If someone is in need then it is right to respond to that need - food banks are a great example of how ordinary people can make a difference in the face of growing social injustice. In fact one of my favourite organisations in Britain does respond to need in that way.
The People Focused Group (PFG), based in Doncaster, is a group of people with mental health problems, who came together to challenge injustice in the mental health system. They wanted to get direct payments so that they could control how they got support. Eventually they were successful in bring about change in policy in Doncaster, but in the meantime they discovered that they could be even more powerful by helping each other.
Over the past few years the group has led a host of powerful initiatives to help people transform their own lives and to improve their local community. They started this work in conflict with statutory services, but increasingly they have been able to work in partnership with them. PFG also provide a food bank in their local community, and as a genuinely local group, who know the people who use the food bank, they also know that food is going to the right people - with no unnecessary bureaucracy.
Many churches and charities are also involved in developing food banks. In fact, when I attended a church event on social justice in my city of Sheffield, I found people excited at the prospect of being able to do something on people's behalf. Social justice can be energising for the Church - which has often been excluded from the welfare state.
Yet so much of this is so dangerous. The great fallacy is that growing poverty in the UK is caused by economics - it is not. Poverty in the UK is political:
- The economic crisis was caused by over-lending by the banks to the better-off (the poor don't have big mortgages).
- The benefits of bailing out the banks and subsidising mortgages have been received by bankers and those with large mortgages.
- The cost of this policy has been paid by people on benefits, not just in reduced income, but also in increased taxes.
- The poorest 10% of the population pay 15% more tax than any other group as a share of their income.
The decision made by the media, by politicians and by the majority of ordinary voters is to treat 'austerity' as if it is just some natural disaster which entitles us to rob the poor, from economic necessity. This is utterly self-serving. If it is natural, it is the naturalness of selfishness. The great Nobel prize winning author Halldor Laxness, writing about similar events in Iceland, nearly 100 years ago, wrote:
"To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts which politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideals which only make the rich richer and the poor poorer."
This describes our situation, and it is a situation we have chosen, and our politicians have chosen for us. We are all becoming complicit in the unthinking destruction of social justice. Just like those in the picture above, we are cutting cakes and celebrating the unwitting destruction of the welfare state.
The welfare state is an essential system that we developed in order to limit inequality and to achieve (at least some) social justice. It was developed precisely because people had woken up to the fact that capitalism - left to itself - destroys justice. At its most fundamental, the welfare state is not any set of institutions, it is our shared commitment, as a society, to reject social injustice. It's time to wake up, and stand up, for social justice and the welfare state - before it's too late.