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This week, Marcus Rashford became one of the unlikely heroes of the pandemic. In the course of just six days, the England and Manchester United footballer led a campaign that succeeded in persuading the government to change its mind about summer holiday funding for children who receive free school meals. The resulting policy shift means that 1.3 million children across the country will receive vouchers for food this summer.
The initial argument that the government does not ‘normally’ offer vouchers to these families over the summer held little weight. Not only is this year anything but normal, but holiday hunger has been a growing concern in recent years, even in summer holidays without the shadow of a pandemic. Charities, campaign groups and churches have long recognised this; in 2017, a Church Urban Fund survey found that 52% of Church of England churches were involved in some form of holiday provision for children and families in their community.
Wythenshawe, the Manchester housing estate where Marcus Rashford grew up, is something of a byword for deprivation. It sits at the nexus of social problems – crime, poor health outcomes, low life expectancy, drug problems, unemployment – and despite being only eight miles outside the city centre, the hour–long bus journey makes it feel far more isolated. The famous picture of David Cameron with a young boy miming a gun in the background, which led to the ‘Hug a Hoody’ slogan, was taken on a visit to Wythenshawe. The Channel 4 drama Shameless was filmed in the area.
The largest of the parish churches in Wythenshawe is named after William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and earlier, Bishop of Manchester) in the early twentieth century. Temple was known for his passion for social justice and his integration of local social action with vocal political advocacy in the life of the church. He wrote extensively about the relationship between the church and state, and developed a political vision of a society based on Christianity. Temple’s contention that “the church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members” characterises his political theology and hope of an activist church seeking to change society, not only offer practical charity.
I visited Wythenshawe last year as part of the GRA:CE Project and saw what a central part of the church’s work in the area its holiday clubs are. Last summer, the church alone provided several hundred breakfasts for over fifty families. There are four church buildings dotted around the sprawling estate and when I visited, participants spoke about the sense of ‘pilgrimage’ this engenders as families travel between them depending on which church is hosting the holiday club that day of the week.
The success of the campaign has been in some ways testament to the power of personal stories. Rashford spoke compellingly from his own childhood experience of poverty and free school meals, drawing on his personal reality in the way campaigners know can be effective. Yet, the stories of families like Rashford’s are not new.
There are Wythenshawes all over the country, with near–Dickensian levels of poverty that William Temple himself would not find unfamiliar. For every injustice inflicted, whether by social policy decisions or the economy, there is a plethora of individuals whose lived experience testifies to the hardship of it – just as there are many quietly working to alleviate that hardship. These stories, and the statistics they collectively represent, are known to many and are not always enough to effect political change in the way Rashford has managed this week.
Plenty of people have been campaigning and acting to end child poverty for years. If poignant stories were enough to win the hearts and minds of Westminster, the issue would be moot by now.
The genius of Rashford’s campaign was in getting a bigger audience to hear. His campaign garnered public and political support alike; one Conservative MP even called for Rashford to head up the Government’s Child Poverty Commission. Campaigning charities do this well; Trussell Trust, for example, works tirelessly not only to run a network of foodbanks but also to generate robust evidence that advocates for an end to the need for food banks. But few have the reach or ability of a Premier League footballer in galvanising so many different sorts of people, across the dividing lines of Manchester football rivalries and beyond.
The end of child poverty would be an even greater victory than any that Marcus Rashford will win on the pitch and one that archbishops and footballers alike might celebrate.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.