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    cardboard sign carried by a homeless woman

    The Myth of Misused Money

    An attitude that places all the blame for poverty on the bad choices of individuals has become widespread, even within churches.

    By Jennifer Johnson

    June 12, 2023
    • Elmer

      A great article helping us see the importance of giving people dignity, not just donations

    If you search for Byker online, you turn up dispiriting images of graffitied Shields Road, our local high street – recently voted Britain’s worst. According to UK government statistics, Byker, part of the North-East city of Newcastle-on-Tyne’s inner city, is among the top 1 percent of deprived areas in the United Kingdom. Our ward of just over twelve thousand people has some of the worst rates of child poverty in the United Kingdom, and amongst residents, complaints about drug use, anti-social behavior and littering are rife. But Byker is also full of beauty. A few clicks past the images of graffitied shopfronts on Shields Road and you’ll find pictures of bright, Lego-colored houses and flats, so remarkable and pioneering when they were designed in the 1960s that architecture students still regularly visit Byker from out of town, cameras in hand, looking both interested and faintly nervous. Trees and green spaces are everywhere. Neighbors on our estate work together to plant spring bulbs in communal areas. Families sit in deckchairs in the street to drink and talk together on warm summer evenings. And the winding design of the estate’s narrow roads mean you can’t walk anywhere without someone you know greeting you with a smile.

    We moved to Byker because we became involved with local church-based youth work there and we wanted to put down roots in the same community as the young people we were trying to support. My husband took over a role supporting churches to run youth activities in the area as I finished up my medical degree. We both thought we had a reasonable understanding of poverty for two people who’d never directly experienced it: one of my research interests at university had been “health inequalities,” and my husband had lived on an estate with similar economic and social challenges as Byker for some years, in a nearby town. But we weren’t prepared for what we’d learn in Byker, and we weren’t prepared, either, for what the experience of living here would show us about ourselves. We have largely existed within about a square mile of home for the last nine years. I use a local café to read for my PhD, my husband works in the office of our old church building half a mile from home, and the school run takes us just five minutes, twice a day. We are in constant close proximity to our neighbors, many of whom are, financially, much worse off than we are. It’s transformed our understanding of the reality of hardship. And it’s forced us to confront our own unconscious prejudices about people.

    homeless woman

    Melissa All photographs by Steve McKenzie.

    Everyday encounters revealed to us the reality of poverty and deprivation in twenty-first-century Britain. Being friends with someone who works two jobs on top of studying and parenting, on her own, four children, who has been saving up for years to be able to buy a family home that isn’t overcrowded – and still isn’t able to. Witnessing the grief of a family on the estate whose heating system exploded, flooding their home and destroying half their possessions – and knowing that they would never have been able to afford home insurance. Discovering that that hard-working, resilient young mothers we knew had to trek miles into town on foot, with their buggies in tow, because the local Jobcentre roof fell in and a no-show at an appointment with their “work coach” would risk a cut to state benefits already too meager to stretch to a bus fare. Stories like these made us angry that so many people had to struggle to get by in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

    Sitting alongside that anger, though, is admiration for the kindness and tenacity of the people we live amongst. A few years ago, my friend Penny and I ran a wee community café in Byker. We did lots of learning and mistake-making – but it was a little place of welcome, where people came and shared their lives with us. As part of that community café, we opened a “community fridge,” where surplus food was shared with the community – including a large weekly donation from a local supermarket. As the giveaway became more popular, questions arose about how best to distribute our resources “fairly.” I learned how wrong I could be in my initial judgements about people. For example – I initially felt frustrated that a local heroin dealer would come with a hold-all and take food from under the noses of moms with small children. But Penny later told me he was actually collecting for his elderly neighbors who couldn’t get to us on foot – not, as I’d feared, selling the food on. Digging a little deeper often revealed that people are, for the most part, doing their best with the tools they have. That’s not to say personal choices can’t help to improve – or worsen – poverty on an individual level, but those choices take place within a much bigger context than we often allow. Academic research suggests that the rapid growth of foodbanks since 2011 has been driven by public spending cuts and Britain’s flawed welfare system, not the decisions of individuals.

    homeless man wrapped in a blanket


    Penny has helped me think through the complexities of these issues – and how they could be changed. Penny has lived through hard times before, and she knows what it’s like to go without. Those experiences mean she always keeps her kitchen cupboards full – for her family’s sake, and for the sake of the people who knock at her door, knowing she will help. They also motivate her to campaign tirelessly with those facing food insecurity: the one in five UK households who report skipping meals to save money. Penny’s not shy about calling out those she sees as playing the system, but she recognizes that people are often trapped in poverty by structural factors, and that, adrift in a river of disadvantage, they’re doing their best to stay afloat.

    A narrative of “scroungers and skivers” has become firmly embedded in our collective national consciousness over the past few decades. Pointing this out in the church can mean having challenging conversations. It’s not to say personal choices can’t help to improve – or worsen – poverty on an individual level, but those choices take place within a much bigger context than we often allow.

