Skip to content

Thinking afresh about welfare: The Enemy Isolation – House of Bishops

July 15, 2016

Bunyan 1Starting from the “Five Giant Evils” identified in the 1942 Beveridge report, on which the welfare state was based — Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance, and Idleness — the Bishops’ paper adds “a giant which all can see around them, which most experience at some time in their lives, but which few will name. It is the Enemy Isolation.”

(“The implicit allusion to Bunyan in his chapter on the “Five Giant Evils” would have resonated with numerous people, across the classes, for whom The Pilgrim’s Progress was a familiar text. Few if any texts, let alone those with Christian undertones, have such public salience today.”)

The paper has been produced by the Director of Mission and Public Affairs, the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, in association with the Bishops of Norwich, St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, and Truro and contains echoes of the House’s pre-election pastoral letter of 2015.

A preamble states that the paper “does not try to set out a central policy for the whole Church”. It was written at the Bishops’ request to inform their responses to individual pieces of welfare reform, particularly in the Lords.

“There’s nothing here that the Bishops haven’t been saying for years,” Dr Brown said on Wednesday, “but it puts it in a robust and thought-through context. It makes it clear that, when a bishop comments on a piece of welfare legislation, it is not simply a kneejerk reaction but comes out of a deep theological commitment to community.”

The paper begins with a description of how isolation frustrates attempts to create a mutually beneficial society, and goes on to consider the principles, theology, and delivery methods of welfare.

It seeks to challenge the narrowing definition of welfare, from a sense of interdependence — “We are all in this together” — to a word used solely to describe financial support for those of working age who do not fully support themselves by earned income, and thus require state help to survive.

Unlike the concept of a ‘safety net’ in the USA, the Welfare State was set up to enable everyone to flourish, not just to help a few helpless people.

About isolation, it describes lives without the “support, friendship, and sacrifice of others”; the isolation that many face in old age; the lack of childcare options for mothers; the loss of neighbourliness; the rapid loss of self-confidence among people made redundant; the breakdown of marriages; and the lack of trust between strangers.

Seeking remedies, people turn to agencies, such as GPs, even the police, “which were never intended to address this basic need”. And with this “drift toward greater isolation . . . the burden on the state has become unsustainable”.

The paper doesn’t support the views of any political party. It says that Universal Credit “deserves support” in its attempts to simplify the benefits system; it argues that “there is nothing wrong with trying to design a welfare system which seeks to change human behaviour”; it agrees that welfare policies should create incentives to work; it puts family stability high up its list of necessary conditions for improvement; and it suggests that voluntary enterprises could deliver welfare better than “the dead hand of bureaucracy”.

On the other hand, it challenges the view that better welfare inevitably leads to higher national debt: “there are other ways of reducing debt (like higher taxes) and so welfare cuts are a political choice”; gives short shrift to the involvement of the private sector, which “usually” achieves efficiency “by driving down wages and introducing worse conditions for staff”; expresses the view that the state should bear the bulk of the responsibility for the welfare system; and attempts to break down what it perceives as a “harder line” between those who claim benefits and those who benefit from the state in less obvious ways.

The paper criticises the 1985 report Faith in the City, produced by Archbishop Runcie’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas: “Just as Faith in the City failed to see the moral vision that informed Margaret Thatcher’s administrations, and therefore failed to engage coherently with that vision, so we must avoid the trap of seeing present policy direction as motivated solely by economic concerns.” Instead, it states, “recent welfare policies, whilst sometimes clumsily implemented or ill-communicated, are not without moral purpose.” However, it can’t help answering some of the critics of that report.

It cites a lack of friendships, loneliness in old age through a lack of family or neighbours, an inability for single mothers to find childcare, family breakdown, low self-esteem among the unemployed, rising homelessness and a lack of support for the disabled as examples of isolation.

The report also says the Church is one of the best institutions in tackling isolation in British society. For example foodbanks and Street Pastors not only address practical needs, but also provide a listening ear, mentorship and friendship.

