The face of the working poor among us

Charity is not the solution to in-work poverty, says Former Leeds West MP and staunch SVP member and patron John Battle.

Our own St Vincent’s Centre, here in Leeds, was quick off the mark at the start of the Covid crisis and distributed thousands of food parcels and meals, earning a reputation as one of the city’s “lifelines”. But as the Independent Food Aid Network puts it: “Food banks cannot continue to take responsibility for the impact of insecure and inadequately paid employment.” Yet when pressed to keep the £20 Universal Credit uplift, the Prime Minister simply reiterated the worn-out refrain: “Getting people into work is the best route out of poverty.”


But charity is not the solution to in-work poverty. Even before the pandemic one-in-four families receiving Universal Credit had cut food intake or had meal patterns disrupted because of the low level of the basic safety net for families. The freeze on working age benefits in the recent years of austerity has contributed to this income reduction. The government’s emergency pandemic measures certainly helped, introducing the furlough scheme and a £20-a-week increase in Universal Credit. But both the furlough scheme and that £20-a-week increase are to be discontinued in October this year. It is estimated that up to six million families stand to lose £1,040-a-year in financial support as a result.


Meanwhile, in August the energy regulator announced that fuel bills are set to soar from October. The 11 million households which pay by direct debit will see an average dual fuel bill rise by £139. But for the four million on prepayment meters (typically the economically vulnerable) their average bill will rise by £153.

Positive suggestions


John Battle is a former MP for Leeds West. He is an active member of his local St Vincent de Paul Society.

As Mike Brewer, the chief economist at the Resolution Foundation, puts it: “Simply returning to the old system is not good enough after what the country has gone through.”


So, what are the positive suggestions?

Universal Credit: Already pressure has been building from charities including the SVP and Caritas, churches, the TUC, and poverty analysts to maintain the £20 Universal Credit uplift. The Resolution Foundation goes beyond simply asking to maintain the £20 a week boost and calls for levelling up support for the under 25s and raising the child element of Universal Credit by £5-a-week to directly help families.


Furlough: The TUC has made a case for workers to continue to receive 80% of their wage for any time on the scheme, with a guarantee that no-one falls below the statutory minimum wage for their normal working hours. Any worker working less than 90% of their normal working hours to be offered funded training options. Companies must demonstrate a reduction in demand (including restructuring) and not pay dividends while using the scheme. There should be time limits but with limited exceptions. For many years such a scheme has operated in Germany, Japan and other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries to shield workers during tough economic periods.


It is worth adding that since the 1979 peak of 13.2 million workers there has been a dramatic fall in trade union membership. Most of the unionised jobs are in the public sector and members in the private sector are in companies that have long had collective bargaining agreements. In the new companies of the service sectors unions are virtually unknown. Yet there is a strong current of support in Catholic social teaching from Rerum Novarum through the encyclicals of Pope St John Paul II, Emeritus Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis for their vital contribution as a means of tackling working poverty.


A real living wage: Despite the government renaming the statutory legal minimum wage as the “living wage”, the Living Wage Foundation carries out serious research work campaigning for a real living wage, which is an hourly rate assessed in accordance with basic income needs and economic capacity to increase wages. Encouragingly, an increasing number of employers are signing up to it as a matter of social justice, but it is an hourly rate and does not resolve the problem of insufficient hours of work.


There are economic and political debates around introducing a basic income for all as already trialed in some countries. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has examined the issue and concluded that a Universal Basic Income “is not a silver bullet that would immediately and straightforwardly solve poverty”, adding that there is a “growing consensus that the current social security system is inadequate and does not provide the effective public service we need to protect people from poverty.” In its report, the JRF called for a “social security system that provides adequate support, reduces poverty and removes the indignities and stigma associated with the present system”, concluding that this is “a vital part of ending the injustice of poverty in the UK.”


From listening into action


The SVP listens to and directly supports low-income families, and from witnessing the lived experiences of many of the people with whom we work, we are in a unique position to provide an objective analysis of the realities they face.


St Vincent gave us a lead when he said: “To serve those who are poor is to go to God and you should see God in them.”


Pope Francis is challengingly direct: “Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it.”


Saint Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador murdered for defending the poor, said: “When the Church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.”


This is part of our SVP mission here today.


As a last word, Pope Francis sent a message to the recent meeting of the World Bank. He said: “Despite our deeply held conviction that all men and women are created equal, many of our brothers and sisters in the human family are effectively excluded from the financial world. If we are to come out of this situation as a better, more humane and solitary world, new creative forms of political and economic participation must be devised, sensitive to the voice of the poor and committed to including them in building our common future.”


That challenge applies to us in the SVP in the face of the working poor here in our own society.