The cost of living crisis: Poverty and politics

I want to return to our discussion about poverty and the cost of living crisis.  Over the past week, a lot of people will have been getting updates from their energy companies to tell them that prices are increasing, potentially doubling the cost of heating and lighting your home.  For some this will mean a reduction in savings whilst for others it will mean they will have to tighten their belts with less money to spend on treats, luxuries and holidays. However, from a lot of people, the increase in fuel prices will push them further into hardship and poverty.

In my last article on the subject, I highlighted a list of suggestions about how to tackle poverty offered by Jack Munroe. The list is actually longer than what I quoted as Jack provides a whole twitter thread of suggestions. However, the text selected does highlight the key themes.

  1. A political solution -a change of government to remove politicians who are seen not only to have failed to tackle poverty but to be openly against tackling it, preferring to help the rich.
  2. Increased benefits and other means of increasing the incomes of less well off people.
  3. Increased government intervention through state ownership of utility companies and investment in the NHS.

Now each of those suggestions may or may not be good and wise things to do as individual policies and as part of a package but does opposing them mean that you are against tackling poverty, that you are uncaring and selfish? That’s obvious implication of the first theme isn’t it? We need to get rid of the cruel and heartless Tories. 

This is important because yes, the Bible is clear that Christians should care about injustice and suffering. We should be moved by compassion when we see the most vulnerable in society suffer. The Bible has a lot to say about how we treat/care for the poor.  We will talk about this in more detail and with references in further posts.  Does this mean that there is an ethical/theological dimension to who we vote for?  Would it be wrong for Christians to vote for certain parties? Are we under a Biblical/Gospel compulsion to vote for specific politicians.

In my time, it’s fair to say that I’ve met quite a few politicians from across the political spectrum.  It is true that among them you will find plenty of people who seek political power for selfish reasons, they want wealth and power for themselves, and others like them.  They just want to look after number one. Incidentally, there are others who simply find enjoyment in politics, a career as an MP offers intellectual satisfaction as they get involved in solving complex problems, they find fulfilment in the approval and recognition of others, they get a buzz out of standing on a stage a nd deliving oratory to the applause of crowds in pretty much the same way that rock stars, actors and comedians get a kick out of being on stage. However, many, many politicians are in politics because they believe that they can do good.  They want to help others, they want to make the world a better place to live in.  Some of them are motivated by faith in God too.

It is important now to add in two crucial details.  First, those descriptions apply to politicians across the spectrum. There are selfish Tories looking for personal gain and selfish Labour politicians too.  There are socialists who are moved by compassion for the poor and vulnerable and Conservatives too. They differ about what is the best way to achieve those aims but they have the same motivation.  Furthermore, the second little bit of detail is that all politicians are frail and fallen humans which means their motivations are complex.  I suspect that very few politicians are motivated purely by greed and power just as few are motivated by pure altruism.  Like anyone of us they are motivated by a desire to help others and a concern to look after themselves. We should be careful to guard ourselves against either deifying or demonising our political leaders.

So, the crucial question is about whether or not particular measures will in fact alleviate poverty and mitigate the cost of living crisis. It’s therefore important to look at each proposal on its own terms and test it out. 

So for example when we look at the themes mentioned above, there are positive reasons for considering the proposals mentioned. 

  1. A universal basic income would encourage employers to take responsibility for the well-being of their employees. It would put more money into the bank accounts of those most in need.
  2. Accompanied by increased benefits, the universal basic income would put more money into the economy which would encourage spending and therefore production leading to economic growth creating jobs and wealth.
  3. Investment in the NHS should help us respond better to illness leading to a healthier society.  It would also serve to reduce inequality.
  4. Nationalising utility companies would enable the Government to control prices and remove the profit motive.

However, against those proposals we might want to consider the following.

  1. Artificially increasing wages also increases employer costs, this may well lead to job cuts and to businesses failing resulting in higher unemployment
  2. More money being pumped into the economy increases demand but if supply cannot keep up then this results in higher prices leading to high inflation and greater poverty. If my wages go up but don’t keep pace with prices then I still end up poorer and that’s a major cause of the current cost of living crisis.
  3. Increased government spending leads to higher government borrowing -affecting inflation and higher taxes. Again taxes on income and sales are likely to affect the poor and those who have been just about managing. Increases in NHS funding have to be sustainable for the longer term otherwise we enter a fast and famine cycle as cash injections are followed by cuts and austerity.
  4. This leads to a specific point about nationalising energy companies. A significant proportion of our energy costs arises from government policy, taxation and regulation.  Government policy has been to increase the cost of energy, especially from fossil fuels as we seek to meet environmental targets.

For those reasons, whilst some believe that the way to tackle poverty and the cost of living is through greater government intervention, spending and regulation others argue that the opposite is true.  Their argument is that people, including poorer people will be better off if:

  1. Inflation is kept under control so that people are not robbed of their savings.
  2. Taxation is kept low to reduce the burden on families.
  3. Businesses are left free to compete with one another. This means that they will want to reduce prices to sell their products and services whilst increasing wages to attract the best employees, saving through being more efficient and effective.

Well, one article in a series doesn’t give us space to unpack every detail of macro-economic and fiscal policy.  The reality is that most of us come into a debate like this already predisposed through experience, emotions, family/community background etc to one or other political position.  That is perhaps already shaping your response to the two main approaches I’ve described here. Christians who want to engage on issues of poverty and hardship will do well to investigate further for themselves. 

We will differ on politics and on what the right economic approaches are for tackling poverty and that’s okay. Christians do not have to agree on those things. What we should agree on is that our hearts should be moved with compassion for the poor.   What we will also  see in future articles is that whilst God’s Word is not prescriptive about our political choices, it still does have much to say about wealth and poverty so that we should be challenged and seek to be obedient to God on this. 

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