Christian Attitudes to Poverty

Attending church appears to do little to change people’s underlying attitudes to poverty and inequality, with no great differences between the views of churchgoers and non-churchgoers, and – in particular – sharp divergences between those of clergy and their congregations.

These are among the key findings of a new research report from the Church Urban Fund (CUF) in association with Church Action on Poverty, previewed in the Church of England Newspaper and Church Times of 16 December last but only just released in full. Entitled Bias to the Poor? Christian Attitudes to Poverty in this Country, it can be downloaded from:

CUF’s data derive from a survey of 170 Church of England clergy, carried out at deanery chapter meetings in 2011, and for regular (at least monthly) churchgoers of all denominations and non-churchgoers or professing non-religious from secondary analysis of NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey (seemingly for 2009). Among the headline statistics are:

  • 73% of clergy said poverty is mainly due to social injustice, compared with only 22% of regular churchgoers and 20% of non-religious
  • 38% of churchgoers and non-religious have a fatalistic or passive attitude to poverty, regarding it as ‘an inevitable part of modern life’, against 16% of clergy
  • 23% of churchgoers and 27% of non-religious attribute poverty to laziness or lack of willpower (1% of clergy)
  • 83% of clergy assessed that large income differences contribute to social problems like crime, versus 56% of churchgoers and 65% of non-religious
  • 77% of clergy described large income differences as unfair, compared with 50% of churchgoers and 51% of non-religious
  • 73% of clergy believed that large income differences are morally wrong, twice the figure (36%) for both churchgoers and non-religious
  • 79% of churchgoers and 75% of non-religious saw large income differences as inevitable, against 34% of clergy
  • 64% of churchgoers and 60% of non-religious thought large income differences incentivized people to work hard (just 19% of clergy taking the same position)
  • 76% of clergy acknowledged that there is ‘quite a lot’ of child poverty in Britain, against just 37% of churchgoers and 38% of non-religious (in fact, official statistics prove that nearly one in three children are living in poverty)

Comparing results with BSA surveys for 20 years ago, sympathy for the poor among churchgoers is revealed to have declined. Attitudes to benefits have especially hardened, 57% of churchgoers in 2009 arguing they are too high and discourage work (versus 30% in 1987). 

CUF concludes: ‘Our findings show that clergy understand poverty and inequality very differently to their congregations, and that church attendance has little impact on people’s underlying attitudes to these issues (in stark contrast to other moral issues, like euthanasia, censorship, and marriage, where there are very marked differences between churchgoers and non-churchgoers).’

‘The majority of churchgoers do not recognise the extent of poverty in this country and only a small minority attributes poverty to social injustice. If, as we believe, tackling poverty is at the heart of the gospel message, then there is a clear need for churches to do more to raise awareness and understanding of these issues among their congregations.’


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2 Responses to Christian Attitudes to Poverty

  1. Ms M. says:

    There seems to be a political difference here, with the clergy more left wing than others. In terms of church life, maybe there are generational issues; elderly churchgoers who may have experienced some deprivation in their youth may not see people who have access to big TVs, clean clothes, warm homes, etc. as being truly poor – even if there’s a poverty of aspiration in those homes. Maybe they feel that with all the state support now available for unemployed or underemployed people it’s more appropriate to talk about dependency or disaffection rather than poverty as such.

    The problem with talking about poverty as a structural thing is that the ordinary person can feel helpless to do much about it. We can change the way we live our lives, spend our money, raise our children, but we really can’t change the tax or banking system. We can’t prevent footballers earning milllions of pounds. Many people now have very little faith that politicians can or will do much about these issues, so perhaps the most meaningful option for individuals is to focus on self-help, or to work towards changing attitudes in their local communities, rather than expecting ‘injustice’ or income equality to be abolished by the authorities.

    The perceived decline in public civility and personal security has probably also made people less tolerant of ‘the poor’. Sadly, disaffected people often target their own communities – they don’t necessarily go and cause trouble for the rich! People may feel that that disadvantaged communities once stuck together and respected each other – that’s less true today. I suppose it’s harder to feel supportive of people if there’s no trust between you.

  2. Pingback: Church Growth and Social Action | British Religion in Numbers

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