A major report ‘Emergency Use Only‘ was published yesterday by the Church of England, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust. It outlines the reality of Food bank Britain:
- Those receiving emergency food from food banks rose from 128,697 in 2011-12 to 913,138 in 2013-14.
- Many food bank users faced multiple challenges, including ill-health, relationship breakdown, mental health problems or substantial caring responsibilities.
The report is further evidence of the impact of a deepening web of poverty that increasing numbers of people find themselves caught in:
Material poverty is driven by low incomes, unemployment, cuts and sanctions to benefits, unaffordable housing and increased costs of living.
Poverty of relationships relates to the fragile and fractured nature of many people’s relationships, both within families and communities. The weakening of the bonds of commitment within families has left many, especially children, far more vulnerable than ever before.
The poverty of identity underpins both. It is seen in the growing issues around mental health problems, low-self esteem, self harm and addictions which cluster around and feed off material and relational poverty.
The example of homelessness
These three faces of poverty are all evident in my work because home-lessness is far more than simply house-lessness. Houses are a material need – we need somewhere warm, dry and safe to live. But homes are far more than that. Homes are places of relationship and identity. They are places where we live alongside those know us and care about us: they are the place where we belong. In 2007, a St Mungo’s report found that relationship breakdown was the biggest single cause of homelessness.
Whilst material things address our outward needs, our inner needs are met through relationships and a positive sense of identity – through how we relate to others and to ourselves. The issues of ‘inner-homelessness’ are often far more challenging to overcome.
It helps show why many issues associated with rough sleeping require more than simply a material response. It is why, so often, giving money to someone begging does not help because the key problems they face are deeper than a lack of money. It is why even giving someone a flat to a homeless person does not always solve the issues they face. The material problem may have been temporarily solved but so often this falls apart because of other issues need to be addressed.
Polarising the issues
Often, it becomes difficult to talk about these different aspects of poverty because of how polarised the debate becomes. Despite all the mounting evidence, the government will never want to admit that rises in material poverty are linked to the policies they have introduced. Anti-poverty campaigners don’t want to relate the issues to family breakdown because they see this as letting the government off the hook.
As with any social analysis, none of this can be divorced from politics (as some might have noticed from the diagram!) Those on the political left emphasise the material aspect of poverty and how society’s structures and government policies need to change. However, those on the right emphasise the factors less under government control such as family breakdown and personal discipline. This is why Margaret Thatcher famously declared that “There is no such thing as society” because she wanted to emphasise responsibility that individuals and families have.
The role of the Church
For me, these polarities show why the Church has such a vital and on-going role to play. Food banks and Night Shelters are run by the Churches because material poverty needs to be addressed. Authentic faith always has a social impact. But the Church also has unique resources to address the poverty of relationships and identity.
This is because the Christian faith is inescapably personal. The gospel message speaks to the deepest needs of the human heart because it is fundamentally about the restoration of relationships – with God and with others. At its best, the Church is the place where those who have been rejected and neglected, whose relationships and identity have been fractured, can find a home where they belong. A message and a community which offers reconciliation and acceptance in an increasingly harsh world.
* The three faces of poverty model was adapted from Jim Wallis’ analysis in the book Faith Works (SPCK, 2002).