What are we Catholics doing about poverty?

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith

Years ago, when I was quietly sitting on my bench taking notes in the Gregorian University in Rome, the professor of morals, Fr Sergio Bastianel SJ said something that made me sit up. It was this: that the biggest moral question of our age was the economic question, to do with the commandment thou shalt not steal, rather than any other commandment, even thou shalt not kill.

Nothing that I have seen or read since then has made me think he was wrong about this. Poverty remains the biggest issue for us all. It is true that life issues are of great importance, but many life issues have underlying economic causes.

Just reading The Observer online this Sunday is a reminder that the poor are with us always. Living standards are falling, and the poor in Britain are destined to get poorer, we are told.  Then there is this story about a family in Nottingham, which one may assume to be typical.  It makes sobering reading:

They don’t own their own home and half of their joint income of around £30,000 a year goes on rent and council tax. Clair would love the family to buy their own house but sees no hope because prices are so high and money is too tight. “If childcare was cheaper, I would be able to work more and make a greater contribution to the family budget,” she says. “That would make it easier to buy a house.”

She has also thought of re-training for a new career that would better suit her family’s needs, but that route seems blocked too. “I qualified as a hairstylist after finishing school. Since then I have looked into re-training for a career in education, but the cost of the training is more than we can afford.”

Nowadays Clair and Dan just concentrate on getting by, rather than looking forward. “We can’t look beyond the next payday. I can’t even think of my children growing up and needing more. I have to deal with what they need this month. We’re stuck in a rut.”

She adds: “I look around and it’s hard to see signs of hope. A neighbour’s son went to university and hasn’t worked in a year.”

And in the comment section, Kevin McKenna (a Catholic, by the way, and always worth reading) praises Ross Kemp for telling it straight  about McKenna’s native Glasgow:

Gillian had been without a hearth for six years, during which time she slept under a motorway intersection by day and worked as a street girl at night to feed her drug habit and that of her pimp. Such an existence became inevitable as soon as an older male relative began injecting her with heroin as a nine-year-old for the purposes of softening her up for sexual abuse. He had convinced her that she had diabetes and that the injections contained insulin.

There was no self-pity in Gillian’s voice, nor was there any bitterness or anger, and this was more shocking than anything else. For this was the hand she had been dealt and her job was simply to reach the end of her day and be fit to start a new one. If she had a dream, it was to be reunited with her children and resume being a caring mother to them.

As he encountered more of Glasgow’s desaparecidos, Kemp informed us that our homeless were 19 times more likely than me to suffer a violent attack. At one point, he was almost lost for words as he asked how it is that a caring society can permit these “cave people” to live under the M8 from where they can watch dinner parties twinkling above them in the riverside abodes. It’s too easy to say that, due to drugs and alcohol, these people are the authors of much of their own misfortune. The only difference between them and us, though, is that they had no one to turn to when they encountered evil.

I suppose you might say that The Observer is the newspaper of choice for liberal bleeding hearts. Maybe it is, but this should not detract from the fact that poverty in Britain is real.

Back in 1844, when he was a prisoner in the fortress of Ham, Louis Napoleon wrote a treatise entitled The Elimination of Poverty. Four years later he was ruler of France and for the next twenty-two years tried his best to do just that – eliminate poverty. Even his critics admit that he was sincere in his concern for the poor. France in the nineteenth century saw a huge increase in poverty thanks to industrialisation and urbanisation – as did Britain, where Disraeli highlighted this challenge in his novel Sybil, published in 1845, one year after Louis Napoleon’s treatise.

In our own day the poor are still with us; one politician stands out as concerned about poverty in Britain, Iain Duncan Smith, whom, thankfully, the Prime Minister could not shift in the recent reshuffle. Cameron’s Big Society may have owed something to Napoleon III and Disraeli, but that all seems to have been forgotten now. What are Cameron and Osborne doing about poverty? Do they care about the ordinary people of this country who are finding life so hard?

The Church, in its social magisterium, has long been concerned about the condition of the working class (even George Orwell conceded as much, via one of his characters in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, if memory serves). We cannot simply blame the government for poverty (though they must shoulder part of the blame for the way they tax the working poor). Nor should the question of poverty be reduced to talk about government cuts. But what are we Catholics doing about the problem? How seriously do we take it?