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30 June 2015

Good news for the poor?

Good news for the poor?

Poverty and inequality is the single most important issue facing the UK according to evangelicals who took our recent politics survey. Our latest report Good news for the poor? digs deeper into evangelicals' views and experiences of poverty, with some fascinating results.

Material poverty
Evangelicals clearly believe that God cares about poverty, and that they should too. In the past year almost three quarters gave to a charity tackling poverty overseas and 70 per cent donated goods to a food bank. Evangelicals are also directly engaged in tackling poverty, with more than half giving to someone they know personally who is facing poverty, a quarter giving long-term support or befriending someone who is in poverty and 37 per cent volunteering with a Christian poverty project. Another nine per cent help at a secular project. However, only one in 10 are inviting poor people into their homes for a meal, or intentionally living in a poorer area in response to God's call.

"When my husband was unemployed we were down to the last tin of food and had no money to pay some bills. We prayed together, but didn’t tell anybody. The next morning somebody put an envelope through the door with £200 in and someone else left three bags of food on the doorstep!”

Although most of our panel are financially comfortable, one in 10 told us they have previously been in serious debt. And a quarter told us they have experienced miraculous provision when they were in financial trouble – with one person sharing their story: "When my husband was unemployed we were down to the last tin of food and had no money to pay some bills. We prayed together, but didn't tell anybody. The next morning somebody put an envelope through the door with £200 in and someone else left three bags of food on the doorstep!"

The politics of poverty
The evangelicals who took the survey seem very concerned about the impact of government policies on the poorest and most vulnerable. More than three quarters feel that government economic policy is hurting the poor more than the rich, and two thirds think that welfare reform policies are having a negative impact on the sick and disabled. In addition, only 15 per cent think that current government economy policy is working well to produce a more prosperous future for all, and 69 per cent believe that economic policy is failing to raise most people’s income to meet the increased cost of living. But despite obviously high levels of concern, just one in five said that their church leadership has encouraged them to campaign on poverty issues in the last year.

While evangelicals are concerned about welfare dependency and issues such as addictions and family breakdown, they view the welfare system much more sympathetically than the national population – 28 per cent consider the welfare budget is too low, compared with just 15 per cent of the general population (although 22 per cent of evangelicals consider it to be too high). And while 56 per cent agree that the government is right to withdraw benefits from those who can’t prove that they are willing to work, 46 per cent do not think cutting welfare benefits is a good way to tackle poverty.

Evangelicals recognise that UK poverty is complex and requires multiple solutions – material, relational and spiritual – including good education, strong businesses which offer employment, debt advice and money management courses and prevention of family breakup. 

poverty reportPutting our money where our mouth is?
Over a third said they have given really sacrificially of their time or money in obedience to God, but a higher proportion – 39 per cent – admitted that they have felt guilty for not giving to someone in need when they were able to. One person told us: “I am, frankly, embarrassed at some of my responses – at my personal lack of action and my church, which does nothing in word or deed for the poor in the UK.” This person was not alone, with almost a quarter feeling that their church does not do effective work to tackle poverty locally. Some admitted that this was because their churches are very inward looking. In the words of one respondent: “Our church would rather raise £300,000 to reorder the pews, the floor and the organ”, and another: “Because my church fails to reach out far into the community, we don’t really know the extent of the poverty in our local area.”

Just less than half – 44 per cent – say that their church is working on a project to address poverty in their own community. We’ve heard of fantastic projects run by churches, from foodbanks to CAP debt centres and job clubs, supporting the homeless and refugees to furniture projects, and providing cooked meals to running children’s projects in deprived communities. Churches are also actively tackling poverty overseas, from sending shoebox presents at Christmas to regularly giving to projects abroad – although only half said their church regularly supports a charity tackling poverty in less developed countries.

Spiritual poverty
Just 11 per cent believe that if we are faithful to God this means we will prosper materially. Many told us they are concerned that the UK is spiritually destitute, and 71 per cent think that spiritual poverty is a bigger problem than material poverty. However just 14 per cent agreed that it is more important to share the gospel with poor people than to meet their material needs. It was clear from our research that evangelicals believe that the Church should be meeting both spiritual and material needs, not either/or. Just over a quarter – 27 per cent – said their church has seen people experiencing poverty come to faith in Christ in the last year, including this story: “Some personal friends of ours who live in poverty have come to faith recently through an Alpha course. They were originally befriended by church members through sending their children to our children’s club and coming to our annual church camp.”

Despite this, a substantial two thirds told us that they don’t think churches in the UK are very good at sharing their faith or discipling the poorest sections of society. One respondent with strong feelings told us: “Most Christians seem to move into the nicest area they can afford to get away from anti-social behaviour and working class people. Then they come to church and talk about wanting to reach everyone.” And it seems poorer people are not often being given leadership opportunities, with just nine per cent saying that people experiencing poverty are involved in public ministry or leadership in their church.

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