Comparing Britain with Romero’s El Salvador is insulting

Fr Timothy Radcliffe

Fr Timothy Radcliffe gave the high-profile Romero lecture last week in which he said many good, sensitive and important things about the poor. Not surprisingly, though, the lecture also made many assertions regarding causes of and solutions to poverty that are contradicted by the facts.

Firstly, it is worth commenting on Fr Radcliffe’s comparison of the position of the poor in Britain today with that of the poor in Romero’s time in El Salvador. This comparison is completely inappropriate and not a little insulting to people who had to live daily with violence in that country. It is not surprising that Fr. Radcliffe had to invoke Owen Jones – whose political views are the antithesis of those expressed in Catholic social teaching – in support of his case.

In part of his lecture, Fr Radcliffe produced a moving account of the difficulties faced by the poor in the UK. He then described the needs of the poorest in our society and, rightly, emphasised how complex and ultimately life-threatening they are. But then, in a reductionist account he said:

“In modern Britain, the contempt for the poor often takes the form of contrasting the so-called good, hardworking poor, and the imagined multitude of skivers, parasites devouring benefits. There are such people but the vast majority of poor people in this country work but simply are not paid enough.”

This is simply not true. The majority of the poor (though not the vast majority) certainly do work. However, their problem is not that they are not paid enough it is that they only work a small number of hours. In 2009, only 2 per cent of households with children where one parent was in full-time work and one was in part-time work suffered from material deprivation. The vast majority of the poor are in households were one or two adults only work part-time (often very close to the precise number of hours necessary to claim in-work benefits) or they are in households in which nobody is working. Indeed, 60 per cent of people who do not earn the “living wage” do not work full time and many of those who do work full time are living in well-off households.

Fr. Radcliffe also commented that food banks were an indication of ever-more people being unable to eat. Putting aside whether that is the case, food banks are surely a charitable response to the problem of poverty. They are just the sort of response that you would expect a Christian to support. Indeed, most were established by churches. But, Fr. Radcliffe’s only concrete solution to the problem of poverty – other than “paying people more” – was more income redistribution and higher taxation. I cannot imagine what else he could mean by: “We must take stands in favour of a taxation system that favours the common good; we must oppose the growing inequality that is tearing apart our country.”

In response it should be said that there is no reason at all to oppose greater inequality if doing so would prevent the flourishing of the worse off (by making them poorer, reducing their employment prospects and so on). But, in this typically conservative and predictable policy stance, there is no recognition of the fact that our tax and benefits system is as redistributive as that of, for example, Sweden. What really makes our country different from many others is the high cost of housing (and the knock-on effects on the price of food, childcare and so on) caused entirely by our planning system. Those thinking along less predictable lines might consider as unjust a planning system that protects relatively low-value environmental amenities of a few well-off people at the expense of lower-cost housing for all. Might not Fr Radcliffe also ponder the fact that we have a state that is spending half of national income (and half of this on welfare)? If this method of trying to resolve poverty was going to work, it would have succeeded by now – in spades.

We were told too that our prosperity was often the result of people suffering throughout the globe in sweat shops. In fact, this is not the case. The creation of wealth is not a zero sum game. More accurately, suffering in sweat shops is the result of the sorts of injustice and appalling governance in poor countries with which Archbishop Romero was concerned.

If we are to look for an economic answer to simple material deprivation then we need to look elsewhere – and not repeat tired clichés. A pro-poor policy cannot be one that simply increases the size of the state until it asymptotically reaches 100 per cent of national income (even if Owen Jones should wish that).

However, real problems of poverty that do not simply relate to material deprviation are deeply rooted and complex. And the answer to these is in Christian charity rather than a bigger state. It has not been put better than by Benedict VXI:

“There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern”

In fact, Fr Radcliffe more or less got there. He said: “But usually our witness is undramatic and unnoticed. It may be parents struggling out of a nice warm bed to feed a cantankerous infant, or caring for someone who has forgotten who you are, lost in Alzheimer’s….”. He got there in the end, but why so much muddle first?

Philip Booth is editorial and programme director of the Institute of Economic Affairs