In a long and often angry address to the Church of England general synod on Tuesday, John Sentamu said static salaries and rising prices had left nine million people living below the breadline at a time when the chief executives of the UK’s 100 biggest companies were earning on average £4.3m – 160 times the average national wage.
Sentamu, who chairs the Living Wage Commission, said politicians needed to stop referring to “hard-working” families and recognise that they were instead “hard-pressed” families struggling to survive despite their best efforts.
“Once upon a time you couldn’t really be living in poverty if you had a regular income,” he said. “You could find yourself on a low income, yes. But that is not longer so. You can be in work and still live in poverty.”
Reports of malnutrition and food poverty in Yorkshire “disgrace us all, leaving a dark stain on our consciences”, he said. “How can it be that last year more than 27,000 people were diagnosed as suffering from malnutrition in Leeds – not Lesotho, not Liberia, not Lusaka but Leeds?”
The effects of the government’s welfare reforms, Sentamu said, were “beginning to bite – with reductions in housing benefit for so-called under-occupation of social housing, the cap on benefits for workless householders and single parents, and the gradual replacement of the disability living allowance with a personal independence payment”.
“This is the new reality,” he said, “Food banks aren’t going to go away any time soon. Prices are rising more than three times faster than wages. This has been going on for 10 years now. And for people slipping into poverty, the reality is much harsher.”
If governments were powerless to do much more than “tinker” with the current economic trends, he added, the church would find itself doing even more.
Reflecting on Christianity’s long commitment to fighting poverty – from Saint Francis of Assisi to John Wesley, and from Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian priest and father of liberation theology, to the current pope – Sentamu said the Church of England had once again found itself compelled to speak up for the poor, and urged Anglicans to follow the example of the architects of the welfare state.
“They had a clear vision as to how things could be different,” he said. “In part, they were also tapping into the spirit of the immediate postwar years in which there was a great hunger to rebuild a more equitable, more caring world. It is that vision which we need to recapture today, but remoulded in a way which is realistic for the circumstances we face now.”
Poverty, the archbishop concluded, was “costly, wasteful and indeed very risky”. He said: “We in the church must make the argument that losing human potential at a time when we need all the capacity we can gather is hugely wasteful; that paying people below the level required for subsistence fractures the social contract and insurance, and that this is risky.”