Your Fault, My Fault, His Fault, Their Fault

Your Fault, My Fault, His Fault, Their Fault

So there we were, sitting outside the pool house, basking in the sunshine, sipping wine, picking through the detritus of a delicious barbecue, and discussing the poverty trap.

Selena was asserting that a significant number of women choose to have more children so they can stay on benefits rather than go out to work.

Amy couldn’t believe this; she found it unfathomable that people would perceive a life on benefits as being preferable to working.

For Amy, work conveys a sense of dignity and self-worth as well as a way of contributing to society. It may be hard, but surely a life on benefits is harder? It limits what you can buy and the opportunities you have for travel and leisure, but more than that, it is a sign of failure, surely?

Selena, having grown up in an impoverished area of east London, where many have long given up any expectation of a different life, let alone hope for a better one, was used to hearing these attitudes expressed, though. Writing in the Daily Mail last weekend, she gave a number of first-hand examples of people for whom “the State was almost invariably the main breadwinner”:

A 15-year-old girl at my school happily told me that her ambition was to have a baby before she reached the age of 18 — a goal she easily achieved.

Another said that she was trying for a baby with her boyfriend who she didn’t expect to hang around after the birth. In both cases, they knew that social security would look after them.

As the discussion rumbled on, Amy disbelieving, Selena trying to convince, it became clear that both agreed the situation was wrong, but they disagreed on its causes.

For Selena, the State was at fault. She argues eloquently in her Daily Mail piece that the welfare state…

too often acts as a gigantic engine of social breakdown… [It] incentivises personal irresponsibility and family collapse.

Far from rescuing people from disadvantage, it traps many claimants and their children in the destructive cycle of welfare dependency, where values such as ambition and commitment are lost.

And she should know. Coming from a broken home herself, Selena attended a school that “at times…felt more like a youth centre, somewhere to hang out and pass the time, than a place of education”. The teachers never expected much from Selena, and never even encouraged her to take A-levels, let alone think about university.

Focusing in her article on the issue of fatherlessness, she urges the government to support marriage through tax breaks because:

A tax-break for  married couples is something that benefits all of us by sending a message that society values the family and the commitment, stability and self-sacrifice that goes with it.

Amy, though, argued that the issue was one of personal responsibility. People shouldn’t be reliant on schools, the government or anyone else to give them a sense of hope, ambition or self-worth, but need to take responsibility for their own actions and responses to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Who was right?

It’s probably no surprise to hear that I think both were.

The purpose of the welfare state should be to provide emergency back-up for those in genuine need – and I saw many people at Foodbank last weekend for whom the size and inflexibility of the system means that they had been driven to desperation while waiting for benefits to come through and give them the help they needed.

I was shocked to read a report from the new think tank Centre for London recently revealing that there are 15,000 households in London alone living in subsidised social housing despite having annual incomes of £60,000 or more. There is clearly something very wrong with the system!

Yet the people who stay in their Council flats long after they can afford to pay market rents are as much to blame as the system which allows them to stay there. Somewhere along the line, you have to take the responsibility to act against the expectations that are all to easy to live down to.

Selena herself is a good case in point.

Trying to move the pool-side conversation on, I asked Selena what could be done to get through to her contemporaries – what had worked for her?

“Only God!” she said, laughing. She hadn’t had a supportive family pushing her, she hadn’t been spotted by a dedicated teacher who devoted hundreds of extra hours to helping her pass exams, she hadn’t bumped into someone during work experience who had spotted her potential and opened mysterious doors for her. She alone had decided to get a job when leaving school, decided to work towards a better life than the spiral of relationships and breakups, joblessness and despair that she saw around her, and she attributes the dedication, commitment and self-belief that took to her relationship with God.

One thing I love about the church Selena, Amy and I attend is that it understands that the world’s problems have a number of causes on a number of levels, and is committed to working to effect change at all those levels. We’re not just telling people Jesus loves them and leaving them to feed and clothe themselves, but neither are we meeting their physical needs without giving them an opportunity to pursue a relationship with the God who can meet their spiritual needs. We’re working to help the single parents on the sink estates, but are also looking to come alongside those in power to help them make wise decisions about legislation and programmes they employ to support and promote the flourishing of British society at every level.

Our society has some deep flaws, and we’ve spent decades, if not centuries, propounding deeply damaging messages about what it means to be a good citizen, what you can expect from your Government and what the nation expects of you. Fixing the system isn’t going to be a magic bullet, though (even if it were possible to invent a perfect system in  fallen world), each person must take responsibility for his or her own actions, too, if we’re going to see an end to the destructive cycles of poverty and inequality that break the hearts of good people, and break the heart of God.

 Picture Credit: ‘Deep seated urban decay by ultraBobban (Creative Commons)

14 Comments On This Topic
  1. Alisa Russell
    on Jul 10th at 1:02 pm

    It was interesting to see that the debates on social support networks are similar no matter what country you’re in. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 10th at 11:37 pm

      Thanks Alisa, I feel they’re a little less heated here than on your side of the pond, but yes, essentially the same!

      Reply
  2. Peter P
    on Jul 10th at 10:31 pm

    Good stuff, Jen…. and an interesting group of people you hang around with!

