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)