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Famous, Rich and Hungry…and Human?

p01tr5vtI was incredibly moved by the second episode of Famous, Rich and Hungry tonight. If you didn’t get a chance to watch it, then do so if at all you can.

The four wealthy celebrities  each moved to a second location, to see if they could apply what they had learnt from their first experiences in the previous episode. The situations they were in had been chosen incredibly well to illustrate very intelligently a range of different challenges related to, caused by and causing poverty.

Theo Paphitis was with a family where the father was working in security, and earning £18,000 a year. But he took out a pay-day loan, and is now spending all their spare cash on maintaining the interest payments, while the capital owed continues to grow. Overall the family do not know how much they owe to various sources, and Theo suggests they declare bankruptcy in order to draw a line and give themselves a fresh start. At one point he calculates that they have been charged 16,000% for the pay-day loan.

If I were Prime Minister, I would outlaw these.

One of the great ironies of this match is that Theo came to England with his family when he was 6, and they had £100 to their name. He muses:

Suppose I hadn’t got the breaks I did. Would I still be in a situation like theirs?

Jamie Laing (of Made in Chelsea) was with Mohammed Ali, a single father who has given up his job in order to raise his four sons, whose mother left two years before. The quality of relationships between the boys and their father was perhaps the most moving thing in the programme. Mohammed routinely goes without any breakfast or dinner in order to provide better meals for the children. Jamie manages to persuade him to eat more himself, and he ends up working as a volunteer chef in a community kitchen where he is able to get a free hot meal each day.

Rachel Johnson, author and sister of the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, was put into an altogether tougher situation. The couple met as drug users who had left their habit when they had children, but both had criminal records, and the mother had an outstanding court fine for shoplifting. Johnson candidly admitted she felt less sorry for them; by their own account they had made some foolish decisions. But she feared for their children, who (through no fault of their own) would be deprived of opportunities because of their parents’ decisions.

The fourth celebrity, Cheryl Fergison from Eastenders, was in quite a different situation. Her host was a single woman who had had to leave work because of suffering from fibromyalgia. She was very careful in her planning and use of money, checking her bank statement online daily, and using a spreadsheet to plan her finances three months ahead. Cheryl could not understand why she was there—until the woman’s benefit payment was not paid due to a clerical error by her local authority, and her rent had gone that morning from her bank account. She broke down in tears with the stress of it all.

As I watched, I felt there was a range of lessons to be drawn from the different examples, some of them more explicit and obvious, some of them more subtle, which I am not sure all viewers would have noticed. 

The most obvious was that poverty is incredibly demanding of physical and emotional energy. A common theme emerging was that the people in the programme often did not have the energy, initiative or support to do what was needed to get them out of their situation. Many of them were clearly quite isolated from any sense of community, even living in a tower block or on an estate where there would potentially be others in a similar situation. In addition, it was clear that all were in a situation of great vulnerability. They had few resources to draw on when things went wrong—whether by their own mistakes or through no fault of their own.

Secondly, it became clear to the viewer (and to the celebrities) that all four groups of people were working in a system which was ruthlessly unforgiving. The family who had (foolishly) taken out a payday loan simply had no way out of the spiralling, unaffordable repayments that were being demanded. The woman with a shoplifting conviction did not have the money to pay, and as a result the fine went up. The court outsourced the case to a debt collection agency—who added their own fee for the woman to pay. ‘If you cannot pay the fine, what sense does it make to increase it?’ asked Rachel Johnson in bewilderment.

Thirdly, and less obviously, the different cases demonstrated that we live in a culture which erodes the skills that people need to survive in these situations. Cheryl’s host was clearly able to plan and budget carefully, and cook creatively. But all the pressures in our consumer culture are pushing us to abandon these habits. Easy credit undermines the need to plan; ready meals in supermarkets mean that creative cooking is a dying art. Yet these are precisely the things needed when faced with financial pressures. Theo’s family blew a week’s food allowance on a takeaway from the local chip shop because the shopkeeper would allow them to pay the next week—yet they could have eaten for a fraction of the cost, and much more healthily, by home cooking.

Alongside financial poverty, we are creating a society with a poverty of values, skills, awareness and initiative. In adopting consumerism, we have created a culture which makes great demands on people but robs them of the skills they need to survive or change their situation. Cultures which, through their adoption of free-market economics, have created the biggest opportunities for the privileged few also make the biggest demands on those at the bottom of the pile. Such cultures consistently have the lowest levels of social mobility—but disguise this through myths of opportunity which in reality is only available to those who are already privileged. As Rachel Johnson commented as she left her hosts:

Britain is now two countries, and I have just one from one to the other

75401338It was not a little ironic that the programme was broadcast on the day that ministers rejected the recommendation of the public sector pay review,  to give a 1% pay rise alongside pay progression scales—only weeks after MPs were recommended to have a pay rise of 11%. There continues to be massive resistance to addressing the issues here; we have not even begun to slow down the accelerating inequality in our country, let alone started reducing it.

