June
01
2015
Author
Natalie Williams
The challenge of the EA research into poverty in the UK

“78 per cent of evangelicals say the last government’s policies hurt the poor” according to an Evangelical Alliance press release issued on Sunday to announce the results of the organisation’s latest research.
 
Among the key findings of the EA’s Good news for the poor? report that are receiving a fair amount of attention on the internet and in the media are the following:97 per cent agree or strongly agree that Christians should work for justice for the poor;
87 per cent believe God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed;
28 per cent think the welfare budget is too low (compared to 15 per cent of the UK population);
22 per cent think it is too high (compared to 46 per cent);
46 per cent believe that cutting welfare benefits is not a good way to tackle poverty. 
Delving into the report, however, there are some equally interesting statistics that bear serious thought from individual Christians and churches. For example, 65 per cent of evangelical respondents believe we should follow Jesus’ example and make most of our friendships among people who are poor and marginalised (emphasis mine). My knee-jerk response is to question whether the same high percentage actually does that! Further findings of the survey confirm that it’s not just cynicism on my part – a lower 27 per cent have given long-term support to or befriended someone who is facing poverty, and only one in 10 have shared a meal in their own home with someone who was hungry, destitute or homeless.
 
While some of the articles and blogs about the research have praised the fact that 37 per cent have volunteered some time to a church project or Christian charity that aims to tackle poverty, I was surprised at how low this number is. (It drops to nine per cent when it comes to volunteering outside the church.)
 
I’m delighted that 70 per cent of evangelicals have donated to foodbanks, but I fear that caring for the poor is becoming too easy for us; I don’t believe Christians are fulfilling God’s call on us to reflect His heart for the poor by dropping a tin in a basket every time we visit the supermarket (as important as that is). Caring for the poorest in our society has never been the responsibility of a ‘department’ or certain group of activists within churches. It is something all Christians should be eager to do, just as the Apostle Paul was (see Galatians 2:10).
 
I also think it’s interesting (though perhaps not surprising) that only five per cent of respondents have ever lived in poverty themselves. I wonder if there’s a connection between this and another of the survey’s findings: namely that 66 per cent think churches in the UK are not very good at evangelising and discipling the poorest sections of society. There’s a serious challenge for us here, because God’s heart for the poor isn’t just that we help those in crisis to survive it or even just that we help people back onto their feet – God wants those in poverty to become “oaks of righteousness”, those who rebuild and restore “the places long devastated” (Isaiah 61: 3-4).
 
A third element of the research that caught my attention is that evangelicals are more likely than the general population to believe that most people who rely on benefits are victims of circumstances beyond their control (53 per cent compared to 30 per cent). On the one hand this encouraged me – initially I interpreted it as a demonstration that evangelicals are less likely to buy into myths about those on benefits than the public as a whole – but sadly it seems not to be so. The survey also found that, while we believe corruption, unfair trade, discrimination, and educational inequality are the key drivers of poverty abroad, when it comes to the UK we believe more personal factors are responsible, such as addiction, laziness, poor management of household finances, family breakdown, personal debt and – the top result – welfare dependency.
 
For Christians in the UK today there are (at least) three very important questions posed by the findings of the EA’s research:
 
Is an eagerness to tackle poverty resigned to a department in our churches or is it in our DNA?
How can we play our part in seeing people lifted so far out of poverty that they become ‘oaks’ who themselves restore others?
What is our responsibility and role in tackling myths about those in poverty in the UK today? 

We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on any or all of these questions, so please drop us a line!