    Did you or anyone bring into the conversation the question of, ‘What is success?” ?

    Amy considers living on benefits a sign of failure…. but what is better, to live on benefits and raise your children well or work 100 hours a week and have a boarding school raise your children? etc etc

    There are so many questions, so many sides to the story and so many possible ‘right’ answers that it seems to me a social security system is always going to be doomed to failure.

    I wonder if that’s why God didn’t set one up when he formed the nation of Israel?

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 10th at 11:43 pm

      Thanks Pete, it’s an amazing group of people I hang around with! I love them.

      No, we didn’t talk about ‘what is success’ – good question. That’s a huge one, isn’t it?
      Interesting that you think God didn’t set up a social security system – he definitely set up a system for caring for the vulnerable and those who couldn’t take care of themselves, didn’t he? (Widows and orphans, and the Jubilee system…) He commanded the community to take care of its weakest members, but in a sinful people who don’t do that themselves, to what extent and in what way should the state step in?

      I’m sure my friends and I will have a conversation about it sometime, and I’ll make sure I blog about it when we do!

      Reply
    • Natalie
      on Jul 11th at 1:53 am

      You could argue that God *did* set up a system in the provision of the year of Jubilee and commands as to how to treat widows, orphans, those in debt, aliens, etc…
      Great post Jennie. Very interesting. Are you friends on different political sides?

      Reply
      • Natalie
        on Jul 11th at 1:54 am

        Oops, didn’t see you’d already mentioned Jubilee, etc!

        Reply
      • Peter P
        on Jul 13th at 6:23 pm

        The provisions God put in place though are not quite the same though, in my opinion.

        God didn’t suggest that there be a system put in place where the state should take care of those things. He could have suggested that the widows etc be fed by the Levites from the food left over from the sacrifices, but he didn’t, he made it a matter of personal responsibility.

        I may be wrong, but from what I see, God did not create a state treasury from which to hand out help to people, which is what I class as a social security system, but rather he made it the responsibility of all the people, individually.

        … which goes back to my argument that the Constitution of the USA is destined to fail, if its aim is to create a nation of free, God loving people (as many on the right argue it is) because where God gave his people responsibilities, the constitution gives people ‘rights’, which creates a very, very different mindset.

        Reply
        • Jennie Pollock
          on Jul 13th at 7:25 pm

          True, but if God’s people refuse to obey and take care of the poor and needy, doesn’t the state have to step in?

          I’m totally with you on the rights/responsibilities thing, though. 🙂

          Reply
          • Peter P
            on Jul 14th at 12:07 am

            What is the State? I see nothing whatsoever biblically giving the state any kind of responsibility or rights over people’s lives.

            Take child abuse, for example. Can you find anything in the bible which gives anyone at any time the right to take children away from their families because the families are not treating them in the way that whoever is in power that day thinks they should be treated?

      • Jennie Pollock
        on Jul 19th at 11:56 am

        🙂
        Thanks Natalie. I’m not sure where either of them stand politically, but if I had to guess I’d say yes, they’re on different sides – but you never know…!

        Reply
  3. Timothy Wright
    on Jul 11th at 12:40 am

    Hi,

    The state in the UK is no longer a backup but an inducement for irresponsible behaviour. At our church in the USA we have a large food bank, and after people come more than 4 times in a row, we offer them financial budgeting courses. Many people who are Christians come and when the person who helps them with their budget, tells them that they can no longer go to the Gym every week or they need to cancel the sky because they can’t afford it, they get upset and say we have right right to tell them how to live and we say this is true, but you can no longer come here and receive food if you won’t take the responsibility to have self control and and active conscience over other people in the church who can’t afford the gym or sky and they donate the money for the food bank. Relational Poverty is challenging but needs to bring about emotional maturity in selfish and childish Christians.

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 19th at 12:05 pm

      Thanks, Tim.
      I saw a TV programme this week following some families/individuals on benefits, and one guy was living rent-free with his grandfather, getting ‘loans’ (though there was no sense he was keeping track of his borrowing with the intention of paying it back) from aunts and uncles, and using the money to buy top-of-the range designer clothes, shoes and computer equipment, and an iPhone 5 on a contract (paid for by another relative). He had a degree and wanted to find a job that used his degree, and wasn’t willing to take any old job just to start somewhere while he got his foot in the door, but also wasn’t willing to compromise his lifestyle to fit his circumstances.

      To be fair, the state was only paying him ‘Job Seeker’s Allowance’ which amounted to something like £750/year, and his family was bailing out the rest, but the principle was that he felt he deserved a ‘proper’ job, having studied for it, and felt he needed all the other stuff.

      Such a sense of entitlement in our society these days…

      Reply
  4. Beth Wray
    on Jul 11th at 10:08 pm

    Have you ever read ‘Teaching the Child Patriotism’? (Free for Kindle.) Shows a perspective similar to recent times in places but was written early 1900s. There are some absurd assumptions in it which made me laugh but other points relate to your discussion. As you are widely read you may have already found it but if not, I recommend a look.

    Reply
    • Jennie Pollock
      on Jul 19th at 11:55 am

      Ooh no, never heard of it. I’ll check it out. Thanks!

      Reply

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