måndag 11 februari 2008

Make UK Poverty History

Rough Sleeping, originally uploaded by seadipper.

I have just received the Columban Mission's quarterly news sheet Vocation for Justice. It is, as usual, an infuriating read. The latest issue deals with poverty in the UK, which, as anyone can see if they bother to look, is getting worse for some, with a widening gap between rich and poor.

But something that has been around since the late middle ages is not going to respond to an "initiative", nor to the indignation felt at this state of affairs. Sadly, organisations like Church Action on Poverty (CAP) have nothing more to offer, other than prayer and alleviative charity. These are essential, but if concerned people are not willing to get their heads around the problem at a more radical and intellectual level and start asking fundamental questions, nothing can change fundamentally, as it needs to.

Unjust Structures
The editorial talks about "unjust structures", which is a good start, but what precisely is their nature? Nowhere are they described, and the best explanation that can be given is that some people are poor because others are rich, which is far from the whole truth because it assumes, with no justification at all, that the size of the "cake" is fixed and the divisions are natural and inevitable.

Elsewhere in this issue, Niall Cooper of CAP refers to the Rowntree Foundation's report on the growing gap between rich and poor in the UK, and talks about solutions such as the Living Wage campaign. But this is no solution at all. It is nice if firms pay their cleaners and caretakers over the odds, but this begs the question of why it is that they can get away with paying the bare minimum in the first place. It also ignores the absurdity that people who earn the official minimum wage are already well over the Income Tax and National Insurance thresholds. A further difficulty is that if large numbers of people in menial jobs were paid substantially more, it would drive up housing costs and they would still be no better off. If everyone got a living wage it would not be a living wage any more! And attempting to deal with this by, for example, rent control, would lead to the large waiting lists and secondary market problems that plague the residential rental sector in Sweden.

It is impossible to get a grasp of what is happening without careful study, and "solutions" thought up in haste, in the absence of a proper understanding of the underlying economic processes have a tendency to aggravate the problems they are trying to solve.

Concerned people should move beyond the emotion of indignation and do some solid thinking on the subject. An obvious place for concerned Catholics to begin is the body of Catholic Social Teaching initiated with the publishing of Rerum Novarum in 1891. It leaves too much unsaid, but is a good starting point. If those who write for these Catholic publications are not promoting the social teachings of the church, who will?

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