It also cites the Church’s inclusion of the elderly, disabled and unemployed.

The report also:

Invites policymakers to consider extending benefits to migrants coming to Britain

Condemns rhetoric which portrays benefit claimants as “other”

Argues that cutting welfare spending is not the only way national debt can be lowered

Promotes welfare policies which promote family stability

Condemns moving poorer people potentially hundreds of miles away because of money

Concluding, ‘Thinking Afresh’ says: “One guiding principle for our collective responses should be the restoration of social bonds, the encouragement of neighbourliness and the attack on trends that exacerbate isolation.

“If we shape our responses along those lines, we may be able to engage with the government more effectively on welfare issues.”

Bunyan 2Quotations:

Like many wicked enemies, it goes by numerous aliases. It is Loneliness, Estrangement, Friendlessness. It may be born from the conviction that each person is an island; that the individual can form his or her personhood through choice and will power, and make a life without the support, friendship and sacrifice of others; that our responsibilities begin and end with ourselves and that the good of others is purely their own affair. It may start with the dangerous implication that personal freedom is threatened by caring about other people.

Its effects are seen in the isolation that many face in old age; in the lack of childcare options for working mothers; in the loss of neighbourliness and family ties which cuts off the housebound from contact and conversation, even allowing some to die unnoticed and undiscovered for weeks. It is seen in the rapid loss of self-confidence and resilience among people who are made redundant and, with the loss of a job, lose the sense of belonging among their peers. It is seen in the way that homelessness can reduce people to invisibility and disability throws people onto their own, often inadequate, resources. It is seen in the erosion of trust between strangers. It is seen in the breakdown of marriages, the estrangement of families and the impermanence of close relationships.

Isolation is not just a characteristic of individual lives – whole groups within society may be, either intentionally or through the laws of unintended consequences, isolated from each other and from the mainstream. Groups with little political influence, groups of people who don’t fit some widely-held social perception of “normality”, can be rendered invisible.

Isolation has grown as the structures of neighbourhood and community have weakened. This is the shadow side of growth in individual freedom and mobility.

We now know that, whatever the achievements of the welfare state, it has not arrested the drift toward greater isolation and the loss of connections. And so the burden on the state has become unsustainable, outstripping the willingness of the people as a whole to pay for it. Nor is uniform state welfare always efficient or effective.

As the informal structures of neighbourliness have diminished, the structures of state welfare have had to carry greater and greater demand. When people appear again and again at a doctor’s surgery because it is the only place where they are guaranteed a chance to talk to another person, something vital is missing from the fabric of the community around them.

Identifying isolation as an evil does not mean that Want, Ignorance, Squalor, Idleness or Disease are no longer spectres haunting Britain. They continue to wreck lives and stunt people’s development, and the struggle against them is constant, for individuals, communities and government, despite all that has been achieved since World War II.

Beveridge himself recognised that a welfare state would only defeat the Five Giant Evils if strong social bonds, viable communities and a clear commitment to voluntary action were also prominent in the nation’s life. Today, those characteristics are not dead — but they are fragile and often desperately attenuated, allowing social isolation to corrode lives in ways which no state system can adequately address.

The Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, is the unfolding story of the people of God. The relationship at the heart of the story may be exemplified by the way individuals encounter God, but the individual is not the story. Although the Bible may elicit an individual reaction and commitment in the reader, that vocation is to follow Christ as a disciple in company with other disciples. Where the Old Testament is the story of the relationship of God to a chosen race, the New Testament opens out that story of belonging and makes it accessible to all through Christ.

Part of the universal vision of the New Testament stems from the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. The Trinity reflects the insight of the earliest Christians that God is ineluctably relational. God is love, and that love is at work in the bonds between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Christ we are enabled to become at one with God and thus to be inducted into that bond of love. God’s Kingdom is fulfilled when the bond of love that is God’s-self embraces the whole human family.

