There is a saying in Africa that when the elephants fight it’s the grass that gets trampled. This is precisely what is happening in the debate about benefits which is too often being argued with slogans and prejudice rather than with reason and compassion. Those many who are genuine recipients in the spirit that William Beveridge originally introduced the welfare system are being demonised alongside and because of those who, we are told, are gaining unreasonable amounts of funding from the system. This has taken a particularly ugly turn when, as reported in the media, disabled people have been shouted at and jostled in the streets.
In the middle of this, it is important to remember that one of the reasons we are facing the present financial crisis is not because of the poor but because of the rich. The welfare system does require an overhaul and it is a pity that the overhaul is being undertaken in a highly charged atmosphere when economic circumstances are forcing more people to turn to it for support. But rows about excessive pay differentials, famously illustrated by the chairman of the BBC’s determination to reduce the large pay gap between directors and staff, and the uproar about bonuses are a reminder that it is not only the way that society pays the least well-off that needs an overhaul. People can be trapped in poverty – but they can also be trapped in wealth. This article reflects on the traps of both poverty and wealth and argues that the current emphasis on fairness does not provide the right context for the overhaul of benefits, differentials and bonuses. Fairness should be replaced with justice.
People can be trapped in poverty and dependency for a variety of reasons and they need help to be released from this trap. Some, through circumstances beyond their control, maybe brought about by harsh personal circumstances or the fierce economic climate, will need the safety net of the welfare system in order to be released. On the other hand others may have no desire to take opportunities to be released, in which case the public purse cannot be expected to sustain them unless there are compelling reasons for doing so.
The row over large pay differentials and inflated bonuses shows that people can also be trapped in wealth, symptoms of which are insatiable acquisitiveness, a conviction that a person’s worth is assessed by their possessions and a disregard of social justice. The Bible is more critical of the rich than of the poor – this is not from the perspective of envy but out of concern for their ultimate well-being and from the damage that wealth can inflict on their neighbours and society as a whole. We can begin to help the rich, and indeed the poor, from their trap when we challenge the link, deeply embedded in society, between wealth and worth. Examples of this link can be found in the Old Testament where the people of Israel are reminded that riches are bestowed as gifts from God and do not come from human effort (Deuteronomy 8.18). Wealth and God’s blessing are regarded as synonymous (Genesis 24.35). Another seam of Old Testament theology does not make an overt link between wealth and God’s blessing and is critical of the misuse of wealth (Ecclesiastes 5.1-13).
The real challenge to the link between wealth and worth reaches its climax in parts of the New Testament where it is the poor and not the rich who have particular blessings from God. The Song of Mary (the Magnificat) proclaims that the hungry will be filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1.53) and also the cross is seen as driving a steam-roller through the world’s idea of success and failure (I Corinthians 1.25). God turns the world’s values upside down, passing judgement on whatever and whoever prevents women and men from growing into the people they have been created to become: politics and economics are servants, not masters, and should be the means through which communities grow and flourish. Placing more value on people and potential rather than wealth and acquisitiveness creates a climate where finance can be viewed as a means of building up society rather than creating divisions with it.
The argument of ‘fairness’ is common today – a number of fairness commissions have been established across the land. The York Fairness Commission, whose first series of public meetings was opened by the Archbishop, was established to tackle poverty and injustice and to ensure the well-being of each person in the community. The Islington Fairness Commission asserts that greater equality is the gateway to a society capable of improving the quality of life for all. Fairness is a word that frequently falls from the mouths of politicians. In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for economic fairness. Many would argue for a reform of the benefits system on the basis of fairness. This would be a mistake. It should, instead, be reformed on the basis of justice. Fairness, although sometimes used synonymously with justice, cannot bear the weight of justice for too long. Fairness is a judgement about right and wrong when everybody starts from a level playing field; it is concerned to find equilibrium when balancing one claim against another. Justice, on the other hand, has morality and ethics at its heart and recognises that there ar inequalities in society. Deciding pay differentials and bonuses from the perspective of fairness encourages executives to compare their financial package with that of other executives which feeds the increasingly discredited argument that huge salaries and bonuses are needed to attract the right calibre of people to lead our industries and public services. Using fairness for the welfare system will focus the arguments on the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ without looking critically at a political and economic system that traps the poor in their poverty.
However, looking at benefits, differentials and bonuses through the lens of justice brings a totally different perspective. It starts from the premise that there are injustices within the system which need to be addressed. Justice acknowledges that a society which values wealth above worth already has the scales tipped against the poor. It needs to take into account that the amount of unclaimed benefits far outstrips fraudulently claimed benefits. At the same time justice requires society to address misuse of the benefits’ system as it tackles the current injustices in differentials and bonuses.
There are strong arguments for an overhaul of the benefits system just as there are strong arguments for an overhaul of differentials and bonuses, but let them be undertaken on the basis of justice rather than fairness.
Church Times: 20th February, 2012