Saturday, May 23, 2015

Faith & Welfare, Saints and Safety Nets

Review of Greg Smith Faith, Progressive Localism and the Hol(e)y Welfare Safety Net

You wait weeks for a report on faith and welfare and then two come along at once. Actually, there have been plenty, and with the re-election of the Conservatives, I'm sure there'll be many more.

The William Temple Foundation asked me to review Greg Smiths 'Temple Tract' on faith and welfare. Two recent events made it worth the read. The election result was one: though a Labour government would have still faced some of the issues and realities that Smith describes. The other is the recent report from the Cinnamon Trust, highlighting the vast scale of faith-based social action, and encouraging churches and other faith groups to do more in partnership with other agencies, such as local authorities.

It's this relationship between faith groups and local authorities that Smith focuses on. With a track record in ecumenical work in deprived urban areas, and a key role in the Evangelical Alliances research programme, he brings together the findings of EA research with case studies of local partnership working, and the realities of the welfare state in austerity Britain. Whilst the Cinnamon Trust report encourages faith groups to get on and work in partnership with others, Smiths e-book raises some of the issues those faith groups will need to wrestle with.

Snith's main premise is that recent politics and economics have created a new environment for churches and faith groups. Recession has thrown more people into poverty, and austerity has resulted in a thinner 'safety net', with more means testing. Meanwhile the government has raised the profile of localism - in some cases devolving to local councils the responsibility for parts of the welfare system (e.g. emergency grants and financial aid). This gives both a new challenge, and a new opportunity, for faith groups to work in partnership with local authorities in welfare delivery.

The book splits down into several readable short sections:
 - An outline of recent changes to welfare since 2010, and the current (frightening) picture of poverty and inequality
 - The contribution of faith groups to welfare, with a particular focus on the responses to Evangelical Alliance surveys.
 - A brief survey of 'progressive localism' - how a combination of austerity and local devolution is creating space for new partnership between faith groups and local authorities to provide welfare support.
 - Case studies of what this looks like in Blackpool and Preston, with an honest survey of the relative strength and levels of co-operation among the churches, and between the churches/faith groups and the local council.
 - 'Common values and sticky issues' - highlighting some of the hurdles to faith group and local authority partnership, and two of the ideologies which would challenge that partnership in the first place: neoliberalism (everyone must take individual responsibility, so don't help the 'undeserving poor') and secularism (faith groups have no part in the public sphere).

The e-book is a call for faith groups to work with local authorities in this new environment. However it also recognises that localism can degenerate into a postcode lottery - if more welfare provision is local, then it also becomes more dependent on the quality of local partnerships, personnel and delivery. The case studies highlight how much difference local factors can make to the quality and outcomes of support given by the faith sector.

Smith also points out that most of the time, there are no issues with faith groups being involved. The main exception is ‘only when people of faith feel so committed to their beliefs that they explicitly present them as truth claims, and when the perceive their beliefs as normative or binding on others that there is real difficulty’

Here is his summary of the argument of the paper:
I have argued that the growth of poverty and inequality and the neo-liberal project to roll back the hard fought for protections of citizens via state welfare, have led to a constructive reaction by churches, people of faith and others of goodwill, to fill the holes in the welfare safety net. But a holy safety net on its own is hardly sufficient to meet that need. Where central government has delegated, or more truthfully abandoned, many of its responsibilities to local authorities, without providing sufficient resources for the task, there are opportunities for creative partnerships. And in a context of post-secular progressive localism there are public spaces in which values and beliefs can be publicly articulated and where apologetics and religious dialogue can take place.

In other words, churches and faith groups both have new opportunities to serve, in partnership with local authorities, and new opportunities to bring the values of faith into the public square.

In the light of the Cinnamon Trust report I found this a useful booklet to read, provocative and challenging. It has a good summary of recent changes to welfare, is well researched and well referenced, and the combination of local case studies with the wider national picture works well. It was helpful to read the warning that discussions of 'the common good' from positions of power and institutional religion don't give voice to the actual experience of those who need, and are falling into (or through) the safety net.

Just a few quibbles - some page numbers with the index at the start would have been handy. I also was trying to work out who it was aimed at - a lot of Evangelical Alliance research was quoted, so parts of the booklet focused specifically on Evangelicals, in compare/contrast mode with other streams of belief and non-belief. But the main argument of the book seems to be directed at 'faith groups', and there's never an attempt to make a biblical or theological argument for evangelicals to be involved in the welfare state. If the audience was Evangelicals, then it needed more theology, and if it was faith groups in general, then the booklet probably needed less about Evangelicals in particular, and more research from other sections of the 'faith sector'.

I also found it a bit hard to follow Smiths definition of 'progressive localism'. I think I know what he was getting at, Progressive does not mean liberal or elitist. Rather it is something more fundamental than that: an attitude of mind or outlook on life that is, ‘outward looking and creates positive affinities between places and social groups negotiating global processes’. The term progressive has been used to emphasise that new alliances between different community and faith groups are not merely defensive, but ‘rather they are expansive in their geographical reach and productive of new relations between places and social groups. Such struggles can reconfigure existing communities around emergent agendas for social justice, participation and tolerance’. Progressive localism would be even less elitist if there was a clear definition of it that didn't rely on so many abstract nouns.

I was also surprised by the big leap in the final sentences to the conclusion that ‘for new times we need to see some fresh thinking. More democratic engagement, and a renewal and transformation of the major institutions of our society' It's not clear either what kind of transformation is required, or which institutions he's referring to. The radical final paragraphs seem to go way beyond the evidence and argument presented in the previous 20 pages, and I wondered if there was another booklets worth of thinking needed to unpack them! 

It's the kind of thing I probably wouldn't have read without being asked, but I'm glad I did. It's made me think about what we do here in Yeovil, and that I need to do more to encourage and give a voice to those members of our church who are engaging at the sharp end of this. Many people have no idea of what's going on around the bottom rungs of the social ladder. 

I don't know how the Temple Tracts work, but I'd really like to see a response to Smiths arguments from the Centre for Social Justice.

Faith, Progressive Localism and the Hol(e)y Welfare Safety Net is worth a read if you want something more chewy to put the Cinnamon Trust report into context, or for local church leaders involved in partnerships with their local authority, or wondering what that might involve. David Camerons re-election makes it even more relevant, and there are wider issues for the church here not just in provision, but in prophecy - how do we challenge the state when it neglects the most vulnerable, and how do we give a voice to those who are rendered even more vulnerable by a system which is supposed to be helping them. 

The church, and faith groups in general, are not in a place where we can happily take welfare provision back from central government and say 'that's fine, we'll carry on where we left off in the 1940s'. The Cameron government is also showing a worrying tendency towards abdication: following the Lansley reforms the Health secretary is no longer responsible for the NHS, academies are devolving and breaking up the education system, and Eric Pickles has just received a knighthood for 5 years of asking local authorities to make bricks without straw, responsibility for more provision yet with fewer resources. I'm glad there's an increasing openness for the state, voluntary and faith sector to work together in supporting the vulnerable, but it's not enough to keep rescuing people from the river, we need to head upstream to find out why they are falling in. 

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