    And that’s why she thinks current government strategies on tackling deprivation are misguided. Even in work, she tells me, wages are simply too low to keep many families out of food insecurity. Wages in the United Kingdom have stagnated since 2008, and a majority of those living in poverty are now in work. Paid at the national minimum wage, the average family needs two parents in full-time work to avoid poverty. But with low-income families already likely to be single-parent homes, and with UK childcare the most expensive in the developed world, the choice to work or not, for the worst off, is often a Catch-22. And even when people can overcome the stigma of seeking help, the amounts paid are nowhere near enough to make a difference. Penny thinks the problem is plain: people just don’t get enough money. And according to a 2019 report by Heriot-Watt University, the data about why people fall into food insecurity backs her up. If the government wants to get people back to work and off benefits – she tells me – their income needs to be a lot higher than it currently is. For her, one solution is obvious: there needs to be a “cash-first” approach to food poverty, where people in need receive money, rather than a food parcel. For Penny, giving people back the dignity that comes from being able to prioritize what you think you need outweighs the risk that those priorities might be misjudged. And whilst it’s true that cash payments could be misused, fixating on that possibility obscures the fact that poverty isn’t just about material wellbeing, but also immaterial things like respect, care, or esteem.

    homeless woman carrying a cardboard sign


    The United Kingdom’s largest network of foodbanks, the Trussell Trust, seems to agree with Penny. A pilot scheme they ran in another northern city, Leeds, showed that, as part of a wider “ecosystem of support,” cash-first approaches provide a dignified alternative to food banks – and give recipients a “stable foundation” to improve their lives long-term. Very little of the £45,450 distributed between 283 Leeds residents was misused, according to the Trust: most of it was spend on food, fuel, and rental costs, the bare necessities of life. With the number of foodbanks now nearly outnumbering McDonald’s outlets two to one – and the services normalized to the extent that supermarkets attach “Foodbank friendly!” labels to value-item shelves, it can be hard to explain to people that, as necessary as they are, such services have huge limitations in improving lives long-term. It’s a difficulty compounded by popular prejudice about the kind of people who access foodbanks. When I ask people I know well whether we should give those in need food, vouchers, or money, many express concerns about giving cash, believing it might be misused. In reality, according to the Trussell Trust’s findings, the chance funds will be misused are very low. That the perception otherwise is so widespread speaks, I think, to the power of a political narrative about “scroungers and skivers” that’s become firmly embedded in our collective national consciousness over the past few decades. In this narrative, systemic causes for poverty, like low wages and poor opportunities, are elided and responsibility for deprivation attributed to the bad choices of individuals. This is an attitude that’s widespread, even among those living in poverty, and it unconsciously shapes how institutions, including churches, respond to these issues.

    homeless man


    Pointing this out in the church can mean having challenging conversations. While churches are good at seeing need and meeting it with care and goodwill, they’re less good at looking upstream to critique and challenge the systems perpetuating poverty and hardship. There are examples in my community of alternative food provision – like a community pantry, where people swap cash for “points” with which they can choose discounted items – but, as the social epidemiologist Maddy Power highlighted in her research about food aid in the North of England, these services are geared primarily to filling needs, not restoring dignity. Like food banks, community pantries are at best short-term solutions to the problem of food insecurity. And by focusing so much on those kinds of initiatives, Christians in the United Kingdom are unintentionally risking complicity with the structural forces that make foodbanks necessary.

    Although the political change necessary to reshape those forces will take many years to accomplish, it’s possible for the church to take steps in the right direction in the here and now. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a new initiative sprung up in our community – led by neighbors organizing together, mainly via WhatsApp and Zoom. The “mutual aid” group began as a way for isolating people to get help with their shopping. It quickly evolved to meet other needs, organizing weekly food giveaways, plant swaps and toy drives. With all decision-making shared, it is “neighbors helping neighbors,” without the fixed roles of service provider and service user that exist in food banks or community pantries. We operate on the basis that people “take what they need and give what they can.” The philosophy of mutual aid underlying our estate’s group, with its recognition of everyone’s dignity and capacity to help, is in some ways, I think, quite radically Christian. There’s not always easy agreement between members – we’ve argued over issues like community policing and healthy eating – but in a community so often stigmatized by outsiders and dependent on help from the state or charities to make ends meet, the group is, I think, a sort of “prefigurative politics” in action, solving problems by drawing together in solidarity and showing there is a better way to live. As necessary as foodbanks are, what I’ve seen in Byker has convinced me that the understanding of justice and mercy they reflect is more culturally conditioned than we like to think. My neighbors, with their lived experience of an unjust system, had much to teach me. These exact lessons won’t be applicable for everyone, or everywhere, but they reveal a larger truth: working for justice requires Christians not just to act, but to listen. On the social and economic margins of our society, in places like Byker, if we look closely enough, we can find seeds of a better world.

    Contributed By JenniferJohnson Jennifer Johnson

    Jennifer Johnson has lived with her family in Byker, an economically marginalized but beautiful estate in the northeast of England, for almost a decade.

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