What, then, of St Paul’s stricture that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3: 10)? Paul here shows that sin has consequences in this life as well as the next. In Genesis, Adam’s fall condemns him to toil for his living – if someone refuses to work assuming that they will nonetheless be provided for, they are denying, idolatrously, that Adam’s fall applies to them. But the stress is on unwillingness, not inability. Paul is not addressing those who would work but cannot.

the church’s work for others would be mere sticking plaster over an open wound if wider social policy is not working with the grain of voluntary action rather than against it. The church’s social engagement is part of its mission to model a better society “on earth as in heaven”. We seek to play our part – but the well-being of all demands that others, in government and across society, seek as far as possible to share a vision of the common good.

Welfare and connectedness

Looking in depth at welfare policy, it clearly needs to be understood in connection with wider economic policy, social policy, questions of social and world order, and so on.

Our faith locates us as part of God’s family which extends across every nation, culture and century. That global human fellowship is damaged when our definition of “us” is too narrow.

This semantic trend has had a rapid effect of separating those reliant on benefits from the rest of the population as if the former were a kind of lesser citizenry.

 Dilemmas of time – and correctives

 Human need often presents itself as a crisis of the moment, demanding an immediate response. But systems of support have consequences which only unfold over time. If people can rely on a safety net to protect them against immediate need, it can create a disincentive to avoid future crises.

There is nothing wrong with trying to design a welfare system which seeks to change human behaviour.

 Facing up to dependency

 Many critics of the welfare state emphasise its tendency to entrench dependency. But that claim needs to be nuanced. Dependency is a core characteristic of every human being.

Dependency-on the state, however, is a subtly different matter. Because the personal relationship between those who give and those who receive is missing, welfare recipients are liable to feel no responsibility to escape from the welfare structures. The challenge is to see dependency in terms of mutuality rather than as a one-way power relationship.

The discomfort of distinguishing between the “deserving and unde­serving poor” has combined with a more contemporary aversion to moral norms to imply that welfare systems must abdicate any respon­sibility for forming character. The key here is people’s ability to change — with or without help and encouragement. The permanently lame cannot be treated as if they could walk if they only had enough gumption. But the muddled, timid and confused can — with help — be enabled to live more ordered and resilient lives.

There is nothing wrong with trying to design a welfare system which seeks to change human behaviour. That was, indeed, part of Beveridge’s vision. (“He and Attlee saw the welfare state as teaching values of citizenship… a new citizen who prized, through welfare, the values of work, savings and honesty…” ). But changing human behaviour takes much longer than the alleviation of immediate suffering.

….This semantic trend has had a rapid effect of separating those reliant on benefits from the rest of the population as if the former were a kind of lesser citizenry. The fact that “welfare”, in its broader sense including education, health and pensions, is something that still benefits virtually everyone has become lost in public debate. One aspect of combating isolation is that the divisive rhetoric which portrays benefit recipients as “other” must be challenged–the rhetoric itself is a source of deep isolation.

Challenging some shibboleths

Some aspects of received wisdom on welfare may need to be re-examined. One, sometimes heard from critics of aspects of welfare reform, is that distinguishing between different causes of human need implies distinguishing between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. That distinction is loaded with unattractive

Connotations which close down argument before it has begun.  But the discomfort of distinguishing between the “deserving and undeserving poor” has combined with a more contemporary aversion to moral norms to imply that welfare systems must abdicate any responsibility for forming character.

The idea that social welfare should encourage virtue and discourage vice was an important part of the original vision of the welfare state. Family and community are essential schools of virtue –not least because virtuous behaviour grows out of bonds of love. Rebuilding informal networks of family, neighbourhood and community, is an imperative which could help restore the moral agreement around which a welfare consensus might emerge

The importance of place

 It should be economic common sense for welfare systems to strengthen people’s ties to their locality and not undermine them. Uprooting people to cheaper or smaller properties, often hundreds of miles away, severs informal networks of support and compan­ionship which will have enhanced people’s resilience and moderated their demands on the welfare system.

