Money won't fix it: Diagnosing poverty today

By Matt Williams 16 Jan 2020

It wouldn’t be great news if your doctor told you this:

‘Your whole body is in bad condition – pretty much every part of you has a problem. It looks like a few cuts here, a few bruises there, but it’s much worse than you think. Bandages alone won’t help.’

However, this is the image used to describe Israel by one of its most famous prophets (Isaiah 1:6). Israel is sick, and the opening five chapters of Isaiah’s book catalogue all kinds of failings – not only ‘religious’, but political, military, social, legal, environmental and economic. The most vulnerable in society suffered the most as people scrambled for luxury and generally ‘put on a good face’ (Isa. 1:10-23). And who were the most vulnerable? Orphans and widows; in other words, those who had been cut off from their family structures.

In such a multi-faceted situation, addressing poverty simply as a ‘money issue’ obviously would have been nonsense. Relationships at every level had become toxic and Isaiah made it clear that it was all an outworking of a failure to relate rightly to God.

But for these children (the nation of Israel) to turn back to their divine parent was not a ‘spiritual’ affair. Organising a few extra worship services was branded as hypocrisy. ‘Repentance’ meant a concrete change of civic behaviour, returning to the God-given social order of Torah. At the heart of this was the household unit, which was supposed to provide care not only for its own members but also for other local people in need.

Poverty in the UK today

Some might say Isaiah’s diagnosis works for a tribal society in the 8th century BC, but what about the globalised modern world? Or even just the UK at the beginning of the 3rd millennium?

In reality, the fundamental elements of the situation have not changed at all. What’s more, failure to recognise this fact is fast making poverty an incurable disease.

The British public have long known that many suffer desperately from a lack of basic resources. Campaigns in the mould of ‘Live Aid’ continue to play a significant role in the development of popular conceptions of what it means to be ‘poor’. But recently the poverty issue has moved much closer to home.

Last year, a UN investigation claimed that poverty was endemic in the UK. A particularly striking claim was that this condition would describe nearly 40% of the nation’s children by 2021. The basic response from Theresa May’s government was to reject the whole report and any implication that it had violated human rights.

There are plenty of complexities around the way that poverty is measured, and part of the dispute between the UN and the UK revolves around statistical technicalities. However, what was left unaddressed (but never denied) by the Government was the experience of human suffering, especially lack of food or shelter. Philip Alston, the UN representative, saw much of this first-hand, confirming the concerns of various charities.

Anyone who has seen, been or known somebody forced to use a food bank or sleep rough has a sense of its seriousness. But they also know that injecting cash into the situation is not the answer. Something has gone wrong between people and those relational networks that should ensure they are adequately provided for. One of these networks is the family. Weakness in this key unit exacerbates child poverty, puts a strain on housing provision and makes state provision for elderly care completely unsustainable.

Our contemporary practice of diagnosing the situation as a ‘lack of money’ is mistaking a symptom for a cause. Failure to focus on relationships, especially those of the family (as both the UN and UK do) leaves the root cause of the problem firmly embedded.

Christian responses

It’s tempting to jump straight to the New Testament for a Christian response to this. Yet while we should start with Jesus, we need a full biblical perspective, not a partial one.

Jesus’ mission is to deal with the fundamental problem at the root of all evils, which is the relationship with God. In doing so, he instates a new mode of life centred on love for God and others. However, this should not allow theology and ethics to become ‘spiritualised’. As Jesus died for sins, economic and political sins were included – not least the material greed and kowtowing to the social power that led to his crucifixion. Likewise, concern for the poor, starting with those within the Christian ‘family’ is laced through the fabric of the Gospels and Epistles, not only Luke and Paul but also John (1 John 3:16-17).

None of this contradicts Isaiah’s original diagnosis; it only affirms it. In fact, Jesus condemns carelessness towards the Jewish Scriptures which shape his own identity and behaviour. When interpreted this way, the prophetic critique still stands. Not only this, but the model of extended family established in the Torah still stands too; Christianity’s sacralising of the ‘nuclear’ model of family is a much later invention.

The Church should lead the way in addressing poverty, seeing its roots in a breakdown of relationship with God and God’s ways. Specifically, those ways include how things work at home. Families have an economic role to play that goes beyond parental care for children (which is the most obvious family economic provision). Care for older generations, as well as local non-familied poor, is all part of the mandate that constitutes the life of the community. For a world that knows deep down that its diagnosis is bleak, seeing a healthy body will put flesh on the word of the gospel.

Matt Williams’ full report on family, poverty and the economy will be published in 2020.

Image Credit: '38th session of the Human Rights Council' by UN Geneva licensed under Creative Commons

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