John Battle MP considers church social teaching in the light of poverty in the UK.
IN St Joseph's Chapel at Westminster Cathedral there is an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Rerum novarum. It makes some important links with the traditions of English Catholicism. Focussing on the influence of Cardinal Manning the panel relates how as a young minister of Lavington, Henry Edward Manning established a warm relationship with the agricultural labourers in his parish and grew to love and value them — "a people straightened by poverty and toil". It reminds us that, in 1890, a farmer's wife was asked how she lived on 10/(50p) a week. She answered "sir, we don't live, we only linger".
The voice of the poor speaks through the Cardinal Manning contribution, providing real inspiration for the initial idea of Pope Leo )(Ill's Rerum novarum.
One hundred years later, the neglected voice of the poor still calls for a hearing. In recent weeks, the second European Poverty Programme Report, the TV series Breadline Britain 1990's, and the launch of The Wresinski Approach have drawn some attention not only to the facts of increasing poverty in Britain but, more importantly, to the need of our society to listen to the voices of the poor speaking for themselves.
According to the second European Poverty Programme Report, more people are living in relative poverty in Britain than in any other European Community member state. One in five of all EC residents defined by the Commission as poor (ie households with disposable incomes less than 50p per cent of the national average) live in the UK. While the number of relatively poor people in the EC has remained stable. In the last decade has seen the UK's record worsen dramatically, rising to 10.3 million people (3.8 million households). In other words, the number of poor households has grown by a third.
The official government response is to insist that "the whole concept of a poverty line is absurd", and that the standard of living for everyone has gone up, though conceding nut nearly as fast and the gap has widened for the poor. Last July, the government's own figures revealed that the incomes of the poorest 10 per cent has risen by 0.5 per cent compared to an average 23 per cent.
In Poverty: The Facts, published last year by the Church Poverty Action Group, Carey Oppenheim argues that "whichever way you measure it, poverty has grown significantly over recent years and by 1987 over 10 million people in Britain, close to one fifth of our society, were living in poverty".
An attempt at a commonly agreed definition is currently being presented in the TV series Breadline Britain in the 1990's through a survey of essential items; housing and heating (separate bedrooms for children, indoor toilet, damp free rooms) essential food, clothing, household items and the ability to participate in quality of life events such as birthdays and holidays.
Eleven million people are estimated to lack three or more of the list of 32 basic items of the public's definition of a minimum standard. What is considered essential, it is conceded, "is ultimately a matter for the judgement of society at large".
The experiences of the 200 people featured in The Wresinski Approach: The Poorest — Partners in Democracy published by the International Movement ATD Fourth World last week stress: "statistics on income levels, unemployment, health, housing, education and illiteracy do not reveal the people behind the figures. Amongst these are many families who suffer from more extreme and persistent poverty than is generally recognised".
One of the "expert witnesses", Catherine Bennett, herself poor, says: "There are families who suffer for years and years. There are a lot of families who suffer and nobody knows about it because they are loo frightened to talk about it for fear of what people might think about them."
The church's "option of the poor" didn't originate from Latin America in the 1960's and 1970's. II has roots in Rerun, novarum. "It is clearly universally agreed that the interests of the people at the bottom of the scale must be consulted promptly, as befits their plight," says the encyclical. A movement "listening to partnership" would introduce a new kind of understanding of poverty in our society and lead on into tackling it positively.