Benefit claimants have been in the news again this week and it prompted me to dig out an old post and somewhat adapt it. I definitely want to blog more on this topic and I am hoping to include a chapter in my upcoming book. For now, here is an old article on the BBC website. Please take the time to read before you continue because it will better help you understand the context.
What is interesting about working in Niddrie is that we are dealing with practically every person categorised on their list of Incapacity Benefit (IB) claimants. I am unsure what they mean by the term ‘unknown causes’. It is a little troubling given that 130,000 (ish) are claiming IB on this basis. This post is not intended to get into the rights and wrongs of this issue but to merely comment on our situation here and my experience (as an ex long-term IB claimant) and now as a pastor working in a predominantly ‘benefit culture’. It is hard to make comments that don’t generate deep felt emotions and/or negative reactions but somebody needs to grab the nettle and admit that, in large part, on estates like ours the benefits system is one big blag (con).
I know so many people making claims and making them for every little thing possible. Some people probably know the system better than the civil servants who run the show! There are many people here who have been on benefits almost all their adult lives and, after housing support, council tax support and other add ons, they are sometimes left with more disposable income than my wife and I who both work! This is one of the reasons why I am uncomfortable with the Western derivation of ‘deprived’. According to government statistics we are the number one most deprived estate in Edinburgh and yet there are many in ‘low income households’ who take more holidays abroad than I do!
Now I am not saying that there are no needy people and that it is not a worthwhile system – on the contrary – but I am stating a FACT that I work in an area where this whole thing is being abused by many. It is ironic that some people around here are livid because their benefits are being cut due to their new classification of being ‘fit to work’. People are (incredibly and unashamedly) appealing decisions (and often winning) arguing against their ‘unfit to work’ status whilst enjoying a life of swimming, running and going to the gym! In my experience lots of the people I work with are not incapable, they just don’t want to work (many people here do have jobs and work hard as well!). They are either lazy, greedy or so trapped in the system that they can’t escape. I recently worked out with one young man in receipt of various benefits that he would have to clear in excess of £1000 per month in order to match what he gets from the state now (including his partner who also claims)!
Now, the Bible has a lot to say on this subject, particularly the book of Proverbs. “As a door turns on its hinges so a fool turns in his bed” (Prov. 26:16)! Of course, when it comes to salvation we are glad that it does not turn on human effort or even a lack of it. It is all of grace and we do well to remind ourselves of that often (Ephesians 2:8-9). As Christians we are not saved by works but to works and one of the discipleship issues for us right now is educating new believers and counselling seekers about this whole issue and what the Bible has to say. When people are saved in our community we put them to work almost immediately and ensure that their lives and minds are filled with something useful and productive. It is very much integral to our discipleship process.
The problem we find is that the Bible is often a big, fat slap in the face for many of our people here in Niddrie. A group of us were considering this verse recently. “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need” (Eph. 4v28). Needless to say it went down like a lead balloon in our culture of ‘the world owes me a living’!
Obviously, our job here is to present the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its fullness. We are not here to moralise to them about their so-called life choices. We hold forth Christ and we work hard as a church to hold out a real life, counter cultural model right bang in the middle of this estate. It is hard and it is slow but it has to be done. I only ask that people are realistic about the nature of a large proportion (Niddrie is changing as young professionals move in – that is a whole other challenge!) of the people we are trying to reach. There is a lot of liberal hand wringing by people who don’t live here, there is a lot of misrepresentation of those who do genuinely qualify for state assistance (and there are many of these also) and there is a lot of silly romanticising in Christian circles about ‘the poor’ like they’re some naive and helpless people group we’ve got to save. We do have to reach out to them but we have to do it with our eyes open, with a good deal of realism and a with great belief in the gospel to transform lives and worldviews. I believe that only genuine spiritual transformation can bring about any real and lasting social change.
If a man will not work, he will not eat (2 Th. 3:10) is a biblical truism no longer functioning in our society. Still, we employ the principle here at NCC. If you want our help you have to be prepared to work for it as well. The only truly ‘free’ thing we have to offer is the gospel. The issue, once converted, for many in our culture is discipleship and Lordship issues. The gospel is all of grace but it also requires a life of discipline and hard work. These things are a shock to the system in a culture where people will gladly take the benefits (if you pardon the pun) of Christ but find the ‘walking in obedience’ part goes against the grain. We often find that people who come sniffing around to see what they can get from us soon get bored and wander off once we set them even the most menial tasks to complete. Others, find salvation, and are slowly but surely beginning to rebuild their lives in a community that loves them, disciples them, cares for them but requires them to play their part and to be givers instead of takers.