Why Compassion, Why Now?
Christ called each of us to speak up for the poor, the needy and the less fortunate. The Compassion Project will seek to address this radical call for justice. As we approach the Christmas period, we seek to honour and support those struggling with 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.
Our world has never witnessed the levels of social and economic inequality that we observe today.
A recent Oxfam report found that eight of the world’s richest people own more wealth than half of the entire world (3.6 Billion people). In the United Kingdom, the top ten percent of households own forty-five per cent of the nation’s wealth.
However, in the midst of rising levels of poverty and social inequality across our nation, Christ calls his church to live out a different story of compassion, generosity and humility. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor and even said that what we do for the least in society, we actually do for him. The books of Acts reveals a beautiful Christ-centered community of believers were not one among them was in need. How many of our communities today can truly say that we have lived up to this jarring image of generosity? Jesus is always challenging us to remember the poor and treat them as if they were himself.
In these next weeks leading to Christmas, we will further explore Christ’s call to radical compassion and generosity; and how the church in Northern Ireland can respond and is responding to his call. The Christmas Story describes how God came as a child to a poor Jewish family in a forgotten part of Israel. Further outlining that God identifies with the poor because he himself became poor. In the same way, Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry a real compassion for the poor and needy. He always travelled to the margins of society, reaching people exactly where they were, calling them into the Kingdom of God and challenging the culture of shame that so often enveloped them. In light of this, may we be moved in this advent season to include the poor and needy wherever they may be found in our society.
What is poverty?
The matter of defining poverty has long been a difficult exercise. It is widely accepted that poverty is relative to time and place. In 2013 it was noted that at least 10.7% of the world lives on $1.90 a day. Most European countries agree that sixty percent of the median household income threshold is the poverty line. Therefore, anyone who exists below that line is technically living in poverty. In the United Kingdom, at least 13 million people are living below the poverty line. It could be argued that this rather arbitrary measure of gauging poverty gives us a strong indication of the scale of economic or material poverty, however it fails to outline other issues of relational poverty (including social isolation and loneliness) parity of participation (one’s ability to participate fully in civilian life) and quality of one’s environment (health, well-being and living environment). Increasingly we see the signs of spiritual poverty and time poverty. Our inability to fully quantify or understand the complete scale of poverty can often garner a total apathy towards the issue or a deep sense of hopelessness.
Where can it be found?
Poverty is rife in Northern Ireland. Research has shown that Northern Ireland has some of the most socially deprived areas in all of Western Europe. Research by the New Policy Institute published in March 2014 highlighted that between 2007/8 and 2011/2 the average (median) income in Northern Ireland fell by almost 10% compared with 7% for the UK as a whole. Poverty in Northern Ireland manifests in a number of forms. For example, research has shown that at least 25% of children in Northern Ireland grow up in poverty. More specifically, in north Belfast, 36% of children grow up in poverty and this increases to 43% in west Belfast .
The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency conducted further research; noting that five of the top ten most socially deprived wards in Northern Ireland are all in Belfast. Among these wards is the New Lodge area of North Belfast which sits nearly adjacent to the Cavehill ward, one of the most affluent wards in Northern Ireland. Further outlining how close poverty and wealth often sit together geographically.
Northern Ireland experiences some of the worst debt poverty in the whole UK. Christians Against Poverty or “CAP” outlined in a research paper for the Northern Ireland Assembly that the average family in Northern Ireland is £15,825 in debt. Cap have suggested that these high levels of debt are caused by marital breakdown, long term unemployment and mental health problems. Northern Ireland also has higher levels of mental ill health than any other region in the UK . Around 1 in 5 adults and around 45,000 of children here have a mental health problem at any one time. Unfortunately, many of these mental health problems stem from our history of conflict in the Island. Issues such as post-traumatic stress and anxiety often contribute heavily into poverty and social exclusion.
Northern Ireland has experienced some of the highest rates of home repossession in the United Kingdom. The financial crash of 2007 meant that many home owners fell into negative equity and deep arrears. Figures from the Enforcement of Judgments Office in Belfast show that a total of 6,286 homes were repossessed by banks and building societies from 2007 to 2014. As a result, the spiral of debt and homelessness has continued to grow in Northern Ireland.
The Church of Ireland Diocese of Down and Dromore’s “On Our Doorstep” poverty report found that at least 53% of senior citizens say that television is their main source of interaction and one in four say that they spend at least fifteen hours alone each day. Furthermore, they noted that Northern Ireland has extremely high levels of rural poverty that often go unnoticed and unchallenged. A quarter of farmers in Great Britain live below the poverty line, and this is similar in Northern Ireland. New policy research has indicated that the greatest levels of real poverty are found in the west of Northern Ireland. Research has indicated that in these areas, up to 23% of rural people are living in poverty. As the prices of fuel, fertiliser and food (meal) go up, many farmers are now feeling the squeeze in their pockets.
Those who come to Northern Ireland as refugees, asylum seekers or migrants often experience higher levels of poverty. The Refugee Action report found that almost 50% of asylum seekers are unable to feed themselves or their families for the week. Many migrant and refugee families experience high levels of social isolation, deprivation and lack of basic access to public funds and social security. As a result they are much more likely to remain in abject poverty.
The Department of Social Development have indicated that around 50% of households in Northern Ireland are now in fuel poverty. The rate of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is around three times that of England and more than a third more compared to Scotland and Wales. The Simon Community in Northern Ireland indicate that 100,000 people in Northern Ireland have no permanent home. We often imagine homeless people as solely rough sleepers but homelessness can in fact assume many forms. These include staying with relatives, sleeping in cars and living in hostels. However, across the UK, the level of rough sleepers has increased. In Northern Ireland, we are experiencing somewhat of a housing crisis. Consequently, many families are waiting up to a year and half to be relocated in permanent accommodation.
How can we respond?
The sheer scale of poverty and social deprivation in Northern Ireland can be overwhelming. In the wake of these sobering statistics, it is easy to feel a grave sense of despondency or hopelessness; we may not know how we can be part of the change we’d like to see. However, many organisations, charities and ministries have responded Christ’s call to give hope to the hopeless alongside practical care. We aim to shed light on some of what is being done in Northern Ireland with the poor by some of our member churches and organisations. The scope of this kingdom work is both broad and deep, ranging from immediate care and help to longer term empowerment through jobs clubs and even employment. We want to share examples of social transformation, hope and joy through articles, videos and interviews in the next few weeks of advent that will inspire action. The story of Christmas should inspire generosity and solidarity, as we stand side by side with the poorest and neediest in society. So, we invite you to reimagine with us how we can be Christ’s hands and feet to the least in society during this advent season.
3 Trussel Trust 2016
10 Tom MacInnes, Hannah Aldridge, Anushree Parekh and Peter Kenway, Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Northern Ireland 2012, New Policy Institute, 2012
11 Refugee Action report 2010
12 The NI Human Rights Commission Evidence to the UK border agency, 10 March 2010