Speaking Out for Compassion and Humanity
I have come rather late to Jeremy Seabrook’s writing. I met him some 50 years ago when he was a teacher at my school, but I have only just read one of his books. I shall make up for lost time and read more.
In “Cut Out – Living Without Welfare” he gives a voice to people in Wolverhampton who find themselves relying on a benefits system that all too often seems designed to crush and coerce them, rather than empower and encourage. It adds another level of difficulty to their life circumstances. He adds his own perceptive and challenging commentary. For example, “Is not life attended by sufficient grief and pain without it being exacerbated by the actions of our fellow humans, especially those in power; and what purpose is served by intensifying our suffering as a matter of principle by the government?”
The people who speak in “Cut Out” are like those on Tyneside that Ken Loach vividly reveals to us in “I Daniel Blake”. In the course of a trenchant and forceful book, Seabrook is able to take us through many more examples of people whose natural anxiety over illness and disability is accentuated by their engagement with the welfare system and their attempts to find work, all the time living under the shadow of an anti-poor ideology.
Seabrook sets his interviews in the context of the built environment of Wolverhampton, with its “ruins of industry” and its fading municipal glory. I work in Wolverhampton in a role “Connecting Church and the Economy” and I recognised his descriptions. Much is being done to regenerate the city, with considerable investment in new buildings in the city centre, and a drive to increase employment and training opportunities. Whilst Seabrook doesn’t refer specifically to these, he acknowledges that there have been many improvements which “are so obvious they scarcely require mention.” The problem, he says is that “the passing of any way of life deserves an acknowledgment it has never received, particularly when it took such a toll of body and spirit on the women and men who had no choice but to make their home in the industrial wastelands.”There’s a role here for the church. My team organised a service to commemorate an anniversary of the closure of Round Oak Steel Works and church in Stoke-on-Trent marks the closure of its local coal mine each year.
The mood of public disapproval and punitive government policies prevail because of the focus in many sections of the media on those who abuse the system. Seabrook acknowledges them, but points out that the scale of any such abuse is small compared with other ways of short changing the state, such as tax evasion. He might also have added that surveys show that people consistently overestimate the scale of benefit fraud
This excellent book comes to a conclusion that is worth quoting:
…when a system of social security is detached from answering need and becomes, instead, a project for saving money, its purpose is destroyed. "Deficit reduction" is one thing, but when that financial deficit is accompanied by a deficit of compassion and humanity, the costs are transferred elsewhere; and in the long run, these prove far greater than any sum of money saved.
Churches and other faith groups are doing valuable work, demonstrating “compassion and humanity” in providing for immediate needs, and the people who speak in the book often acknowledge that. However help and relief are no substitute for questioning the political, economic and social systems which produce the problems. The challenge to us all is to ensure that our children in twenty years’ time and our grandchildren in forty years’ time will not be having to give to foodbanks.