Thursday, September 16, 2021

Universal Credit


The Gospel reading set for today is Luke 7:36-50. It is a beautiful account of an episode in Jesus’ life, but also one so sparse in detail that it reads our own prejudices, in what we supply.

The encounter involves a Pharisee who invites Jesus to eat with him in his house, and a woman known in the community as a sinner, who anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. Do we assume that the Pharisee’s invitation is driven by the kudos of hosting a celebrity? Or that he is hoping to trap Jesus with his superior wisdom? Or that he genuinely wants to hear and learn from Jesus? And what do we make of the woman? What do we assume by ‘sinner’? Do we imagine her to be promiscuous? What do we make of her possessing an expensive asset?

The Pharisees sought to live lives so ordered that they would enjoy the benefits that, in turn, evidenced God’s approval. Sinners, on the other hand, were those whose lives did not meet the standard, who were excluded from the benefits of society because the circumstances of their lives self-evidently showed that God did not approve of them.

When Jesus speaks of debts being written off, he is not speaking metaphorically. He is speaking of the exclusion of the poor, and of a justice and mercy that breaks that cycle. When he says to the woman, your sins are forgiven, the sins of which he speaks is exclusion from society, and the forgiveness of which he speaks is release from that exclusion.

This week the Bishops of Durham and of Jarrow, along with the Bishop of Newcastle and senior leaders of other denominations here in the northeast, have written an open letter to the Government, asking them to reconsider their intent to cut Universal Credit by £20/week from October.

Universal Credit has replaced a range of other benefits as the backbone of welfare provision. Most beneficiaries are in low paid work. It was not sufficient before the pandemic, and there were already calls for it to be increased before then. The pandemic allowed the Government to increase support as a temporary uplift, but now, they argue, it is time to revert to the pre-pandemic rate. This loss of income comes at the same time as the ending of a temporary cap on utility bills, and a rise in National Insurance. The Government claim the cut can be made up by only an additional two hours’ work each week, but when you take into account the UC taper (63p removed for every £1 earned), tax, and NI contributions, the average loss is equivalent to nine hours’ work.

It takes five weeks for UC to come through, and though you can get a loan to cover those weeks, it is then paid back in instalments taken off the UC each month over the following twelve months. Recipients have almost nothing to live on for the second half of the four weeks between payments. £20 makes a huge difference, and many who work supporting those who find themselves living in poverty have called for the temporary uplift to be made permanent. Instead, it is being removed. This cut falls on people in many cases working several jobs in an attempt to make ends meet, with travel costs to and from work, childcare costs, perhaps bedroom tax liability, often debt owed to loan sharks at a rate on which they can pay back the interest but never the capital...

The poor are demonised in my society, where trolls question why poor people should enjoy such luxuries as, say, easy access to the internet (necessary for claiming UC, or for searching for work) or a tv or a spare bedroom in which their children might sleep every other weekend or anything nice that might have been passed on to them by their own parents or grandparents. And certainly, poor people, sinners, should not be seen, should not disrupt respectable society.

Speaking to the respectable man about how he and the society he lived in viewed the unrespectable woman, Jesus observed that those who have known very little love find it hard to show love—to love their neighbour as themselves. Those who have known order, and financial security, but not much love, not unconditional acceptance.

I commend to you the bishops’ letter. And I commend to you, for your prayers, our newly-reshuffled Cabinet. May they know love, and show love. May they enact justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, as those appointed and held accountable to speak up for others.


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