The poor you always have with you, Jesus said. But the mark of a civilized society is that it will set a limit to that poverty.
France’s Henri IV said that he would have no peasant in his kingdom too poor to have a chicken in his pot every Sunday. A modest aim by today’s standards, but the principle is the same: we recognize that even if some people’s talents or opportunities bar them from making enough money to care for themselves adequately, they are entitled to help and support because they are human beings.
The problem that has faced every government since the war has been the same. How is it possible to make sure that everyone has enough to live on without removing the incentive for people to work? How is people’s labor to be valued when what they produce isn’t worth enough to keep them?
Do you skew the markets and bankrupt the exchequer, or work them as hard as you can and rely on charity to make up the difference? Does your warm heart rule your cool head, so that the list of entitlements grows longer and longer, and in the end it isn’t worth someone going to work at all?
And is that latter course, in the end, good for anyone?
In case any reader is thinking that these issues are hardly a gospel concern, think again. Worklessness is bad for the mind, body and spirit: study after study has shown the effects of it on physical and mental health. It is a criminal waste of human potential, and that is a deeply Christian concern.
The Centre for Social Justice has made a highly significant contribution to this debate. It shows that the present system actively discourages people on benefits from seeking work because of the pernicious effects of benefit withdrawal.
In other words, someone on benefits has to earn so much to make it worth going back to work that for most low-skilled people it simply isn’t worth it. And the sheer complexity of the system, with its 51 separate benefits, not only makes it difficult for many people to know what is due to them but is also profoundly alienating.
The Tory-led Centre for Social Justice has, in its short life, won a considerable reputation for thinking the unthinkable and backing up its arguments with rigorous research and incontrovertible facts. Here, its proposals to simplify the benefits system and reduce the amount withdrawn when someone re-enters work are a model of informed common sense.
Whichever party is in government this time next year, it would be failing the electorate if it did not, as a matter of urgency, consider the proposals that the Centre for Social Justice has made.
Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and managing editor for ChristianToday.com. He served previously as the editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain.