The Churches and Unemployment

It is wrong in such prosperous times as ours for men and women to be deprived for long periods of the chance to earn their living.

It is wrong to allow children to grow up where the right and duty to work are forgotten after generations of unemployment.

We have heard nothing to convince us that decent paid work for all is an impossible dream.

"Enough good work for everyone" has to become an explicit national aim in its own right... it cannot be allowed to remain a hoped-for, but ultimately optional, by-product to economic growth.

These brief extracts from the joint Churches' report Unemployment and the Future of Work give a flavour of the challenge it presents both to complacency and to despair over the divisions in our society caused by unemployment and poverty-level wages. While analysing and starkly illustrating these problems, the report is essentially optimistic and argues that if the political will can be found, the ways and means are available to address them. It is not comfortable reading - particularly for those of us who are better off, and particularly during an election where sensitivities to public spending and taxation are acute. It effectively condemns the bias among politicians (of all parties) towards "the favoured majority" and not responding to the seriousness and scale of the issues, which should be of concern to all of us. "None of the political parties has put forward a programme which offers much real hope of improvement to those in greatest need."

The report was the result of an eighteen-month enquiry of a working party for the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. One of its main authors, Andrew Britton, was a former director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and gave up his job as an adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to work full-time on the enquiry. The enquiry consulted people and organisations with a wide range of experience and expertise, including political leaders and economic experts.

The working party grounded their approach in understanding from the Bible and experience of the life of the Church. From this they drew a vision of what it means for human potential to be fulfilled in a society ordered and governed by God. Made in God's image, all humans have the potential for creativity, responsibility and love, and none should be treated as disposable, menial or unwanted. For this potential to be realised people need not just work, but meaningful and useful work. They also need sufficient income to feel included in society. "The work of God is both creative and redeeming. As children of God it is our privilege to share in that work." A society that takes for granted high levels of unemployment, or is hostile to the unemployed, limits that privilege. It is damaged and incomplete. It fails to mirror God's love and generosity.

The report examines the changing nature of work, the connection between unemployment and low pay, regional variations, and how work interacts with the benefit system. It outlines choices and points to ways of increasing the number of jobs in both public and private sectors. It maintains that full employment is a possible as well as a desirable goal, a view supported by the International Labour Office:

Full employment is still feasible and highly desirable. The current high unemployment level in industrialised countries has human costs of the utmost severity for those directly involved, and breeds crime and other social pathologies from which everyone in society suffers. There is thus a very strong economic as well as moral case for reinstating full employment as an important policy objective. (World Employment, ILO 1996-97)

In its proposals the report does not shrink from proposing some measures that are today politically contentious - increasing taxes to fund public sector employment, reducing means-testing for benefits, and introducing a minimum wage, for example. It makes clear that while change is possible, it cannot be done without some sacrifice on the part of the better-off. While proposals in the report have had a mixed response from politicians and the press in terms of desirability, there has been less argument about their economic practicability. An economic correspondent in The Times wrote:

It is likely that most independent economic commentators with an interest in unemployment and the future of work are likely to find that the churches' study is on a sound economic basis, that it has done its numbers and its work properly.

The report is detailed in its analysis, its argument and in its supporting evidence, which makes it more than a light read. There are one hundred pages of Appendices. Appropriately it concludes with an evaluation of the report for its Christian distinctiveness. While there will no doubt be much fur flying in the debate over the coming months, let us hope there will be both learning and action. One can only admire the courage of the enquiry in making such radical proposals and the thorough and competent way in which it was produced.

Findings of the report
New technology, economic globalisation and changes in the structure of employment offer great opportunities for human creativity and well-being. They also present very serious challenges to society, because of the increases in both unemployment and poverty.

The problem is not just one of creating more jobs, but providing enough good work for everyone to do. By this we mean jobs which produce something of real value, and jobs with decent pay and conditions of work. This will call for some sacrifices, but given the right priority we believe that the problem can in fact be solved, over a period of years or perhaps decades.

The combination of policies most likely to achieve this aim includes:

  • reform of the tax system to encourage much more employment in the private sector
  • much more employment in the public sector, financed by higher taxation
  • a programme creating good jobs for the long-term unemployed
  • a national minimum wage
  • better conditions of work and fairer bargaining over pay
  • reform of social security benefits to reduce reliance on means testing
  • giving priority in the education system to basic skills for all young people
  • a national employment forum at which such policies could be debated by all interested parties

The problem is not just a technical one of finding clever solutions to economic problems. The spirit in which policy measures are implemented is as important as their design. At every stage there must be both justice and compassion. Without them, we may be sure that the evil in society will simply reappear in some other form.

Jim McLean
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997