The Politics of Poverty
Over the next few weeks, we invite you to join us as we share articles, videos and interviews highlighting the issues around poverty in Northern Ireland and what is being done about it.
We asked one of our research assistants, Chris Anderson, to shed light on the politics of poverty and to share his opinion on the best approach to the issue.
Poverty is complex and often politicised and it’s all too easy to fall into tired political rhetoric and caricature. However, in times of increasing tension, Universal credit and austerity, we want to highlight both what the government is attempting to do well, and which parts of their approach to poverty require work.
The Bible presents poverty as an extremely complex and multifaceted problem. There are examples throughout scripture of solutions which could be considered “left” or “right” on the political spectrum. However, the complex nature of poverty requires an equally complex solution. Therefore, a focus on just one economic model is often insufficient in addressing the symptoms of poverty in our community. We live in a world of increasing disparity and greed and ultimately, we look to Christ and the scriptures when seeking to alleviate the problem of poverty and increasing socio-economic deprivation. The government has at least some part to play, and as Christmas approaches, we encourage them in this.
We see numerous examples of economic justice and redistribution of wealth throughout the Bible by those in positions of power. In his book “Generous Justice”, Tim Keller1 highlights that Israel redistributed money, assets and even land from the well off and gave to the poor through state sponsored laws and institutions. The welfare system is a pale imitation of the Jubilee and Sabbath laws. So, how can politicians help the most vulnerable?
Two economic approaches are often presented in an attempt to tackle poverty. Some theorists promote progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth by the state, whilst political conservatives lean towards voluntary charity as the means to reduce poverty. Liberals see the root cause of poverty to be systemic and social inequalities beyond the control of the needy. Whilst conservative theorists tend to raise causes such as family breakdown, addiction and accumulation of personal debt. Here, poverty is presented largely as either a structural or individual problem. Each side considers their approach as the one on the side of justice, however, the Bible does not conform to either approach.
As a whole, the Bible does not specify precisely how redistribution should take place. In Proverbs, we read “Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” We are called to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves and defend the rights of the poor. Politicians hold a unique position of power in which they can implement real change. As Christians, we are called to protect the needy in society. We therefore seek to engage in a meaningful way, to encourage politicians to steward their role well.
What does this look like in our context?
Poverty is widespread in Northern Ireland, be that relative, child, rural or fuel. As of 2016, 20% of people in Northern Ireland are considered to be in poverty. There is also a marked rise in poverty among working age adults2. Furthermore, the Belfast Telegraph reported in 2016, that 100,000 children face poverty in Northern Ireland3.
It is easy to paint a bleak picture- a country which struggles to reach the pre-recession peak in employment and housing4. In a country currently without an Assembly, the media often features a narrative of a failed government and failed state. However, at grass roots level, Northern Ireland is filled with passionate and creative individuals and organisations seeking to make a positive impact on those who are most in need. Our friends at CAP and Storehouse are just two examples of the extensive work which goes on outside the Assembly to fight poverty in our communities.
However, this is not a reason to disengage with our politicians. As Christians, it is important that we navigate the space between faith and the politics to impact society. In Deuteronomy 15, we read that “there will always be poor people among you.” Yet just before it we read; “There should be no poor among you, for in the land of the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.” This is a challenge, but not one we should shy away from. It is important to lobby and engage with political representatives to encourage change.
What is our government doing?
The striking statistics which have already been discussed, highlight the need for further engagement in deprived communities. In the past, there has been a lack of cohesion and coordination in projects, however, cross-party approaches may be most effective when addressing the symptoms of poverty.
There is a lack of affordable and social housing across Northern Ireland and each of the five main parties have committed to building new homes throughout the country. All of the NI parties are in favour of a reformed welfare system which better serves those most in need. They have also opposed all or part of the Welfare Reform Bill, which reduced benefits for a number of people, as well as monetary cuts by the Westminster Government. As citizens, we should seek to encourage and lobby for the initiation of these strategies in a respectful, but persuasive manner.
The DUP-Tory deal promised £1bn for Northern Ireland, providing hope for many living in deprived areas. The deal included £100m over five years to help those who are most at risk in our deprived communities and £50m set aside for mental health provisions, which is often linked with poverty. There is hope. However, without an Assembly, these funds have not been made available as quickly as many hoped. We should pray for wisdom and diplomacy to be evident in continued talks between DUP and Sinn Fein; it is of the utmost importance that our government can help those in need.
Can more be done?
Of course, we are always inclined to answer “yes” to this question. Often, politicians are characterised as not working hard enough, or doing enough for constituents. Whilst in some cases this may be our experience, it is important to engage positively with politicians, in a way which reflects Christ.
Saying that, critique and scrutiny are crucial. In this vein, we should encourage politicians to give time to, and dedicate their work to the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland.
Personally, I would advocate for a cross-party, joint-ministerial strategy for tackling poverty in Northern Ireland; one well-coordinated approach may prove the most effective. Furthermore, a dedicated initiative to tackle the poverty on the streets of Belfast. Every party commits to tackling homelessness; however, I have thus far struggled to find a specific policy or plan detailing how our assembly will help end homelessness.
In times of poor debate and no Assembly, it can be easy to sit back and idly criticise the politicians of Northern Ireland.
As citizens of Northern Ireland, but also the kingdom, let us lobby, participate and encourage our politicians in order to stand for those who don’t have a voice.
1Keller, T. (2010) Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just, USA: Dutton.
2 Joseph Rountree Foundation. (2012) Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland 2012. Available at: file:///C:/Users/c.anderson/Downloads/poverty-northern-ireland-social-exclusion-2012-full.pdf