13 million people in UK live in poverty, says churches report

(Photo: Reuters / Chris Helgren)Two homeless men lie against a building near Victoria rail station in central London December 13, 2012. The number of rough sleepers on London's streets has soared 43 percent over the last year. The financial crisis has tested the reduced budgets of Britain's local authorities and charities, and seen a reversal of much of the progress made over the past decade. Picture taken Dec. 13, 2012.

Some 13 million people, including 3.6 million children, live in poverty in Britain today, a major new churches' report says.

The churches' report highlights how evidence and statistics have been misused, misrepresented and manipulated to create untruths that blame and stigmatize the most vulnerable in society.

The report comes at a time Britain's ruling coalition led by the Conservative Party, and other Western countries are seeking to tighten up benefits on the disadvantaged while world reels from the most devastating economic calamity in history.

The report, entitled "The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty", was published on March 1.

"Over 80 percent of the UK population believe that 'large numbers falsely claim benefits'," states the report.

It notes, however, "Benefit fraud has decreased to historically low levels - the kind of levels that the tax system can only dream of. Less than 0.9 percent of the welfare budget is lost to fraud."

The report was commissioned by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church, through their Joint Public Issues Team.

These churches, which together claim to represent more than 1 million people across Britain, say that statistics have been manipulated and misused by politicians and the media.

They say the data supports a comfortable but dangerous story: that the poor somehow deserve their poverty, and therefore deserve the cuts which they increasingly face.

The Free Churches plus the Church of Scotland said they hope the report will empower Christians and others to challenge myths and lies about poverty wherever they find them.

The reports was welcomed by Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which has argued that public policy must be reformed around the concerns, experience, skills and insights of the most vulnerable in society.

He said, "It confronts the most common untruths told about people who are in poverty or in receipt of benefits, and it highlights some of the statistics most abused in public debate, in the media and by politicians seeking to justify a restructuring of welfare which is taking resources away from those who need them most."

One part of the report quotes a man Neil, who was a long-distance lorry driver until ill health meant he had to give up work. He's in danger of losing his home because of the government's planned benefit reforms.

"I was a proud man, I always worked, but I can no longer afford that luxury. Benefit changes reduce my ability to eat properly. I can't afford to keep the fridge on all the time, and I can't afford to heat my home all the time," he said.

"I feel like my children and my friends no longer look up to me because I have nothing. I feel like a failure. I don't feel like a person anymore."

The report is being sent to members of the parliaments of Britain and Scotland.

Britain has a population of 63 million people.

Ekklesia is encouraging members of the public to write to their parliamentary representative asking how they will be using the information to better inform policy-making.

"It would be comfortable for many if we lived in a society where poverty only visited families that were lazy or made bad decisions," said Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser and author of the report.

"It's convenient to believe that benefits are too generous. It's convenient to believe that claimants are on the fiddle or even more absurdly caused our economic troubles. But it's just not true.

"The very least the most vulnerable in our society deserve is to be spoken of truthfully and with respect, and that is what we should demand from our politicians and newspapers. Anything less is to be complicit in a great injustice."

In their work the churches have said they were inspired by by the words of the biblical prophet Isaiah: "Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter." (Isaiah 59.14, NRSV).

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