Urgent help needed for struggling families
FOR centuries, churches and believers have been at the center of pressures for social progress. Almost all campaigns for justice have been built on the strongest moral foundations.
From movements for the abolition of slavery to debt relief and the elimination of poverty, men and women of all faiths have pressed for social betterment. To carry out, in a practical way, the biblical injunction to help the poor, the weak and the infirm has been a guiding mission of religious organizations.
Now, today, in 2022, when energy poverty is unprecedented, homelessness is on the rise and many face destitution, churches and other faith-based groups are leading the philanthropic response.
All religious denominations talk about our duties to our neighbors and tell us that our society is richer when we take care of the poor and stronger when we take care of the weak. And, this month, as I watch announcement after announcement by church groups of practical help for families facing virtually unpayable gas and electricity bills – most recently, the announcement of the Warm Welcome campaign, a national effort to align all churches and community places with easily accessible warm spaces (News, September 2). I have nothing but praise for the hundreds of churches opening their doors to the elderly and poor this winter.
By providing families in need and retirees with a warm space when heating bills eat into household budgets, churches are doing what they can with the resources at their disposal to alleviate pain and suffering. They do – they go the extra mile to help those in need – even when churches themselves are faced with rising gas and electricity bills.
This help comes on top of food collection points that churches have set up in recent years – many, like in my hometown, actually house some of the country’s 3,000 food banks themselves.
I WANT to join everyone who is helping to crowdfund the Warm Rooms and Heating Centers project. I encourage churches that can offer their buildings as warm spaces to consider doing so. This will not only help people who cannot afford to turn on their own heating at home, but will rebuild across the country the strong sense of community in many neighborhoods that was undermined during the period of isolation during the covid years.
The need is now immense. Tomorrow, when the cap on energy bills reaches an unprecedented £2,500 a year, the typical family dependent on Universal Credit will cost £28 a week, almost £1,500 a year, less than the year last.
How is the loss so great? Indeed, even if the new cap is introduced, families’ fuel bills will rise by an average of £10 a week, on top of April’s rise of £14 a week. According to Jonathan Bradshaw and Antonia Keung of the University of York, fuel costs will consume an unprecedented 20% of the income of 4.1 million families.
Although the government scheme has given households on Universal Credit an additional £24 a week (£1,200 a year if you have received a council tax refund), this is not enough to avoid hardship.
This same family is already £20 a week worse off as a result of the £1000 a year cut last October, and another £25 a week less because benefits have only increased by 3, 1% when inflation has reached 10%. When October’s gas and electricity rise is added to their weekly costs, they are £28 a week worse off, according to calculations by Donald Hirsch of Loughborough University.
FAMILIES with more than two children are even harder hit, as are people with disabilities, despite the £150 they are due to receive from this week. This is because the lump sum payment of £13 per week (£650 per year) to benefit recipients does not take into account family size or special needs, and offers just £2.60 per week per person when spread over a couple and their three children – barely enough to cover the additional and growing costs of food, fuel, travel, telecommunications, clothing, laundry and toiletries. Even a generous increase in benefits in April 2023 will not repair the ongoing damage.
Low wages are also suffering. Like most, they receive just £550 in government support, despite rising £1,300 in fuel bills this year and escalating food and other prices. A 5% wage hike will still leave millions facing their biggest drop in living standards in 50 years.
So the need is great, and the need for help is urgent. As winter approaches, the desire of the people of this country to come together in support of one another, as evident in the commemoration of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, is undeniable. The campaign by churches and religious groups for compassion and justice deserves our full support. And it is by recognizing the importance of the words of the Sermon on the Mount—and acting on them—that we make our country fairer and stronger.
Gordon Brown is a former prime minister.