In-work Poverty


Given at the Financial Inclusion Summit, at the Guildhall, Gresham St, London on 30th January 2020

Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your presence at this important conference. I thank 'Tomorrow's Company' and Norman Pickavance and his colleagues for providing and shaping this opportunity. We are here because we care about poverty. We care about the poor.

This, in itself, is worthy of note. Care about the poor would not have been present in most of the European civilisations that have shaped this continent and its Middle Eastern neighbours. Persian, Babylonian and Roman leaders would never have gathered for this reason. For them, the fact that many lived in poverty was a matter of indifference, or rather a fact to be exploited by the wealthy and powerful.

But we have been formed in a different culture, one that views poverty as a shameful aspect of society and one to be eradicated. The culture of which we are a part has its roots, in much of the world, in the Judeo-Christian faith.  It rests on three strong principal beliefs expressed in that faith tradition.

The first is that every person has an innate dignity arising from the fact that every life is ultimately a gift of the Creator and every life bears a likeness to that Creator. In this perspective, the respect that is due to each person does not depend on status, wealth, effectiveness or influence. Rather there is a fundamental equality shared by all before God.

The second insistence is at the core of the Christian faith and is even more radical: since the Creator chose to become visible in the person of Jesus, the Christ, and chose to do so in poverty, then the poor are, in a very particular way, close to him and therefore occupy a special place in our concern. This is the root of the 'option for the poor' to which the Christian Gospel leads us.

The third insistence is also deeply rooted. It was the Church that first insisted that individual men and women had the right to enter marriage according to their choice and not according to the will of their parents, tribe, clan or dynasty. This hard-fought principle shifted the basis of society away from feudal power structures, and to the family, consisting essentially of husband, wife, and children.

Put these three together and we know why we are here: to serve the dignity of those caught in poverty by understanding and responding to their situation and needs; to strengthen the family as the foundation of a stable community and to enable families, in their turn, to be sources of well-being and help for others.

Today you will be faced with many facts, initiatives, and ideas about how a well-run business can take some of these steps:

  • become aware of the poverty in which employees may well be living;
  • understand some of the impacts of that poverty;
  • enable your employees to speak about these problems which inhibit their work and blight their lives;
  • fashion practical responses to these situations which both respect the dignity of those taking part and effectively address these problems;
  • realise that doing so not only helps to strengthen the well-being of your employees and their dependents but also improves the effectiveness of your enterprise.

Wins all round!

I would now like to tell you about my mother's sister. When she was a young woman, in about 1930, she joined a religious order of nuns and became Sister Thomas More: new name, new identity, new life. It was radical stuff. When she died, the plaque on her coffin read: Sister Thomas More, professed 1935: died 1966.

You could say that Peggy Russell, for that was her family name, simply joined a workforce, even if a pretty special workforce. But in some ways, all workforces are a bit like the one she joined: come on in, put on the uniform, be one of us, get stuck in and kindly leave your troubles, and your personal strong convictions, at the door. That will be best for all of us.

But the divided self does not work so well. This realisation is growing across many enterprises. Of course, commercial enterprises are not in the business of creating bonds of personal friendship but work settings that are impersonal seem to become hampered by so many undercurrents of dissatisfaction, distress, and lack of focus as to be quite dysfunctional. Personal circumstances matter. They make a difference and cannot simply be ignored. And this includes in-work poverty. This I think you know, otherwise you would not be here today.

Let me go back to my sources. In the book of the beginnings - the Book of Genesis - there is the figure of Adam, formed from the dust of the earth. In fact, that is what his name means 'adamah', the soil, the dust, in which, with wisdom, we know our lives are rooted. Remembering Adam helps us not to get above ourselves and not to be surprised when we face disruption, corruption, and that touch of futility which never seems far away. But Genesis also depicts the beginnings of human life as the action of God taking this dust into his own hands, giving it shape and breathing the very breath of God into that dust of the earth. This too explains our experience of ourselves. Yes, we unequivocally belong to the earth, yet we also soar above it, we dream, create, with a spirit that can never ultimately be contained. In a phrase, we are dust made for glory.

This is true of every person: the bright-spark who is the fount of ideas, the artist who sees colours and venture everywhere, and the poorest of the poor, who never ultimately loses the capacity to imagine and long for a better life and show a depth of resilience from which we can all learn.

Working to eradicate in-work poverty is about giving every person a better chance to find something of the glory for which they have been created. Ultimately that final glory comes as a gift of God. But in the meantime, everyone who steps across your threshold has that capacity, that instinct, for something greater. We can help each of them take a step in that direction, out of the in-work poverty which stifles the dream and into a further realisation of the dignity that is theirs and towards the hopes that they always entertain.

Combating in-work poverty is about making a difference, about strengthening each other, about building a society, about business having a clearer sense of its own purpose and a deeper satisfaction in its achievements.

I am sure this Conference will help us all to do just that. Thank you.