Poverty is not inevitable. Towards the end of the summer I joined a coalition of third sector, civic society and faith groups in calling on the Scottish Government to support the ‘Give Me Five’ campaign: an additional five pounds, per child, per week top up on child benefit which could help lift 30, 000 children out of poverty.
Indeed, we live in the sixth wealthiest nation on the planet, and yet 260,000 of our children in Scotland are living in poverty – that’s one in four children; the largest proportion of any European country. Their life chances, and opportunities damaged, their formative years marked by worries, and want.
In Psalm 34 we sing that “The Lord hears the cry of the poor”, yet so often, in so many situations as a society we have failed to hear that cry. Pope Francis has pointed out that: We allow our comfort to lead us to forget about others, unconcerned with the suffering, and injustice they endure. (Pope Francis – World Day of Peace 2016).
Perhaps a greater fault is that not only have we failed to hear the voices of the poor, but we compound our failure by not joining our voices with theirs, to make those in power hear, so that the genuine, systemic change that we need can take place.
The Church teaches that our social and political charity is not just about the relationships between individuals, but has to spread to the network which we form – our society, our community. That to serve our neighbour by assisting them in their immediate needs, undoubtedly is an act of love, and a work of mercy. So too it is equally an indispensable act of love to strive to organise and structure society so that our neighbour will not find themselves in poverty. (CSD para 208)
In the Catholic tradition, all our thought, teaching, and action on social matters stems from the acceptance that God has made each of us in his image (Gen 1:27), as such “each person possesses a basic dignity that comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment, not from race or gender, age or economic status”.
I believe if any of us went and asked our parents, “what could you have done with an extra five pounds each week when I was young?”, they would have no shortage of answers. For those 30,000 young people who will be lifted out of poverty, and those on the edge, where foodbanks and payday loans are the only means of getting by, this additional fund will allow some certainty. The benefits of proper nutrition, recreation, and the chance to learn new skills form an integral part of the wellbeing of our children.
As adults, we may look at our finances in hard times, and dismiss that school trip as an extravagance, or that evening dance class, or football practice as unnecessary. However, to a young person those chances to learn outside of school, and to spend time at practice or rehearsal give them the self worth that every child has a right to experience.
Professor Sir Harry Burns is a key supporter of the ‘Give Me Five’ campaign and is Director of Global Public Health at the International Public Policy Institute, University of Strathclyde. He says: “The evidence is compelling. Children who come from struggling families are more likely to experience mental health problems and do badly at school.
“They are less likely to be successful in finding work when they leave school and will end up needing support from many different agencies. Financial support for poor families saves money in the long term.
“However, we do not advocate doing this simply because it is cost effective. It should be done because it is the right thing to do. It will give these children a better chance of achieving their full potential in life. It is a matter of justice.”
As a Catholic community, our social teaching invites us to collaborate with all people of goodwill and to nurture and protect the common good. It is a privilege to stand beside our brothers and sisters in the Christian and other faith traditions, and indeed with all people from across Scottish society who are part of this campaign. Together, real change is possible.
Bishop William Nolan, President of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Bishops Conference of Scotland