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franciscan - May 2001

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001

Listen, hear - poverty close at home

By Niall Cooper

We are all concerned about the plight of people in poverty in developing countries. Many of us have been active supporters of the Jubilee 2000 campaign, working for the cancellation of unjust and unpayable international debt. But what about the reality of poverty much closer to home?

People living in poverty face many barriers when trying to get by with the ordinary business of daily life. Not enough money. Not enough information. Not enough confidence. The list goes on. But that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that too often people experiencing poverty do not feel respected. Too often they are not respected. Instead they are labelled ‘lazy’, ‘work-shy’, ‘disruptive’ and worse – seen as ‘problems’ rather than human beings. Too often they are denied what most of us take for granted – simple courtesy, dignity, respect and the basic ability to exercise choice over many of the things that affect their daily lives.

Take Moira’s story:

I had two children and no maintenance from my ex-husband. I had no family to support me and was totally financially dependent on social security. When my giro didn’t arrive I started to panic as we had no electricity left, no gas or coal for heating and very little food. I went to the local DSS office and was told my giro was in the post. When it didn’t arrive the next day I went back – and this was repeated every day for a fortnight. I became increasingly desperate and angry and, on one occasion, clearly heard one of the staff say, ‘Here comes that bloody woman again.’ By the third week, and two days before Christmas, I had to borrow money for food and gas stamps. I put a match to the oven and was met by a ball of flame which burnt my face and hair – I must have turned on the power earlier and forgot to light it. I could have been killed. I ended up in A&E suffering from burns and shock. This would not have happened had I not been out of my mind with worry. I told a friend and he took me down to the main DSS office, where I went in all guns blazing demanding to see the manager and refusing to leave until I had my giro. Ten minutes later I had my giro – it had been on someone’s desk all the time!

Moira’s story – of powerlessness, frustration and anger in the face of an impersonal bureaucracy that can treat her with such apparent disrespect – is not an isolated one. In spite of the unparalleled wealth that we ‘enjoy’ as a nation, the daily reality of poverty continues to blight the lives of millions. One in three children live in households officially classified to be in poverty. Over 10.5 million suffer from financial insecurity. One in seven of the population are too poor to be able to engage in two or more common social activities considered necessary by the rest of society: visiting friends and family, attending weddings and funerals or having celebrations on special occasions.

A simplistic view of poverty is that it means not having enough money to provide the basics for life. However, in the words of the 1985 Church of England report Faith in the City, ‘Poverty is not only about shortage of money. It is about rights and relationships; about how people are treated and how they regard themselves; about powerlessness, exclusion and loss of dignity. Yet the lack of an adequate income is at its heart.’

In the work that Church Action on Poverty has done with people in poverty over recent years, one theme which consistently crops up is the way in which poor people feel ‘invisible.’ People’s own direct experiences of poverty, and their own attitudes and ideas about what can be done to tackle it, are held to be of no value whatsoever.

‘What is poverty? Poverty is a battle of invisibility, a lack of resources, exclusion, powerlessness . . . being blamed for society’s problems.’ This finding was echoed by the report of The Commission of Inquiry into Poverty, Participation and Power, published in December 2000. The Commission’s report, Listen Hear, documents how, far too often, people experiencing poverty are not treated with respect, either in general or by the people they come into contact with most. They are often seen as ‘lazy or shiftless, or scroungers who won’t get a job’, as one of the Commissioners put it.

The Bishop of Stepney, John Sentamu, a member of the Commission, observed that: ‘We found a stark divide between decision makers and the people they claim to represent. This government says it wants to tackle the root causes of poverty, not relieve the symptoms. Our evidence shows that at the root of poverty is powerlessness. Genuine participation is a human right and, if things are to change, people living in poverty must have a real voice in the decisions that affect their lives.’

The report highlights the anger and frustration of those experiencing poverty who believe their voices are not being heard. The evidence gathered by the Commission revealed the stark division between the people who make the decisions – politicians, civil servants, local councils – and the people they claim to represent.

‘We want our voices heard ...
We are more than just a postcode ...
Listen to our views.’
Young people, Scotland, part of Voices for Change project

But lest we become too morally righteous about the mote in others’ eyes, the Churches must beware the possible plank in our own. Churches can be rightly proud of our long-standing commitment to addressing the needs of people suffering from poverty, homelessness, unemployment and distress within (and without) our own communities. But how many of our church projects and church-linked charities are run with the active participation of those whom they seek to serve? A national survey of day centres in the early 1990s found that many church projects continue to offer services, to a predominantly white and male clientele, rooted in a passive and philanthropic attitude that ‘homeless people were the passive recipients of hand-outs from urban missionaries.’
Can we yet claim that we are an empowering church? In an interesting reversal of the usual direction of ‘exchange visits’, two homelessness activists from Sao Paulo (Brazil) spent a fortnight visiting church homelessness projects in London a few summers ago. What they found was that, unlike in Sao Paulo, the churches in the UK, with a few notable exceptions, tended to see homeless people as recipients rather than as active partners. One of the visitors, Maria Antonieta da Costa Viera, observed that, ‘the Christian commitment would be to assume the prophetic mission of announcing a new way of life and accepting the goal of participation in the transformation of an unjust world into a friendly community.’

We all lose out when people living in poverty don’t participate. Participation will only work if it involves everyone. It must involve a change in attitudes and behaviour by politicians, professionals and us all. It must make a difference. And unless that happens, both our own efforts, and wider Government policies to tackle poverty and revitalise our society, will not succeed.

Church Action on Poverty is committed to making real what Bishop David Sheppard famously called God’s ‘bias to the poor’. We work with churches and local groups across the UK to find ways of ensuring that the voices of those in poverty are heard, and their hopes, ideas and aspirations for change are acted upon, both locally and nationally. Will you come and join us? f

Free summaries of Listen Hear and further information about how you can join Church Action on Poverty are available from:

Wyn Goggins
Central Buildings
Oldham Street
M1 1JT

(0161) 236 9321

and on CAP’s website at: www.church-poverty.org.uk/

Niall Cooper has been National Coordinator of Church Action on Poverty since 1997. He has also worked as national organiser for the Churches National Housing Coalition and as a church-related community worker in Manchester since the mid 1980s.


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