If you’ve watched or listened to any episodes of Global Christian Perspectives, you’ll have probably grasped the fact that my co-host Elgin Hushbeck and myself don’t see eye to eye on very much, whether it be Christianity or politics. One of the points on which we differ most is the question of social welfare; Elgin has gone so far as to write a book “What is wrong with Social Justice”.
One aspect of Social Justice, to my mind, is providing for the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged. I see this as an absolute Christian duty. Elgin, on the other hand, thinks that social security can “encourage a culture of dependency” and as such is a bad thing. This, to me, has the ring of pronouncements by Ian Duncan Smith and others in our current Conservative government; Mr. Smith has the weird notion that it is actually helping people to strip them of their social safety net, as they need the spur of absolute destitution to persuade them to get a job.
In the world IDS lives in, it seems that there are abundant jobs which are well within the capabilities of all the people who are receiving benefits, including those who are partially (and sometimes extensively) disabled, and all they need is to be bullied in order for them to go out and get a job. I am not sure where this world is, but it isn’t the Britain of 2015, and it equally wouldn’t be the USA of 2015.
I have three really major problems with this approach. The first is that no sane person who is able to go out and do a job which will return a reasonable wage sufficient to live on adequately is going to sit back and try to subsist on the level of benefits which either government currently provides. While I keep hearing people on the right talking of hearing someone say “You’re a fool to work when you can live on benefits”, I have yet to hear anyone actually say that, and no-one I know who is living on social security or disablement benefits would not give their eye teeth to be able to get a job which would provide them with a reasonable standard of living.
Of course, in actuality the lowest paid jobs, which are generally all that is available to the less able, do not actually pay enough to keep someone clothed, housed and fed adequately, at least not unless you work two or three of them; in addition, there just are not enough jobs. IDS is saying “Just go and pick an apple from that tree”, and you look, and there is no apple on the tree. This is just wanton cruelty. That, however, leads me on to my second problem.
I spend some of my time as, in effect, a kind of technologist; I do some part time work with a company which develops and optimises chemical processes. This helps me appreciate the thrust of technology, as does a long-term interest in history. Technology enables us to save labour, to produce more using less labour. In the process, it removes less skilled jobs, but in fairness it tends to create more skilled jobs. Unfortunately, a sizeable proportion of humanity are not able to acquire the kind of skills which are increasingly required in order to earn enough to live on. This is particularly pointed as technology is now replacing even the actions which used to require a fairly high level of intelligence and many years of training. I could joke and say that not everyone is ever going to be able to be a brain surgeon, however much tuition and practice they have, but actually there’s some danger that even brain surgeons may be replaced by robots in the future…
Of course, there are always going to be jobs in personal service, but care assistants and burger flippers are never paid enough to live on.
I know that this directly contradicts what seems to be a portion of the myth of America, that if you only work hard enough, you have the opportunity to become rich ( a myth which seems at the moment to have corrupted the minds of our Conservative party). The trouble is, it is a myth not in the sense of an inspiring story by which you can live, but in the sense of a falsehood. You can work 120 hour weeks in most of our low paid jobs and still never have a hope of managing a really decent standard of living, let alone becoming rich.
If we are to have a future in which most people have a decent standard of living, it seems to me that we are going to need to start valuing people for being human, rather than for what they can do – because we increasingly are not going to need humans to do anything.
I should perhaps remind Christians that we regularly pray “Give us this day our daily bread”, relying on God to provide this. God’s hands for achieving this are, in my way of seeing things, those of other people. Jesus lauds the lilies of the field, who toil not neither do they spin (in the KHV, which I tend to remember). Clearly, he does not think that working is an essential in order for God to provide.
My third problem with this outlook is this. It assumes that being dependent is a thoroughly bad thing. Another plank of the American way is individualism, the cult of the man who is not dependent on anyone but makes his own way, proudly refusing all assistance.
However, as a species we are born the most dependent on earth; we do not become truly able to cope for ourselves for years, whereas even other live-birth mammals manage the feat within at most about a year. Unless we are eking out an existence as subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers in some third world country, we continue to be dependent in ways which individualism would like to deny; we are dependent on the culture we live in, and the contributions of all the other people (and, these days, machines) in it; we are specialised in what we can actually do (assuming we are lucky enough to be born with the capacity to learn an useful trade and the health to pursue it) and depend on other people who are specialised in their own ways.
I blogged about some aspects of this issue from a different perspective recently, where I suggested that the least we should expect from our community is that it provide for Maslow’s levels one and two; we also have a need for Maslow’s level three, love and belonging. It is, to me, fundamentally wrong that we regard ourselves as primarily individuals without responsibilities to each other; “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main” as John Donne memorably wrote.
Indeed, the Bible from very early times talks about the tribe, the people, the children, the group, the disciples, the Church. Not much about the individual, and even there, I think that should be read against the background of an assumption that the listeners and readers understood that they were a people of God, not individuals of God.
This has been a lesson which I have learned only with huge difficulty; I’m an introvert and have always suffered from some social anxiety (and now have a fully fledged anxiety disorder), so groups of people are not my favorite location; I’m a solitary contemplative in terms of my deepest spiritual practice (I seem to have had that foisted on me, not that it was in any way contrary to my nature); I’ve always thought that I should make my own way in the world, reliant on no-one else (such as my parents and their willingness to pay for an extended education); I was born with a decent mind and natural abilities which have made it easy for me to acquire skills in several areas and change direction when one became difficult or impossible to pursue. I should be a natural candidate for thinking that I, as an individual, am the captain of my ship, the master of my fate. However, illness and minor disability has taught me that I am absolutely dependent on others; I would not be here absent a twelve step community which recovers as a group where no individual could recover by themselves, or absent a wife and family. Or absent God.
I suggest that we should confess our dependence, accept it and strive to give effect to the economy of God, in which no person should go unprovided with food, shelter or clothing. Or love.