How does this relate to issue of faith? Christians have been at the forefront of important initiative that have made a significant difference to those facing poverty—foodbanks, debt counselling, and lobbying against payday loan companies. Yet increasingly the Christian voice is being marginalised by those currently in power. It was fascinating to see the brief shot of the poster advertising services to help those facing poverty—clearly a Christian church—but without any reference to its identity or exploration of why it was doing this.

But there are also deeper theological issues in relation to our culture which have to do with our understanding of what it means to be human. The OT law, which in contemporary public discourse is frequently maligned as primitive and backward, offers an extraordinary vision of what it means to be human in community. Because ‘The earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24.1) and everything in it, there are clear limits set to how much wealth any one individual or family could accumulate. This is most clearly expressed in the Jubilee provision set out in Leviticus 25.1–14, and it was this principle that inspired the international debt campaign. ‘Debt bondage’ (a more accurate term than ‘slavery’) in the OT offered a fixed-term mechanisms to get out of debt in the OT—not dissimilar in some ways to the contemporary mechanism of declaring bankruptcy. The prohibition on usury (in, for example, Exodus 22:24 and Leviticus 25:36) was designed to prevent those with resources exploiting those without. And all this was set in a context of shared social values, rooted in an understanding of God as the one who owned the land, and who provided for humanity made in God’s image. 

One thing that is really interesting to note is that Christian concern for these issues does not simply fall into the political ‘left’ or ‘right’. A concern for limits on unequal distribution of wealth and resources might look more left wing, but a concern for core values of living and a sense of personal responsibility looks more traditionally right wing. Both can be found in the biblical vision of healthy human flourishing in community.

The final question I was left with was that of personal transformation. Each of the celebrities was clearly challenged and moved by their encounters, and for some of them this was the first time they had been in contact with this part of Britain’s culture. But will the change continue? Will the experience have left a lasting legacy in changed attitudes and outlooks? Will Theo Paphitis start lobbying for the abolition of payday loans? Will Rachel Johnson persuade her brother and his university friends in the Government to change the policies which have created two-nation Britain ? Will Jamie and Cheryl make use of their celebrity status to effect change? Only time will tell.

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6 Responses to Famous, Rich and Hungry…and Human?

  1. Kevin Lewis March 14, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    Really well put Ian, especially your point about our culture eroding the skills needed to survive, especially when you are poor. I have been thinking a lot about that lately: how did the very poor make ends meet in times gone by? They made and mended their own clothes, they home-cooked frugally, they grew their own food… these skills are dying arts, and yet become more and more necessary for so many.

    Basic cooking skills, basic needlework skills… are these the next big projects we need to host in our churches?

    • Ian Paul March 14, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

      Yes, I would have thought that would be a really good place to start. These kind of basic life/craft skills have all but disappeared, and it was striking in the programme how lack of both the skill itself and a vision for a more self-sufficient life was incredibly disempowering.

  2. Jim Robinson March 14, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

    Great post Ian, reading it really moved me – a profound sense of grief at the (as you say) ‘ruthlessly unforgiving’ system, and the attempts of us imperfect beings trying to navigate it. In the week in which Bob Crowe and Tony Benn have died I am struck by the need for prophets in our age. I mourn their passing not necessarily because of the views they held but because of the lives lived pursuing transformation for those subject to unforgiving systems, and who stood up and stood out on their behalf. Who is speaking out, and how can I – genuinely moved by such things – respond and act?

    On a different but related note, I have been working to support the publication of this on education – ‘Battling for the Soul of Education’ – you can download it at http://www.battlingforthesoulofeducation.org . I think it may be of interest, and I would certainly be interested in your reflections, as I believe it goes to the heart of the matter – the need for transformation in how we appreciate and approach education as a question of democracy, and of our society’s future.

  3. Ian Paul March 14, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    Thanks, Jim, I will have a look. On the subject of Tony Benn, I think it is significant that the current generation of Labour politicians are careerist, in contrast to the previous generation, many of whom came from working backgrounds. I think it means that we now have a Parliament full, on both side, with people who are detached from the realities of poverty in their own experience.

  4. Chris Bishop March 14, 2014 at 8:40 pm #

    This is a very good article. I wonder how much of this is down to the increasing fragmentation and geographical distancing of family life and relationships , In days gone past then ‘family would rally round’ to help but in this day and age family is either is so far away or to be so diffuse as to not really exist to give any practical support.

  5. Patrick Heaps March 15, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    Brilliant and timely article! The astronomical APR rates charged by pay day loan companies is a stain on society. For some of these companies the majority of their profits come from iniquitous charges levelled on loan defaulters, We should all write to our MPs to ensure that the laws that so many agree are necessary to regulate this trade in misery are actually implemented. Community credit unions offer one way forward ensuring that sometimes necessary loans are available at affordable rates.

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