Catholic social teaching is not about serving the state, but ensuring that the state serves us

It was with a certain amount of weary inevitability that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced at the Centre for Social Justice this morning that his government is going to tackle what he has described as the UK’s “sick note culture.”

Accusing Britain of being essentially a nation of ‘skivers’ is about as old and out-of-touch as the Tory party itself. With a General Election wipeout of epic proportions looming, you might  forgive them for resorting to such desperate propaganda but, in the face of the actual state they’ve made of our nation, turning on the poor, vulnerable and out-of-work is quite unforgivable.

When one sees the world from a position of extreme wealth and good luck it is all too tempting to see the rest of society as being where they are through their own fault; after all, if you worked hard and performed well at school, had numerous lucky breaks and life was pretty even and uneventful, why wouldn’t you think that being successful is just a matter of a little bit of effort that delivers immense rewards? The notion that for some people, trying incredibly hard just doesn’t result in the breaks seems an implausible scenario, rather social failure is just down to laziness.

Such is the picture of Britain that Mr Sunak was peddling this morning. There are simply two types of people – one good and one bad. The ‘strivers’ work hard and contribute to the economy, whilst the ‘skivers’ are just idle and a drain on the economy.

“Where’s the fairness for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits…  We speak for all those who want to work hard and get on. …They strive for a better life. We strive to help them,” Chancellor George Osborne once famously said.

As anyone who has experienced the reality of everyday life knows, there are no such distinct groups of people and, given the meagre UK benefit levels and exclusions that such circumstances bring, very few of us ever choose to be out of work.

Neither does Mr Sunak’s claim stand up that benefits trap people in long-term dependency, and that this passes from generation to generation. In fact this view of British family life owes nothing to the reality of the human experience, or to social realities – rather it is a view typical of those of elevated privilege that there is a distinct underclass – or caste – of citizens who neither can, nor ever wish to, escape from their deprived circumstances.

“There’s nothing compassionate about leaving a generation of young people to sit alone in the dark before a flickering screen watching as their dreams slip further from reach every single day,” said Mr Sunak, citing claims that a “worrying” proportion of younger potential workers were among a record high of 2.8m people out of work as of February 2024.

It’s interesting that Mr Sunak seems focussed on the plight of young people, as the statistics and circumstances surrounding the young unemployed probably have the most to say about this government’s mishandling of the economy.

Over the past 13 years much has been done to deflate the general unemployment figures by encouraging the young to go into further education, with increased university fees providing an invaluable additional fiscal bonus to the government. Students completing university degrees are tending to leave education with round £40k of student loan debt which the government factors out at an attractive profit to the Treasury.

This dreadful debt burden means that most young university leavers are confronting a lifetime of repaying debt, and little likelihood of ever purchasing a home for themselves. Leavers are also learning to their cost that the heavily promised graduate career opportunities simply don’t exist out there. So young graduates are faced with a choice of a lifetime’s fruitless employment, or staying at home and out of work.

Mr Sunak and many others need to understand that this sort of fiscal and social problem is not about changing people’s mental attitudes and pushing them into servile employment, but about government’s providing meaningful opportunities for people to do useful work so they can give something back to society.

Unfortunately Mr Sunak seems determined to push the blame for fiscal ineptitude onto others.

“We don’t just need to change the sick note,” he said, “we need to change the sick note culture so the default becomes what work you can do – not what you can’t.”

Of course, for Sunak – and for most governments – the issue is simply about shifting people off one list and on to another. Moving from unemployed to employed is both a result and political progress and once you’ve been shoe-horned into employment and are paying some kind of taxes, the government has little need to engage with you any further. The quality or meaningfulness of the work you do is irrelevant.

In the short term this is a result of a very limited kind; the irony is that it eventually creates precisely the kind of social health and welfare problems that Mr Sunak was bemoaning today. Prolonged periods of work in environments that are damaging to physical or mental health ultimate result in increased levels of sickness, absence and disability – but of course you would need to know about such environments to understand this, and few of our decision-makers, or for that matter political theologians, have ever encountered the kind of real, emotionally demotivating and poorly-paid work regimes that are all to common across the UK.

You need only to take a look at the typical jobs being offered at local Jobcentres to see the low calibre of opportunities being presented to those unemployed who are being driven ruthlessly towards employment of any kind. In my own local area these are predominantly pedestrian, unhealthy factory vacancies at minimum wage rates – often not easily reachable by public transport and offering little security or opportunity for advancement.

To the likes of someone of wealth and good fortune who has never had to experience this demoralising life regime for any length of time, it might appear that any opportunity is a potential doorway to advancement and riches. Except that’s not how it works. The national minimum wage (NMW) has just this month risen from £10.42 an hour to £11.44, and this £1.02 an hour increase was announced with much fanfare by Mr Sunak, a man with a net personal wealth in excess of £730m. Given that most people work a 35-hour week this latest rise in the NMW will add a mere £35.70 to the £364.70 per week that those on the NMW have been earning.

So a person working on the minimum wage has to cover all life’s expenses with around £1,500 per month – that includes getting to and from work in all weathers, clothing themselves, paying their bills and feeding themselves, all set against ever-increasing prices. Yes, for a lucky few this may open a door to betterment and improved circumstances, but for the vast majority life will remain an endless and relentless drudgery, coupled to severe financial struggle and a lack of personal security.

Those who simply can’t manage will eventually give up, and their government will likely call them work shy ‘skivers’, and introduce even more punitive measures in an attempt to force them back into pointless servitude.

Even then, figures show that at least four people on Job Seeker’s Allowance are chasing every menial vacancy in the country. This may be why for the first time ever, in-work poverty has overtaken workless poverty and taxpayers are increasing being hit to prop up the inadequate wages of those in work, rather than those out of work!

It is estimated that there are more than 6.1 million working households still living in real poverty, and this whole failed system is having to be shored up with an ever more complex and comprehensive system of working tax credits.

For the government to suggest that the solution to poor wages and poor quality of work is to force even more people into desperate servitude shows both a lack of understanding of the nature of employment, and the very human purpose of work itself.

As I’ve often pointed out, the body of Catholic Social Teaching contains much invaluable commentary on the dignity of human work, and the proper treatment of individuals and families within the necessity for Man to engage in work.

Successive documents have been uncompromising and incisive when it comes to ameliorating the problems of servile work and human poverty, but sadly such direct socio-economic theology is often ignored in presentations dealing with Catholic social teaching.

We too often tend to rest on general and obvious platitudes about helping the poor rather than challenging governments on their attitude and strategy when it comes to alleviating hardship. We like to talk about ‘reducing poverty, and reducing the causes of poverty’ but tend to acquiesce to government policy on the latter, when we should be just as vociferous about challenging punitive measures that clearly don’t help or support the poor and marginalised.

When Prime Minister Sunak said “the default becomes what work you can do – not what you can’t” he was reiterating the flawed societal view of many legislators over the years. Remember that famous inaugural address of John F. Kennedy?: “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

States and their leaders have always tended towards seeing citizens as their servants, but the Catholic Church has always taught that the state does not contain the fullness of human hope or embrace the totality of human existence – the state exists to serve the human person, not the other way around – and thus we can never place our full hope for human salvation with the state.

The Church must always be on her guard, and Catholics ought never to shy away from challenging the state head on when it seeks to compromise the god-given dignity of the human person.

Such interventions are not Catholics interfering in the works of the state – rather they prevent the state from interfering with the works of God.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and political theologian