Relieving and Reducing Poverty
As well as responding to the acute needs of those suffering from the results of war or famine, Quakers have increasingly realised the importance of taking a longer-term approach to reducing poverty.
George Fox’s journal records that Friends in Skipton provided bread each week to the poor who gathered outside the Meeting House on Sundays, dealing with their immediate needs, Quakers and non-Quakers alike.
In 1695, John Bellers published his concept for a ‘college of industry’, designed to alleviate poverty in the longer term. It was to be a mixed agricultural and manufacturing settlement where about three hundred people who depended on their work or charity for their livelihood could live and work. Children would be educated and the elderly and ill cared for. Bellers’ concept was never fully realised, but his proposals lead to the establishment of Quaker workhouses in Clerkenwell and Bristol.
Quakers in Philadelphia funded the building of an alms house in 1717. Fifty years later, during the Seven Years War, Quakers established a Committee to Alleviate the Miseries of the Poor. Tickets of recommendation were issued to those in need which enabled them to obtain firewood from licensed wood carters, who were reimbursed by the committee. As the problem became more acute with an influx of immigrants and refugees, in 1766, Quakers established what became known as the Bettering House. Based on the prevalent thinking of the time, the Bettering House sought to put the ‘indolent’ and ‘improvident’ to work.
In the late 19th Century, Seebohm Rowntree witnessed desperate poverty in the slums of northern England, and sought to understand its causes. In 1901, he published ‘Poverty: a Study of Town Life’ which defined concepts such as the ‘poverty line’ for the first time. He did not blame poverty on improvidence but emphasized its structural rather than moral causes.
Quaker Social Action – a charity based in the East End of London, UK – began in 1867 as the Bedford Institute Association. The Association provided “education, religious effort, moral training, and relief for the sick and destitute.” Later, in the early part of the 20th Century, it provided summer camps and outings for women, children and the unemployed. Today it seeks to tackle social exclusion through a wide variety of projects, from helping families furnish their homes, to finding homes for non-priority homeless, to helping with funeral planning.
By the early 20th Century, Quakers like Richard Gregg were beginning to recognise that the material comforts of the “well-to-do groups among the powerful nations of the world” were gained at the expense of “undernourishment in their own populations and in the rest of the world.” He criticised a system that “causes wheat to be burnt in the United States while millions are starving in China.” As well as projects close to home, Quakers became concerned with finding ways to eliminate world poverty.
This has often meant supporting small projects with skills training and small loans or grants (microcredit) that help to provide sustainable ways of life for local communities.
Right Sharing of World Resources is a Quaker organisation that supports grassroots income-generating projects in developing countries, led by women, many of whom are making less than a dollar a day. Beginning in 1967, it provides microcredit to women in Kenya, Sierra Leone and southern India.
Another example of this approach is the Quaker Bolivia Link, established in 1995. QBL funds small community-initiated projects aimed at improving the quality of life of impoverished, rural indigenous Aymara people, through community empowerment and the promotion of sustainable livelihoods.
In 1999, British Quaker, Jennifer Kavanagh, set up Street Cred to provide small loans to refugees and impoverished immigrant women in Birmingham, UK. Having learnt from her experience there, she went on to work in Madagascar, South Africa and Ghana, training local people to run microcredit schemes.
On the global stage, international organisations such as QUNO and QCEA work in support of economic justice. Recently, for example, QCEA has produced the paper: “Poverty, Inequality and Climate Change – Challenges on the road to sustainable energy security, in Europe and beyond”, which aims to encourage European policy makers to make the links between these issues and understand how they interact.