By Stephen McKinney
The latest government figures for poverty in the UK reveal 12.8 million people were in poverty in 2015/16 (after housing costs are deducted). This represents 20 per cent of the overall population.
The figures for poverty do of course differ slightly in different parts of the UK and the estimates provided by the Government and charities can vary: the statistics that provide the indicators of the extent of poverty can be complex and threshold measurements that identify who is officially recognised as being in poverty and who is not can be adjusted.
This does not mask the grim reality for those who live in poverty: those who lack sufficient resources, usually financial, to sustain a healthy and balanced lifestyle with access to essential material needs such as adequate food, fuel, housing and clothing. The lack of these and other material needs can lead to feelings of desperation and an increase in mental health issues.
The perception that those in poverty are normally those who rely on state benefits can be dispelled by the figures that reveal the rise in families who experience poverty and yet at least one person in the family is working.
A recent study from Cardiff University funded by the Nuffield Foundation has revealed that 60 per cent of adults who were in poverty in 2014/2015 in the UK were ‘living in working households’. This has become known as Working Poverty or In-Work Poverty.
The levels of child poverty across the United Kingdom are at disturbingly high levels. According to government statistics, there are 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK (after housing costs are deducted).
This represents 27 per cent of all children in the UK. Barnardo’s estimate that 1.7 million of the total number of the children in poverty are living in severe poverty. This means that more than a quarter of all children in the UK are living in poverty and a significant number of these are experiencing some of the more extreme forms of poverty and deprivation. Children and young people who experience poverty are dependents and they share the poverty of their families and the effects of poverty. This can affect their ability to fully engage in school education and realise their potential and their contribution to society.
In the current age of expected access to instant information, these children may not have constant access to a computer or the internet, nor to commercially produced curricular support materials. They may face serious difficulties at home as families in poverty can easily slip into crisis under the pressures of attempting to match resource to the needs of the family. In Scotland two important documents were published in 2015.
The first was Face up to Child Poverty produced by the EIS, the main teaching union, and The Cost of the School Day produced by the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland. The aim of both documents was to support parents, carers and schools in poverty-proofing schools, to help them identify the hidden costs of the school day and the effects of poverty on children in the process of the school day. This includes the effects of hunger on the ability of children to concentrate during lessons.
Contemporary Catholic Social Teaching and thought are very forceful in condemning poverty. The roots of this condemnation can be found in the Old and New Testaments, for example, the holiness code and the gospel of Luke. The gospel of Luke is often referred as the gospel that is focussed on the mission, or option, of Jesus for the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed.
This is evident in the Magnificat, the preaching of John the Baptist and the announcement by Jesus in the synagogue at the beginning of his ministry and is further exemplified in later passages including: the beatitudes; the stories of table fellowship and the rich man and Lazarus. It is unsurprising that the gospel of Luke has been a rich source for some of the major Liberation theologians who have helped to develop the idea of the preferential option for the poor.
This idea was originally viewed with some suspicion, especially in the developed world, but has now arguably become more accepted and is sometimes amended to option for the poor. This idea, however, cannot be reduced to the conceptual but denotes a fundamental Christian style of life. It is interesting to note that all of the popes in the Vatican II and post -Vatican II era have publicly denounced the existence and impact of poverty. The two most recent popes have been very clear on this issue.
Pope Benedict speaking on the eve of the World Day for the Eradication of Poverty in 2005 described poverty as ‘a plague against which humanity must fight without cease’. He added, ‘we are called to ever greater solidarity to ensure that no one remains excluded from society’. Pope Francis has frequently addressed the issue of poverty, drawing on his own experiences as Archbishop and later Cardinal in Buenos Aires and his commitment to social justice and the pursuit of a simple life.
In a discussion with students from Jesuit-run schools in Italy and Albania in 2013 he spoke of the scandal of poverty and its effects on the lives of adults and children. He stated, ‘In a world where there is such great wealth, so many resources for giving food to everyone, it is impossible to understand how there could be so many hungry children, so many children without education, so many poor people!’.
In terms of Catholic education and the connection with the preference for the poor, it is instructive to examine Gravissimum Educationis (Christian Education, 1965). This was the only document in Vatican II to focus exclusively on Catholic education.
In section 9 the document stated that: ‘This Sacred Council of the Church earnestly entreats pastors and all the faithful to spare no sacrifice in helping Catholic schools fulfil their function in a continually more perfect way, and especially in caring for the needs of those who are poor in the goods of this world or who are deprived of the assistance and affection of a family or who are strangers to the gift of faith’.
The document identifies three types of poverty: material poverty; emotional poverty and spiritual poverty. These ideas were revisited and further developed in subsequent documentation on Catholic education.
This care for the poor has been interpreted as a preferential option for the poor or option for the poor or mission to the poor, the latter term recovering the language that referred to an important part of the historical rationale for the establishment of many Catholic schools in the 19th century. Catholic schools were established to address issues such as: retaining the Catholic religion, culture and community; resisting the attempts to proselytise Catholics and the education of those Catholics who came from backgrounds of deprivation.
It is an uncomfortable realisation that the mission for the poor, or option for the poor, is as important and relevant as ever in the 21st century and the poverty- proofing of Catholic schools needs to be undertaken with a renewed sense of urgency. Catholic schools of course cannot be expected to be responsible for tackling all of the root causes and manifestations of poverty. These are broader societal issues.
Nevertheless, many Catholic schools do have to engage on a daily basis with children and young people who suffer from the effects of poverty. These children and young people now come from a variety of backgrounds, different denominations, faiths or from no faith background. As has been mentioned above, poverty can take the forms of material poverty, emotional poverty, spiritual poverty and, adding an additional form of poverty for the 21st century, cultural poverty. These are all pressing forms of poverty that can be interconnected in various ways.
It is also important to remain aware of the many successes of Catholic schools in attempting to address the educational needs of children and young people who come from backgrounds of poverty. It is equally important that we recognise and value the strong leadership in Catholic schools that has often made this option for the poor a priority.
In Scotland, some of our research has established that some Catholic secondary schools that contain significant numbers of children from backgrounds of poverty have been very effective in implementing (what we have termed) a double vision of expectation and inclusion.
This means that all children are recognised as being made in the image of God and are actively encouraged as individuals to achieve their full potential. This necessary inclusion of all of the children and young people extends to supporting them all in attainment and achievement and in a variety of post-school choices.
• Stephen J McKinney is visiting professor of Catholic Education at Newman University, Birmingham, and a professor in the School of Education at the University of Glasgow