The Church of England's House of Bishops has just published a discussion paper attempting to 'think afresh about welfare'. It has three aims: "to help formulate a considered response to the challenges facing the country's welfare systems today", "to develop a narrative" about the purposes of welfare, and "to inspire hearts as well as minds in pursuit of the people's welfare". At its heart is a relatively simple, four-stage argument: vital to our welfare (or wellbeing) is interdependence and community; we live in a world where such interdependence has broken down; the welfare system should help tackle this problem; and the churches are well-placed to help. Unfortunately, any helpful insights in the paper are overwhelmed by (at least) three fatally flawed assumptions: about work, about politics, and about 'solutions'.
Firstly, the paper assumes that 'work' is by its very nature a social good: 'a primary source of companionship and a remedy for isolation', 'productive' and 'socially useful'. On that basis, while 'welfare systems' should 'strengthen people's ties to their locality and not undermine them', it is quite acceptable to expect people to move locality 'to take up opportunities for work' ('on your bike', we might say). Work thus trumps any other social good, passing over the reality for so many people that work is temporary or short-term, alienating and unfulfilling, and radically 'desocialized' (as sociologist Loic Wacquant puts it), such that low-income work environments are increasingly designed to isolate workers from each other, to prevent them from forming meaningful bonds of solidarity.
The paper's second problematic assumption lies in its view of politics. It acknowledges that 'welfare cuts are a political choice', but goes straight on to suggest that they 'may be the only politically possible alternative to high levels of debt'. Politics may well be 'the art of the possible', but this paper does not deserve to be dignified with any pretence to Christian theology if it rests content with what currently appears 'politically possible'. Where is its prophetic voice to seek to change the terms of the political conversation? Nowhere, it seems, beyond a thinly-evidenced suggestion that it is our 'loss of connection' that is responsible for 'the burden on the state' (of the welfare bill) becoming 'unsustainable', 'outstripping the willingness of the people as a whole to pay for it'. Nowhere does the paper question the vested interests of those who would perpetuate this particular economic narrative, or alternative narratives that might highlight where wealth has in fact been concentrated in recent years.
The final fatal flaw with this paper is in its proposals for moving forwards. It does not consider tackling the desocializing forces of 'the economy' and the workplace. It pays scant attention to the need of the affluent and the comfortable for 'interdependence' and 'mutuality', focusing only on their necessities for the poor. And most troubling, it ties itself in knots trying to argue, on the one hand, that the 'welfare system' out to 'promote mutuality and challenge isolation', and 'address issues of character', and also, on the other hand, that such issues can only be addressed by neighbourhoods, and communities like, guess what, the church. While I agree unequivocally with the latter point (systems cannot love, or nurture love, almost by definition), the barely-hidden subtext of this paper is that 'voluntary bodies' (like churches) need to be enabled to 'bid competitively' (against the unloving but seemingly more 'efficient' private sector) to deliver welfare provision. It doesn't quite say as much, but the suggestion of using food banks as 'one-stop-shops' for state-sponsors welfare is implied, thickly, between the lines.
When will the church renounce the temptation to position itself as the state's ideal 'service provider', while abdicating its prophetic calling to expose our idolatries (of 'the economy', work, and the politically expedient, to name but three)? Why can our ecclesial imagination not even stretch as far as the idea of the Universal Basic Income, already a serious political concept in a growing number of countries - one way of 'decoupling' meaningful, productive, interdependent work from the apparent necessity of wage labour, which might just possibly liberate people for voluntary action in their communities and neighbourhoods? Why, furthermore, must we buy the lie of 'scarce resources', when there is wealth in the hands of a few that, invested in serious community-building, could transform our society? Why are we not asking serious questions about the moral failings of the rich, and urging the state to incentivise their moves towards interdependence and community within our wider society? If this paper is 'thinking afresh', then the Church of England has truly run out of ideas.