventually released it on a bank holiday Monday, with a minimum of publicity. The report was never published- instead 260 photocopies were made available.

What was so controversial?

Black provided convincing figures that showed what many suspected—that the poorest had the highest rates of ill health and death. He argued that these rates could not be explained solely by income, education, mobility, or lifestyle, but were also caused by a lack of a coordinated policy that would ensure uniform delivery of services. He recommended health goals, tax changes, benefit increases, and restrictions on the sale and advertising of tobacco. Patrick Jenkin, the social services secretary, estimated with a shudder that Black’s proposals, which he hinted were little short of outrageous, would cost an unthinkable £2bn a year.

Excerpt from Sir Douglas Black’s obituary in the BMJ- here.

Leaving aside the economic questions raised by the cost of Trident nuclear weapons systems, or a war in the Falklands, the real political dynamite of this report was simply this- poverty makes people ill, and many of them die young.

This report was not talking about people who living marginal existences in sub-Saharan Africa- it was describing families living in one of the richest countries in the world- the worlds first industrialised country- Great Britain.

The Black report was not alone in reaching this conclusion. 28 years later World Health Organisation figures record a gap of 10 years between affluent Kensington and Chelsea, and post industrial Glasgow. Check out this article from the BBC.

This hides the real issues though- the figures represent areas, not individuals at risk. For example, if you are a homeless rough sleeper, your life expectancy is 42 years.

There have been many discussions about how poverty leads to poor health in Britain. Poor diets, obesity, poor education, poor housing, unequal access to health services, stress- all these no doubt play a part- but the common issue that even the New Labour administration are not happy to dwell on is… poverty.

I do not intend to get into a discussion about how we define poverty- the whole relative or absolute thing. Poverty, once seen, is recognised by most of us. It is easy to blame. It is easy to be repelled and repulsed by squalid living.

Because poverty brutalises.

I have worked as a social worker for all my adult life. I have seen people living in conditions that are hard to believe. A man who lived in a house with a broken overflowing toilet for 15 years. A young woman whose body was broken by drug use and prostitution to the extent that she simply forgot to eat. A woman who was so caught up in her need to escape that she drinks the alcohol based handwashes in the hospital. And many many people who live in fear of a loss of benefit, because life is so marginal- with choices to be made over whether to feed the electricity meter, or the cat, or sometimes- the kids.

These people are not described as poor. We now talk about ‘social exclusion’. Almost as if we stopped inviting them to parties.

There are no easy answers. This, I think, is the reason that Jesus said the the poor would always be with us– and why the early church seemed to have at it’s very heart a desire to serve the poor. Strange then to hear these words of Jesus spoken as justification for inaction.

There are some national policy decisions that will always impact the poor. Progressive taxation, as opposed to the imposition of tax on food or fuel. Public transport, good social housing, employment opportunities and support, adequate benefits- particularly to single parents or vulnerable older people. These things are all good- and we might raise our collective voices in support… but for me there is also a personal dimension.

Because those of us who are paid to try to make a difference soon realise that all we do is administrate. We may have some small success- and this keeps us trying- but ultimately, we bring only sticking plaster to road traffic accidents.

But I believe in redemption and renewal, and lives transformed. And for this to happen- this brings humanity and hope to my own brokenness- and richness to my own poverty. As Jean Vanier put it

Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, not those who serve the poor! … The healing power in us will not come from our capacities and our riches, but in and through our poverty. We are called to discover that God can bring peace, compassion and love through our wounds.

Some more links to poverty issues in the UK

Child poverty

Save the Children

Health inequalities, Scotland

Greed, Capitalism and Gordon Gekko…

I had an early start this morning- leaving the house at 7.30 am for a two hour drive. As ever, BBC radio 4 was my faithful companion on the road…

And of course, the morning news was full of the current world financial crisis, brought about by the so-called ‘credit crunch’ and the collapse of an American bank sending shock waves round the world’s stock markets.

We await to see whether the giant insurance firm AIG, responsible for trillions of dollars investments, will topple and fall over also.

We are finding out that when a butterfly flaps in the windows of a wall street office, then not even a post office account in sleepy Argyll is unaffected by the resultant tidal waves of monetary insecurity.

And no-one seems to have any clear idea of what happens next. It is almost as if the animal that we created now has a will of its own, and a malevolent will at that… The radio carried interviews of doom mongers, and other folk seeming to suggest that the worst was over, and we just needed to stop the panic, which was the cause of the whole thing in the first place.

And then there was this other discussion- about the nature of the capitalist system itself, and the greed at the heart of it all.

And we remember again the words uttered by the fictional stock broker Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film ‘Wall Street’ (played brilliantly by Michael Douglas)- Greed is good…

Gekko has become an iconic figure, acting as an archetypal capitalist, but in the process asking questions about the meaning and nature of a culture built on the pursuit of MORE, always MORE. Capitalism, and neo-liberal economics rule the economic roost at the moment, and no-one seems to be able to challenge the ideological truth of ‘trickle-down’ benefits of the creation of wealth, and the release of entrepreneurial aspiration, red in tooth and claw.

This morning, world renowned economists were asked whether they thought that this crisis had been brought about by greed. Both replied that they thought that it had. They thought that some greed was needed- but there had been too much!

They described how a long period (16 years) of economic growth had resulted in complacency and increased risk taking on the part of bankers, stock brokers and financiers. And how ‘rocket scientists’ (a euphemism for people who design ever more complicated financial products in order to seek out profit) have designed complicated financial processed that are not understood by most of the people whose companies are selling them.

Many of the huge profits generated by the banks have been made by selling and buying products with borrowed money. Sometimes, the borrowing ratio to the assets of banks can be 30-40-even 50 to 1. This is fine as long as there is lots of money sloshing around the system, but it only takes a few variables to change- interest rates, commodity and fuel prices, economic slow down, the rise of the Far East, etc etc, and suddenly, apparently impregnable banks are dreadfully exposed and vulnerable.

These are, after all, human institutions, made after our own image.

But we are made in the image of God are we not? And as a Christian, I find myself experiencing dissonance with any system that depends on greed and grasping as the engine of its very survival. Is there really no other way? Do I have to be complicit with this way of living?

I have a mortgage and a car loan from the Bank of Scotland. This bank has lost 40% of it’s share price in the last two days. Who knows what the future is for the BOS, and for my accounts?

But, is this the most pressing economic reality pressing in on our culture? Is Capitalism really working? Or is it serving only the narrow interests of people like me, who experience many of its benefits at the expense of those who do not?

Is the real economic crisis to be found in a world in which things like this are ever present;

So what on earth can be, or should be our response?

I am humbled again. Reminded that my storehouse is not on earth, but in heaven.

And that when I serve the least of these, I serve Jesus.