Simon Perfect introduces our latest report ‘Bridging the Gap: Economic Inequality and Church Responses in the UK’. 11/06/2020
The last few months have been a period of unveiling. We have been reminded of hard truths that all too often we choose to ignore or become complacent about. In particular, that deep inequalities run through our society, and are damaging to the social fabric.
Gaps of income and wealth are some of the most pernicious inequalities, and underpin or exacerbate other issues like inequalities of health, gender and ethnicity. Before the pandemic, the UK already had one of the highest levels of income inequality in Europe according to the Gini coefficient (a common measure of inequality). The top 20% of households receive nearly half of the total share of income, while the bottom 20% get less than a tenth. Wealth is even more unequally spread than income, with the top 10% of households owning 45% of the country’s wealth.
These gross disparities are likely to get much worse as a result of COVID–19. The OECD predicts our economy will shrink by 11.5% (more than any other country in the developed world) – and the burden is likely to fall most on the poorest. Already we know that a third of employees in the lowest 20% of earnings have lost their jobs, been furloughed or lost hours or pay – more than twice the rate among the highest 20%. COVID–19 has disproportionately hit people from ethnic minority backgrounds and people living in more deprived areas of the country. The virus makes victims of both rich and poor, but not in an equal way.
This does real damage to society. A growing body of research argues that in wealthy countries, as economic inequality rises, levels of trust in democracy decline, health problems proliferate, and social mobility and equality of opportunity are curbed. And there is research suggesting that high economic inequality is bad for economic growth – challenging the traditional assumption that inequality is a necessary evil if we want the economy to grow. Concern about these issues is not just the reserve of the political left: earlier this year, for example, a former Conservative advisor to the Treasury published a paper making the case for the reduction of economic inequality from a Conservative perspective.
After the pandemic, we can’t go back to the status quo. Instead we must seize this moment to pursue a fairer society. And as we argue in our latest report – Bridging the Gap: Economic Inequality and Church Responses in the UK – churches, and Christians more widely, have a distinctive role to play in helping tackle economic inequality.
Bridging the Gap shows some of the ways churches are already starting to do this, going beyond their traditional focus on poverty alleviation. Nationally, church leaders have spoken out against what they see as a morally unacceptable level of economic inequality. In 2014, for example, Pope Francis famously tweeted that “Inequality is the root of social evil”; and Archbishop Justin Welby has condemned economic inequality as “the most destabilizing and unjust feature of our own society”. Welby was a member of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Commission on Economic Justice, which in 2018 said that the “UK economy is not working” and called for radical reform. Churches have also been using their positions as investors and shareholders to push companies to pay fair tax and to curb excessively high CEO pay packages. On a local level, churches have been key players in initiatives like Poverty Truth Commissions and the community–organising movement Citizens UK, which have been crucial for tackling low pay and spreading the Living Wage. These activities are crucial and are not publicised enough, either to church congregations or to the wider public.
But there is more that churches can and should be doing practically to help tackle the causes and effects of high economic inequality. For example, they could explicitly prioritise the reduction of economic inequality in their investment strategies. As education providers, the Church of England and Catholic Church in particular could provide funding to extend existing programmes of financial education to all their schools, to give children the skills they need to budget and save. Locally, churches need to be talking more to their congregations about wealth – not just poverty – and how to handle it wisely for the reduction of inequalities.
Most importantly, at a national level, churches need to become more vocal champions against economic inequality. This means both issuing formal, institutional condemnations of today’s levels of economic inequality (which are more powerful than interventions from individual leaders); and seeding new ideas to help move forwards an often stagnant debate about the economy.
As Bridging the Gap shows, there are strong theological arguments to be made against high economic inequality – including that it undermines the common good, a key concept of Catholic Social Teaching meaning the sum social conditions which enable everyone to reach their fulfilment. As theologian Kenneth Himes argues, high economic inequality allows the rich to opt out of the pursuit for the common good, since they can isolate themselves from and forget their responsibility for others. High inequality also masks people’s true worth from themselves, as they are encouraged to value themselves in terms of their material success relative to others. These are distinctly Christian ideas which are easily understood by people of all faiths and none.
In all this, churches should use their national platform to lead a public conversation about the kind of economy we want to see after the pandemic. Our economy is underpinned by flawed assumptions – that humans are atomistic individuals, and that the goal of the economy is simply to enable individuals to consume more. Christian theology gives us a different vision of the economy – one where rich and poor are bound together by ties of reciprocity and responsibility, and where the rules are stacked in favour of the poorest. This is an economy with a moral purpose – that of helping us become other– rather than self–orientated beings, who find their fulfilment in loving relationships. Churches should use this turning point in our history to proclaim this better vision for the economy, and call out ever more loudly the unjust structures which inhibit it.
Bridging the Gap: Economic Inequality and Church Responses in the UK (2020) is available here, with an executive summary and a foreword by the Rt Rev Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley.