Irish Council of Churches. Irish Inter-Church Meeting

Pennies for the Poor?

Jonny Hanson





© Brian Moss/Christians on the Left

Why austerity is wrong, morally, socially and economically, and what we can do about it.

A small crowd gathered at Queen’s University Belfast on the evening of 18th May to hear the moral, social and economic arguments against austerity. The event was organised by Christians on the Left Northern Ireland, an emerging inter–party and inter–denominational network of left–wing Christians passionate about faith, hope and democracy, both locally and globally. With a General Election looming in the UK, there couldn’t have been a better time to consider why the defining policy of recent times – austerity – should not be the one to define the future.

Dr Tom Healy, of the Nevin Economic Research Institute, and a practising Anglican, opened the discussion with a clear–headed look at the economic failings of austerity. Often excused with the proviso that ‘there is no alternative’, Tom argued that there was, in fact, an alternative, a positive one that was both economically productive and economically just. His analysis and suggestions, shared by many other economists, included taking advantage of historically–low borrowing costs to stimulate economic activity by public investment; imposing higher taxes on higher incomes and on wealth, as was common between the 1950s and 1970s; and a greater diversity of economic models, such as cooperative enterprises. He also alluded to the austerity narrative being used less a tool to balance the books, and more as a weapon to dismantle the welfare state. In doing so, the neoliberal, or market–fundamentalist, agenda, in both Britain and Ireland, has been to redistribute the shared wealth of the welfare state from the young, sick, unemployed, foreign and poor, to the rich and powerful, as well as to the better–off voting blocs in society that the elite curry favour with.

Fiona McCausland, of the Northern Ireland Anti–Poverty Network, then looked at the extremely negative social impacts of austerity. Putting the human face on the facts and figures, Fiona pointed out that austerity policies, such as illogical benefits sanctions and unjust work capability assessments, were having significant effects on the mental and physical health of the already vulnerable. She was particularly critical of the UK Government’s policy to limit Child Tax Credits to two children, noting that not only was it a form of social engineering but that it was also likely to increase levels of child poverty and to make it more difficult for victims of domestic violence to leave abusive partners.

Brian Moss of Christians on the Left Northern Ireland concluded the speakers line–up by considering the moral arguments against austerity. He focused especially on the crystal–clear call throughout the Scriptures to seek an economic system that was fair and not exploitative; that was the servant and not the master; and that put the interests of the poor and weak before the interests of the rich and powerful. Citing among other passages Acts 2, Matthew 25, Deuteronomy 15 and Leviticus 25, Brian argued that the five pillars of the welfare state – health care, education, housing, welfare and legal aid – helped to promote this vision of a just and equal society more effectively than one based on so–called ‘trickle–down economics’ and occasional acts of charity, however well intentioned.

All told, the contributions by Tom, Fiona and Brian represented a devastating critique of austerity from moral, social and economic standpoints. What they also articulated was an alternative to this poisonous policy, one that makes markets subject to morals, economics to ethics and profits to principles. But there was also an implicit warning to the Christians and Churches of Ireland underpinning the evening: when the people of God choose comfort and complacency, and bells and buildings, over the interests of the vulnerable there is a problem. A problem that the prophets of old were not slow to remind us of. These same prophets also remind us that if the Church is to be the radical institution that its radical founder, the Son of God, calls it to be, then we need to get our priorities right. Pennies for the poor isn’t good enough. Like Jesus Christ, we owe them our all.

Jonny Hanson is a committee member of Christians on the Left Northern Ireland.