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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

Our responsibility for those left behind

Late start today. Kevin turned off the power. That’s his job for Utility Warehouse as he installs new 2nd generation smart meters for our electricity and at this very moment, our gas. The previous ones stopped working. Very much the end of the era: no more visits from meter readers. I can recall as a child the gas man emptying our meter, counting the shillings on the kitchen table before giving my Mum a rebate. Exciting. Not that meter readers had an exciting job, certainly in recent years only visiting designated addresses. But another job consigned to history by technology. Nothing new here, of course. Technology has long since been making people redundant. Remember the Luddites from the late 18th century. Maybe it’s just the rate of change which has changed, reinforced by rapid globalisation, but there does seem to the impression that solid working-class jobs have given way to the gig economy. I say “working class jobs” because of a disturbing article in this morning’s New York Times. I’m not sure if you are able to access it but it is worth reading:

The writers look back on the halcyon days of their childhood on the school bus, in the 1970’s in small town America, Yamhill Oregon to be precise. “Yet today about one-quarter of the children on that No. 6 bus are dead, mostly from drugs, suicide, alcohol or reckless accidents.” The underlying problem, they argue, is lost jobs to automation and globalisation as well as disastrous policy choices over 50 years. Here Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, is quoted: “The meaningfulness of the working-class life seems to have evaporated. The economy just seems to have stopped delivering for these people.” Maybe this is our problem, just written large in the United States. The collapse of the Labour vote in its traditional heartlands as well as the large majorities for Brexit in the “left-behind” communities are evidence of the lack of meaningful employment. However, before we start getting nostalgic, who would want to work in a coalmine? I’ve just googled an excellent article in the Financial Times on the challenge of these left-behind areas, where “decent jobs being replaced by low-paid and insecure ones, rising levels of violent crime, and high streets blighted by empty shops.” In fact, the main problem is accepting that there is a problem to be addressed rather than just saying “Well, that’s life!” Certainly as Christians we are mandated by the risen Christ to be a blessing to those blighted by life, by those who may be paying the consequences of our own affluence as we pay less for our purchases from Amazon, for example. Going back to Yamhill, it is clear that these families are let down by the system and not just their personal choices. Take the Knapp family, for example. “Of the five Knapp kids who had once been so cheery, Farlan died of liver failure from drink and drugs, Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk, Rogena died from hepatitis linked to drug use and Nathan blew himself up cooking meth. Keylan survived partly because he spent 13 years in a state penitentiary.” Just before the General Election, while on the train from London I bumped into the long-standing MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field. I simply thanked him for all his work for the poor over the years beginning with the Child Poverty Action Group. He explained to me that being expelled from the Labour Party, he was standing as an independent. Sadly he lost his seat. He argued that children from deprived backgrounds needed support from day one; intervention was necessary even from birth even to give them a fighting chance. Or again, from the New York Times, “But when you can predict wretched outcomes based on the ZIP code (i.e. post code) where a child is born, the problem is not bad choices the infant is making. If we’re going to obsess about personal responsibility, let’s also have a conversation about social responsibility.” As it happens, through my current BRF Guidelines Bible-reading notes, I’ve been learning the excellent Anglican ‘Five Marks of Mission.” #4 is “To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.” Such a concern is part and parcel of following Jesus. And while foodbanks are a necessary response, we need more than sticking plaster. Maybe we have a window of opportunity opening up as the new Tory government realises that a more proactive approach is needed to secure its newly-bequeathed constituencies in the North. Even so to quote Tom Wright (I’m still ploughing through his Paul and the Faithfulness of God, now page 894)’’ “Any gospel which does not embrace both 'evangelism' and 'social action' is a counterfeit, offering either an escapist's dream, which leaves power structures of the world untouched, or a mere social reform which leaves the soaring spiritual dimension of reality out of consideration, and thereby dooms itself to compromise and failure.”

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