The question of who or what is the cause of poverty and deprivation in the West is not a new one, but two events I attended last week caused me to ponder it again.
It’s something of a dilemma, of course – in order to fix a problem successfully, you need to understand both its nature and its cause, yet it is all too easy for ‘determining cause’ to slip into ‘apportioning blame’.
The extent to which we in the UK currently do this around the issue of poverty is highlighted in a new book, whose launch was one of the events in question. The Myth of the Undeserving Poor was written by my friend Natalie Williams and Martin Charlesworth, in their capacities with Jubilee+, a group seeking to encourage churches to get involved with social action, social justice and social enterprise.
I was challenged by the speeches given by Natalie, Martin and Lord Alton (whose speech you can read here), and particularly by Natalie’s reminder that “the Bible doesn’t paint a picture of some people who deserve help and others who don’t.” Jesus met people at their point of need, and was in fact often criticised for seeming to care more about those who were undeserving than those who had it all together.
Then on Thursday evening I attended the Centre for Social Justice awards ceremony:
Six awards were given out, to charities working with children, young people, families, recovering alcoholics, prostitutes, asylum-seekers and more. Any area of need you can imagine was probably covered.
The charities are all doing marvellous work, giving dignity, support and hope to hundreds who are too often forgotten and left foundering on the edges of a system they can’t make work for them.
Yet I found myself overwhelmed by the extent of the need. The awards were all to very small local charities, which is wonderful – each charity received £10,000, not the kind of money they are likely to easily come by elsewhere – yet each life they are able to touch represents thousands more up and down the country who will fall through the net unless someone else starts a similar service in their area.
On the theme of the causes of the issues, though, two things stood out:
First was a charity called Eikon. Winner of the CSJ’s Early Intervention award, this chair works with young people to give them support and life skills before their problems escalate. In his speech accepting the award, their founder told the story of a young boy who had been the first on the scene after his father had committed suicide. The support worker he spoke to contacted a number of agencies trying to find help for him, but was told he wasn’t needy enough: he wasn’t homeless, he wasn’t in a gang, he wasn’t on drugs… There was nothing they could do. The sense of frustration was palpable as said “But he will be, if we don’t help him now!”
Second I think was a comment from someone from Women@TheWell – a charity working with women involved in street-based prostitution. The point was made that many of these women come from abusive and deprived backgrounds, and until they turn 18 are seen as victims in need of support and help. On their 18th birthday, though, society’s attitude changes and all of a sudden the fingers of blame turn and point to them.
Now of course, of course, I believe we are responsible for our own actions. But equally I’m aware that poverty, deprivation and abuse have such a damaging effect on the physical development of the brain and its functionality, let alone on a person’s sense of self esteem, self-worth and hope, that the playing field is far from level.
The need is vast, and the issues are complex, and as so often when faced with such things, I find myself overwhelmed. Yet also as so often, I have come away convicted that two things are needed:
First, we each need to play our part, no matter how small it seems. We can’t all care about everything, but we must all care about something. Whatever your thing is, keep it up. You may only make a difference to one person, but that person matters. He or she was designed and created by the maker of the universe, and is of infinite value to Him, whether they are to our society or not.
And second, we need a culture-shift. We need the media, politics, the arts, businesses, churches, charities and individuals to work together to shift the narrative away from the concept of assistance based on desert towards one of need. I’ve probably used the title of this post as a quotation before – it’s a favourite of my friend Bill Drake’s, from a famous Western, ‘Unforgiven’, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” It’s totally out of context, but a great phrase. In this life, we don’t get what we deserve, life just doesn’t work like that, and we don’t have the wisdom or knowledge to accurately assess what anyone else might deserve. Let’s try instead to learn to be more like Jesus and meet people at their point of need without judging whether they are worthy of our help or not, and if you are in a position to have any influence over the way society – or the individuals in it – thinks about such issues, would you consider how best to use that influence?
The need is great, but the solution is achievable, with a lot of hard work and a lot of fervent prayer.