He was a single man in late middle age. Let’s call him George. An occasional worshipper at church, I’d arranged to visit him at home, in his bedsit above the betting shops and fast food joints on the local high street.
He’d recently started work as a casual labourer in a warehouse. It’s a post-industrial city in the north of England, and jobs are few and far between. It was a zero hours contract, on minimum wage. Hours went up and down, depending on what the employer needed. Some weeks there was no work. Turning down work when it was offered meant he was less likely to be offered it again. The fluctuating income played havoc with claiming the benefits he needed to support himself in down times.
In a previous generation, his might have been a decent job. Hard physical work on a low wage, but at least reliable and secure. Now he was living from day to day with no ability to plan or budget. Trying to do the right thing, in a precarious world, often without the basic income needed to buy food and pay bills.
This is flexible globalised capitalism, with its glossy consumer goods and rocketing mortgages, food banks and grinding poverty. In this new economy, some kind of work, even if haphazard and badly paid, is better than none at all.
But stare poverty in the face, and it’s hard not to be angry.
Politicians, employers, and trade unions argue about solutions. The last Labour manifesto pledged to abolish zero hours contracts, and raise the minimum wage. In Good Work: The Taylor review of modern working practices, released this week, Taylor resisted banning zero hours contracts, but argued that flexibility at least needs to be made to work both ways, for workers as well as employers.
Meanwhile, as a report last month from the Social Mobility Commission demonstrated, the economic gap between London and the rest of the UK, and between the old and young, continues to grow. In 1998, the highest earners were paid on average 47 times that of the lowest. By 2015, they were paid 128 times as much.
Maybe I don’t know enough about economics. Maybe I’ve misunderstood my theology. I realise the answers aren’t easy. But at some gut level, when I read stats like this, I can’t help feeling something is rotten.
There must be a point where we have to say: this is just wrong.