It was December 2012 and the Conservative Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd MP, suggested that wealthy pensioners (or at least those with enough income) could give their winter fuel payment to charity instead of using it for themselves. We were still at a kind of peak ‘Big Society’ of David Cameron – that ‘wonderful’ utopian idea that the government could gradually shrink it’s involvement (in many ways) in individual’s lives and charitable and other non-statutory organisations could grow to fill the gap. As I wrote then
“I challenge the notion that the government can relinquish its responsibility for the fair and efficient collection and redistribution of tax to the services and individuals that need it. Moreover, my sense is that a willingness to see the role of charitable giving as a substitute for this inefficiency is morally wrong.”
In fact, I said it was a denial of responsibility.
In March 2013, there was a nationwide campaign at Pesach to raise awareness of food poverty called ‘Enough food for everyone – IF’. It was a campaign whilst the UK held the Presidency of the G8. “At Pesach,” I wrote, “we begin inviting all who are hungry to come and eat, but the truth is if every Jew in the world invited every person in the world suffering from food poverty we would each, individually, share our seder night with 80 people. (This is based on estimates of 13 million Jews and 1 billion people who go to bed hungry every night.)” You see food poverty is something at the heart of our prophetic message as Liberal Jews.
When we read the Isaiah Haftarah at Yom Kippur it must move us:
“This is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin.”Isaiah 58:7-8
We are commanded today to extend these protections out of the realm of voluntary charitable acts and embed them in our societal norms and safety nets of wealthy (all) countries.
Fast forward a year and the foodbank demand had grown in March 2014 and I wrote in an article printed in the Jewish News:
“Food banks are a disgrace. It is a disgrace that one of the top 10 economies in the world has an increasing level of food poverty. And food banks are a disgrace because they point at the failure of our politicians to find a way of ensuring no one goes without food. It is a betrayal of the social contract to leave thousands of people dependent on the kindness of strangers for something as essential as food.”
The right to food, I argued, based on the writing of Professor Geraldine van Beuren was a basic fundamental right. In the time of the Talmud, there were many charitable structures including soup kitchens and the charitable fund which were distributable to the needy. But our society has advanced and our wealth and capacity to ensure equity has developed (in theory at least) and no-one should be left to the good will of others because, what about when something else comes along that is ‘more’ deserving or the donors run out of money or become tired of giving to a system that seems not to work. It seems in the six years that has passed, foodbanks continue to be government policy rather than a last resort for desperate families – as evidenced by yet another Conservative Minister for Civil Society – Baroness Barran who was reported as saying, “We have worked very closely with charities who operate food banks across the country. There are different approaches to how we do this but we have used all the levers possible to try to make sure that people are safe and well as we go.”
Maybe you are starting to see a pattern unfold here about the shifting responsibility of the government away from responsible leadership and leaving the ‘levers’ in the hands of, often wonderful, but cash strapped charities.
In other times, there is a constant to-and-fro about relative and absolute poverty. If I wrote a year ago about the technological poverty that many children experienced because they did not have access to decent internet connection, many people would have laughed at me and told me I was being ridiculous. After all, they would tell me, all these so called poor people have enough money for mobile phones (I hear it all the time in the context of asylum seekers – whose benefits are just £37.75 amount each week – so I expect the same for others in need). As we come up to the end of 2020 and having spent six months in lock down, the reality of poverty of access to decent technology was more and more stark. One report suggested as many as 1.9 million households had no access to the internet. Try doing your school work in lockdown if that’s your home with no computer, no broadband, no desk, no dining table or your own bedroom, no garden to escape to and high pollution in urban centres when you walk to the local park.
We need to talk about these issues, because they reflect who we are and our values. Just like the sudden realisation many of us had during the lockdown that the lowest paid work was often the work that kept the country’s wheels moving when so many of us had the luxury to set up office temporarily at home. And of course, the relationship between economic justice, health equality and racial inequality became very visible at the peak of the lockdown. In my sermon in May 2020, I said:
“Now the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated in another way the extent to which not just socio-economic gaps in society are disproportionately affected by health inequalities, but also Black, Asian and Minority ethnic people. Based on the report published this week about the impact of Covid-19 on people who are Black, Asian and Minority ethnic we do not yet know exactly the full reason why the impact is disproportionate but it has prompted the Chief Executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, of the European and Human Rights Commission to say: ‘People are more than statistics, and we cannot afford to ignore the broader context of entrenched race inequality across all areas of life. Only a comprehensive race equality strategy will address these issues.’” (Parashat Naso 5780)
When we talk about fair pay for the work we do, I’m reminded of my father (may his memory be a blessing) who taught me that when someone did a job that was worth a certain amount of money, you paid them what the job was worth. That meant you don’t look for the cheapest and lowest value in labour. I like to think my father was following in the footsteps of the sages of the Talmud who teach:
“one who withholds the wages of a hired labourer, it is as though he takes his life.”Bava Metzia 112a:2
Of course, in April 2016, the government relabelled the minimum wage to the National Living Wage. Effectively trying to confuse us between the Real Living Wage and the government’s own version. In case you’re wondering, the income is still low – you might earn approximately £18000 gross on the minimum wage (and that’s if you have a guarantee of 40 hours work a week). The Living wage outside of London would be just over £19000 for the same.
The details of what it means to qualify for free schools meals are complicated. But let me assure you, it means you are really in need of help and maybe making all sorts of sacrifices for your child’s well being in order to ensure they have every opportunity in life. Poverty, absolute poverty, is real in our country in 2020. (If you’re reading this and you need help over the half term break please get in touch).
So you see, the government’s decision and entrenchment on the issue of free school meals is not surprising when you look at the pattern of emphasis on small state and, at the same time, high pressure on the charitable sector. But this time, they’re on the back foot because of the incredible campaigning of organisations and charities along with Marcus Rashford. Jewish communities should be putting themselves firmly behind the campaign. The work of local community restaurants, cafes and charities is incredible and they are working hard to pick up the slack. But the government needs to be accountable to us and the society in which we live – even at a time when the government is borrowing an estimated approximately £400 billion in April 2020-April 2021. Put into context (which I know some MPs are concerned to clarify), Free School Meals will probably cost an additional £20 million.
Finally as we’re rebuilding post-corona, and I hate that this is a footnote to the discussion on free school meals, we need to talk about economic justice, housing inequality, the value of work and health justice. Judaism (well all religions) must be a voice to defend the individuals who experience poverty because to do otherwise is to lack compassion for the human experience – and to lack understanding of the role of social living on the individual which is so much at the heart of who we are. And we need to talk about our vision of our country that aspires to something different. Tzedakah is a word that implies justice, righteousness and balance –challenging the circumstances that we have allowed to become the norm. That is a Jewish outlook and I hope informs our national debate.
NB: After publishing this, I read this article about some of the same issues written by Jack Monroe and I feel it is hugely important – it is also written with much more knowledge and experience than me.