What Good King Wenceslas Could Teach the Coalition about Poverty; as Year of Austerity Looms, a Message from Lambeth Palace to No10: Will the 'Big Society' Help Those Who Need It Most?

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 26, 2010 | Go to article overview

What Good King Wenceslas Could Teach the Coalition about Poverty; as Year of Austerity Looms, a Message from Lambeth Palace to No10: Will the 'Big Society' Help Those Who Need It Most?


Byline: Dr ROWAN WILLIAMS Archbishop of cAnterbury

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen. St Stephen's Day is one of the very few references to Boxing Day in the Christmas carols. It rather reinforces the idea most of us have of Boxing Day as a little bit of a non-event; perhaps useful for just getting over Christmas itself.

But something happened to get Good King W. out of his armchair.

And it is something we are going to have to think about more than we would like in the years ahead. That something is poverty. And the question of how we are going to cope with increased levels of need in our society is moving up the agenda very quickly.

There is always a temptation to start making political points of one kind or another. The Government is being heartless and oppressive, say some; poverty is mostly people's own fault, say others, and it is none of the Government's business.

No government in its right mind wants poverty. One positive thing about aspects of the current spending review is a clear intention to put things in place that will actually reduce poverty and help people out of the traps of dependency.

But - before we relax too much - however good the intention, life at the grass roots is always going to be less black and white, and it is not surprising if a lot of people, already pretty insecure, start feeling even more insecure.

At the very least, there is a job of communication to do.

Also, we need to beware of the real temptation to take it for granted that if people still suffer, even after reforms undertaken with good intentions, then somehow it is their fault. The Victorian distinction between the deserving poor and the rest is very seductive.

Talking about these problems is not about scoring political points. The pros and cons of some aspects of reform in housing benefit - for example - are finely balanced, and it would be surprising if either side could claim there was a solution in which no one would suffer. But it won't help to airbrush away the sheer variety of human stories and situations.

Hard-working and honest people who do their best really do face problems; so do people with disabilities, with mental health issues or limited mobility. There are doubtless some who make the most out of the benefits culture (just as there are some who have made the most out of other kinds of perks available to bankers or MPs). But even if there are those who are where they are because of their own bad or foolish choices in the past, that doesn't mean they are any less in need in the present. And it can't be said often enough that most people in poverty - and we should be thinking of children in particular - haven't chosen it.

So when those working on the front line in communities where there is real struggle point out that things are not as simple as politicians and others might like them to be, they are not trying to be a political nuisance. They are more likely to be asking how they and Government can work better together in meeting the challenge. They want to know what sort of concrete investment in the 'Big Society' ideal is going to happen; how local communities are going to find the resources to steer people through their choices, help them plan for themselves and their children and feel confident that they live in a society in which they matter. …

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What Good King Wenceslas Could Teach the Coalition about Poverty; as Year of Austerity Looms, a Message from Lambeth Palace to No10: Will the 'Big Society' Help Those Who Need It Most?
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