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Universal Credit: How can the Church Respond?

Universal Credit: How can the Church Respond?

By Alison Tsang (Guest Author)

I have a pet hate of the phrase “on benefits”. These two words are often used to describe someone who is out of work, ‘scrounging’ from the state while ‘the rest of us’ work hard paying taxes to fund their lifestyle. But it’s important to push behind this divisive, unhelpful stereotype, and understand what sort of people we have in our community “on benefits”.

Whilst “Benefits” does mean and include Job Seekers Allowance, which you are eligible for if you are out of work and prepared to spend most of your time looking for a job (usually around 35 hours a week); it also includes benefits like Working Tax Credits for the low paid, gig economy and zero hours contract workers; Child Tax Credits for those struggling to bring up children while on a low income; Housing Benefit which in my patch in London, given the housing costs, means helping even a two-person working household to keep a roof over their heads; and “Employment Support Allowance”, a fortnightly sum you are given to tide you over a period of illness or incapacity when you’re not able to work.

People ‘on benefits’ are people like your neighbour, the person in the pew next to you last Sunday, the woman who scanned your shopping and the guy who delivered your latest Amazon order. It’s the parents and childminders who attend the toddler group; or even you.

The conversation about “Universal Credit” (UC) therefore, needs to include all of us. Six means-tested benefits in total, including those mentioned above - which cover around 7 million households in the UK- are all being phased out, and rolled into one, single monthly payment called “Universal Credit”. Sadly, as you may have read or seen on the news, the UC system has been dogged by problems and design flaws; many have reported that transitioning onto UC has tipped them over into financial hardship, anxiety and poverty.

This is why for the last six months, in the Diocese of London, with the backing of the area bishops, Capital Mass have been running awareness raising sessions about Universal Credit for all clergy, churches and volunteers. We had over 150 people from 70 parishes coming to learn more about the transition to UC, what it will mean for people, and how the church may prepare to respond. In a city like London, where rich and poor live cheek by jowel, it’s something we all need to know about and about how to respond.

I was humbled and amazed at the variety of people who came: clergy grounded in parish life; chaplains at hospitals; homeless project workers, children’s workers, foodbank volunteers and those who are part of the disabled community. I was heartened and encouraged that the Church really is at the heart of modelling what Good News looks like to all in our community- and that includes caring about their financial situation as much as their spiritual one.

From these sessions, we’re now delivering practical training using a simple, brilliant workshop called “UC Savvy” , developed by the Just Finance Foundation and available for free to use, which churches, projects and charities can use to help inform and prepare those transitioning onto Universal Credit.

UC roll-out is going to happen slowly over the next five years, and will include people who’ve been settled on their current income stream for years, for whom change will mean a whole lot of upheaval and a great deal of anxiety. For many it will mean a worrying gap without money; pressure on their housing situation, on children and on mental health.

The way I found it most useful to put it, in the training is this:

“Universal Credit is likely to mean a slow, steady stream of pastoral need over the next 5 years rather than a gigantic “one-off” tidal wave. However, for the person dealing with the transition on to Universal Credit, it may very well be their own tidal wave.”

Whilst there is a place for the Church to ask why a tidal wave is being unleashed on the most vulnerable, where we stand, as locally rooted disciples of Christ, is a place where we can respond with practical compassion as UC is rolled out.

This week, Church Urban Fund’s Research & Policy team have published: ‘Universal Credit: Everything You Need to Know’ - a short guide to what the new benefits system is, who it’s for, and how to support someone applying for it. This simple and accessible guide is for anyone within the Together Network, churches, organisations or projects that might be likely to encounter people moving onto Universal Credit. You can access the guide online or as in printed format and if you would like to request a selection of printed guides to distribute in your networks or church, please email miriam.brittenden@cuf.org.uk

Let’s pray and ask how we can get ready to make sure we can help people face the Universal Credit wave with what they need not to sink but to swim.

Information about the author:

Alison is Capital Mass' Just Finance Development Worker and to know more about her work and how you can get involved please go to www.capitalmass.org.uk/just-finance.