The importance of work

 We should support welfare policies which create incentives for work, and welfare delivery systems that assist people to find suitable work. Welfare should never be an alternative to employment for those who are able to work.

 The importance of families

 A viable welfare system needs to support individuals who are on their own, whilst ensuring that couples and families can flourish. If welfare policies have a role in promoting socially positive behaviour, policies which promote family stability are to be welcomed.

One theological objection to current policy concerns the implication that two children is the “right” number for a family and that the welfare system has no responsi­bility for supporting further chil­dren of benefit recipients. Despite advances in contraception, family size is not infallibly manageable.

 It is often argued that sanctions which reduce family income can punish innocent

children for the sins of their parents. Similarly, restrictions on the number of children for whom child benefit will be paid might be seen to penalise children who have the “misfortune” to be born into large families.

On the other hand, a powerful force for shaping adult behaviour may be anxiety about the impact of their actions on their children. How far should the state protect children from actions of their parents which might lower their living standards but do not otherwise put their children at direct risk?

Many Christians have severe reservations about any implication that an unexpected and financially crippling, pregnancy should be dealt with by abortion. Indeed, the Christian inheritance from Judaism has always treated children as a blessing to the whole community rather than a burden. This applies as much to the children of benefit recipients as to any child. Anything which sends an implicit message that a child is unwanted, unvalued or superfluous should be resisted, because it prioritises the cost factor in a way which dehumanises our whole narrative of welfare.

In many countries without developed welfare provision, large families are celebrated because having many children is a guarantee of security in old age. Policies which have the effect of limiting family size are a sure way to create a cadre of old people who have only the state to rely on for their long term care, not to mention damaging their human need for social connections.

Welfare and family breakdown

If the economy demands flexible workforces, it must pay the price in terms of weaker family structures and greater reliance on the state.

There are patently no easy answers here. But it would help if the wider social aspects of family and marriage breakdown were accorded the same attention to de­tail, when marriages end, as finan­cial and child care arrangements.

Perils of bureaucracy

Since 1945, the systems for deliver­ing welfare have become vastly more complex. The government’s plans to introduce Universal Credit deserve support in so far as they are likely to achieve the goals of simplification, transparency and intelligibility.

The more the system is stream­lined and simplified, the less flexibly it accommodates the diversity of human need. This dilemma might be mitigated by ensuring that a relatively simple scheme is delivered through mechanisms with a human and accessible face. There is not much love in a system run by robots.


It cannot be right that benefit claim­ants are sanctioned for being caught in the dilemmas and systemic fail­ures which affect everyone in mod­ern society… The JobCentre manager (or the Minister responsible for welfare policy, come to that) may be affected by the same cancelled bus or their own sick child, but they will not be treated as an offender and see their basic level of subsistence damaged as a result.

Benefit levels and the National Living Wage

If welfare is primarily a safety net for sustaining people through short periods of misfortune, a subsistence level supporting basic nutrition and shelter for the whole family would probably suffice. But no govern­ment today can guarantee that periods of welfare dependency remain short. Nor would subsist­ence levels of support be right for those who, through disability, illness or other unavoidable causes, will never be able to play a full part in the economy. Moderate levels of social participation are essential if people are not to lose links to neighbours and friends with all the consequences of isolation that attend such losses. Social participa­tion requires some disposable income above what is earmarked for subsistence – but not necessarily a great deal more.

Mutuality and contributory schemes

One approach to enabling welfare to build up social bonds, mooted from time to time across the political divide, is the restoration of the contributory principle.

The church and welfare policy today

Recent welfare policies, whilst sometimes clumsily implemented or ill communicated, are not without moral purpose. Just as Faith in the City failed to see the moral vision that informed Margaret Thatcher’s administrations, and therefore failed to engage coherently with that vision, so we must avoid the trap of seeing present policy direction as motivated solely by economic concerns. This paper suggests that one guiding principle for our collective responses should be the restoration of social bonds, the encouragement of neighbourliness and the attack on trends that exacerbate isolation.

The report is online here 

Return to the home page

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: