Saturday, 23 October 2010

Welfare Reform. Time to Celebrate?

"They sell the righteous for money, and the poor man for shoes. They trample like dust of the earth the head of the poor and they twist the judgement of the humbled" Amos 2:7

I was very happy this week to hear that The Moral Maze was back. This Radio 4 programme is a bit of a favourite of mine, for while sadly it does not delve too deeply into the issues it is discussing (and how could it, with a time slot of less than an hour) it does, however, give a good flavour of the arguments on both sides of a debate. This week the chosen subject was about the welfare cuts proposed by our coalition government, specifically the issue of universality in the provision of benefits. This combined with my reading about the 19th century Unitarian social reformer and MP John Fielden of Todmorden, got me thinking about this subject which has animated many over the past few weeks.

Firstly I have no choice but to stress that I am no economist, my mathematical skills are simply shocking as my previous teachers (and anyone who goes shopping with me) can attest. What I think is clear to all however, is that something has to be done about the large budget deficit and about the incomprehensible situation of government spending necessitating billions of pounds of borrowing to maintain. Any system in which outgoings are bigger than income is doomed to failure.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen and heard, practically on a daily basis, group after group coming out and warning of the terrible repercussions, if not an actual catastrophe, that will befall us all if their funding is cut. The impression that springs to my mind is of a nation addicted to government money. The picture is conjured of a dealer withdrawing addictive narcotics from a desperate and pleading addict, who threatens to turn nasty if he does not get what he wants. We have seen in some European countries this anger boil over into actual violence, and earlier this year innocent people died as a result of the national "fix" being taken away. Clearly cold turkey is not a method to take lightly, Cameron and Clegg be warned!!

I am also somewhat perturbed by the level of hostility (verging on open hatred) towards all who work in the banking profession who may also happen to be very wealthy. (Not helped by the continued large bonuses still present in what does not seem to be a very contrite industry). In my local paper a letter cautions against what he or she terms an "ideological divisive vendetta against the poor". Amen to that, but we also don't need an ideological divisive vendetta against the rich, after all according to our teacher Jesus they have a sufficiently tricky situation as he said "where a man's treasure is there his heart is also" Luke 12:34.

The unfortunate reality is that most of us are like those bankers! So many of us spent more than we really knew we should, often money ultimately belonging to others, that we were given on credit by banks and other providers. The solution to this problem will have to be faced by all of us. It is a collective problem and must have a collective solution. Ultimately the question comes down to this: have the Lib-Con's Con-Dem'ed the poor to a harsher future or are they taking steps that will better the lot of all in our country?

Should benefits be universal? I suppose the answer to this question depends on what you think welfare is all about. Can any society call itself civilized if it does not believe itself to have a duty of care to all within its orbit? Can justice feature in the vocabulary of a people that reject the need for the collective to ensure that all have the basic requirements of life? I think that the answer to these questions is no. Our faith in the Kingship of God should if nothing else demonstrate to us that we are only custodians of His creation. That our wealth is not truly our own but belongs to Him and that it is His will that we should use the gifts he has bestowed upon us to provide for the less fortunate the basic requirements of an honourable life. Our faith in the Fatherhood of God, should if nothing else lead us to love our fellow brothers and sisters with that active love which seeks out their well being. For what Father is happy at the indifference of His children to each-other? It was The Heavenly Father Himself, who informed us "do not stand idly by the blood of your brother" Leviticus 19:16.

But these duties devolve on us as moral individuals in reciprocal and free relationships with our fellow citizens (and the larger world) and not on the state, which is ideally only in place to protect us from the criminality within and the aggression from without. I personally regard state benefits as a necessary safety net. A way of the state ensuring that no one lacks their basic needs through no fault of their own. I believe that the state's involvement in securing this safety net is an unfortunate product of societies that fail to live up to, or are unable to live up to, their eternal missions, as it seems to me that in a perfect world, society should support the needs of those who have become unable to provide for themselves not the state. State provision erodes, even if only slightly, an essential human aspect of coexistence, those mutual bonds of kindness and responsibility that dignify us collectively and individually. Therefore it seems clear to me that government involvement in providing the needs of freely choosing human adults should be kept at a minimum. Better that obstacles that stand between people and the ability to be self supporting be removed. The many wonderful social reformers that Unitarianism has produced such as the inspiring MP John Fielden had the removal of these obstacles firmly in mind when pursuing their social reforms. He battled to prevent industrialists from exploiting their workers, for example by arguing for the introduction of a minimum wage and and he championed the restricting of hours that workers could be forced to work. His efforts culminated in the 1847 Factory Act. During the difficult times caused by the Cotton Riots, he paid workers who had lost their jobs, to build roads and public buildings. In these ways and more he ensured that work was a viable path to a better and more prosperous life. Could we in the 21st century not learn from his endeavours?

So what are the problems with universal benefits? The following spring to my mind as being the main drawbacks of such an approach:

1) Universal benefits deplete the finite resources of money/help available, by offering them to people who simply do not require them. In most other walks of life, people would distribute their money by considering the greatest need of the potential recipient. This universalism is seemingly not interested in practicality or utility but on exclusively ideological grounds. Extremely wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia, or countries with small populations like Sweden and Finland, better still, small countries that are also very wealthy like Kuwait or UAE, can afford to have practical and highly effecient universal benefits and services. Countries like ours that are wealthy but not excessively so and who have large populations simply can not have universal provision. This strikes me as logical but I am no economist and would welcome an informed refutation from those who disagree.

2) Making benefits universal sends out the message that it is the state that has the prime obligation to provide for the needs of the people, and not the people themselves. This leads to both an entitlement culture that infantilizes people and a selfish culture were people are concerned only about their needs and feel that the needs of others should be taken care of by the state. In such a society people can neglect the neighbour next door in the mistaken belief that "it has nothing to do with me". Does anyone else see the irony of a country that believes it is the personal duty of its citizens to provide money to ease the plight of the poor abroad but who feel it is the duty of the state to look after the unfortunate of its own land? Even the coalition has said it will maintain the same budget for overseas aid, while cutting the funding for its own poor. Is this not a national portrayal of Dickens' Mrs Jellyby?

Some of the arguments against the removal of the universal principle that need to be considered and I believe refuted, are as follows:

Services exclusively for poor people will be poor services! This is non-sequitur. There are many charitable services for the exclusive benefit of the poor, that do a fantastic job, and put the state sector for shame. All that is needed is resolve and a genuinely committed group of people. People who see public service as a vocation and not a career.

That services for the exclusive use of the unfortunate would stigmatise them. This is simply a failure of imagination. There are many ways to provide for the needs of people and at the same time maintain their self respect and innate dignity. A beautiful scene from the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford leaps to mind. The ladies of Cranford come up with a scheme to provide the finances that are needed by their dear friend Miss Matty. They each give money which is then presented to the lady in question by a third party who claims that it is rightfully hers as there was an error in the bank! (See even in those days banks still made mistakes). In this way they support their friend and neighbour while doing nothing to damage her pride and dignity. A modern example is the huge markets in Jerusalem before the expensive festival of Passover, that give away free food, wine, shoes, clothes to the poor of the Holy City, but which looks like any other market. People are given vouchers so that they can "purchase" their products like anyone else.

The removal of the universal principle would make people too individualistic and lead them to have no regard for the wider society or so the argument goes. I think the opposite is true. If a benefit is for everyone then it is simply something owed to us all by virtue of being citizens. Just like the provision of electricity, gas and water to all our homes does not make us feel like we are somehow responsible for all our neighbours and neither does the provision of any welfare payments. However if the provision was exclusively for those in need, then those who's taxes pay for it but who do not benefit directly from it, would have a clearer sense that we all have a duty of care to all our fellow human beings. The benefits themselves would proclaim the duty of the affluent for the poor.

On the other hand I do recognise the value of state funding in certain aspects of national life. There are things which are fundamental to the success and survival of the whole country which therfore are best provided by central funding (if not central control), such as basic education. There are also national resources which all can benefit from, and which extend throughout the length and breadth of the realm such as railways, roads which would benefit from central funding. Which is why I am not supportive of the governments plans, mentioned in the Sunday Telegraph, to sell state owned forests. This is a retrograde step that will in time lead to a loss of a precious natural and national resource. I also see some benefit in the state, acting as the public voice of our society, funding institutions to a lesser or greater degree, which are communally viewed as valuable, such as marriage.

I just can't help feeling that the greater solution to our problems lies in the reinvigoration of society and community in the horizontal bonds of nationhood. I mean there is something wrong with us all when we prevent those who, for all sorts of reasons, are reduced to total poverty, from begging, while feeling little aversion to grown men earning millions of pounds for being good at the game of football!! And yes while there are people who are in reduced circumstances because of their own incorrect choices and behaviour or because the moral framework of their lives have been dissolved through the post-modern privatisation of morality, this is not an excuse for us to wash our hands of them and blindly continue to horde up our treasure in a place that moth and rust destroy and theives break in and steal" Matthew 6:19 (Babylonian Talmud Bava Basra 11a). Instead we should remember the teachings of he who had not a place to rest his head who taught "those who are healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I do not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" Mark 2:17

Hard times are most certainly coming for many people, even if it is only for a short time, let us stand in the breach and work to create that benevolent society that is in our power to do.

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