Personhood and the Benefit System


Last summer, myself and some other Anglican ordinands were taken on a field trip to visit a really community-engaged church which, among many other things, was working with a local Money Advice Centre.

As we sat around, the manager of the centre told us the stories of people who were struggling to survive through changes to the current benefit system.

She told the story of a man living in a four-bedroom house who had fallen prey of the bedroom tax because one of his children had moved away from home. He had been driven deep into depression as he had no way of making up the 14% premium on his housing benefits that he now would have to pay himself, and faced with the only viable solution of moving to a smaller house, had been told by the council that he could not move as they could not find him a new house which had the same facilities as his current property.

What facilities were they talking about? A stair-lift which had been installed for the use of a previous occupant of the house and had never been used in the ten years this man had lived there. This dispute over a piece of equipment which wasn’t even needed had been going on for three months, and there was still no sign of a new place to live. Meanwhile, every week that has passed, his rent arrears have been creeping steadily higher.

Another lady was partially sighted, with only 17% eyesight but, having been re-assessed by Atos, had lost her entitlement to disability living allowance.

The manager explained to us that in this situation people are told by the government to go and sign on for Jobseeker’s Allowance, but that once they do this they lose their right to appeal. A huge frustration for her was that often the Advice Centre reaches people too late, because the Centre can file an appeal and in the mean time ensure that the person appealing can still claim the benefits they have lost, at least at a reduced rate.

Luckily for this lady, she had sought advice at the right time and they were able to file an appeal for her. On these kind of appeals, the Centre staff have a 98% success rate, ‘so either we’re really good, which we are but not that good, or there’s something wrong with the system’. Still, in the 9 month long wait for her appeal date to come around, the partially sighted lady was having to survive on a reduced allowance.

The De-humanising Effect of the System

Why am I sharing these stories with you in such detail? Because I believe that one of the big reasons for the holes in our welfare system is ‘de-humanisation’.

This de-humanisation is evident on both sides of public opinion. Firstly, for those who seem to genuinely feel all who claim benefits are scroungers, they have managed to buy into a system which de-humanises those within it. Principles and notions of fairness and efficiency have been pushed into the forefront, with people pushed into the background.

If the people who really believe this were able to hear the stories of those who are really, seriously struggling and actually have them stand in front of them and share their experience, then surely the weight of public opinion would shift?

Secondly, amongst those who David Cameron is so keen to root out – those who seem to lack an understanding of where their benefit money comes from, and see it as a system to make the most from, rather than as something which others in our society contribute towards. For these people, as a result of being de-humanised themselves by a welfare system which is humiliating and demoralising, the system has also become just that to them. A system.

And yet, if they felt valued and accepted as people rather than as a statistic, perhaps their perception of the system they’re a part of would change. Perhaps the nameless, faceless welfare system would begin to sprout arms and legs, with names and faces attached.

Personhood and the image of God

I believe that Christian tradition brings an important response to both of these problems – re-humanisation. We are able to draw in on a deep theological understanding of personhood, rooted in the affirmation that all human beings are made in God’s image. And we can also draw on the example of Jesus’ ministry, where we see him so often affirming the personhood of those around him who had been relegated to sub-human status by their society and culture – lepers, Samaritans, women and many others.

The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved – they are Jesus in disguise.
– Mother Theresa

About the author: James Henley
James Henley
James has been with The Lab since 2007 and leads our team. He's an ordained pioneer minister in the Church in Wales.
One comment
  1. Martin Walker April 8, 2014 at 11:24 am

    While MPs are seen taking the system for what they can get, is it surprising that people on benefits feel that they should do the same? People follow examples. It is better to do something unexpectedly kind for someone, than to dole out the minimum possible. This way, people are more likely to change, think about helping others and get out of the very negative attitude that they are merely a receiver of benefits.