A few days ago, a complimentary therapist told my wife that she thinks we should get rid of the welfare state and rely on charities to help those in need. This was during a discussion about the rise in the use of foodbanks over the last few years.
I have to say that my jaw dropped when I heard this. She appeared to be implying that foodbanks and other charity initiatives were doing a better job of looking after our most vulnerable members of society than the state.
This may well be true, but they are doing this in conjunction with the welfare state, not despite it. People are coming to them for a variety of reasons, but many of them are either working or claiming benefits but are still unable to feed themselves and/or their families. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if there was no money or housing provided by the state and these people were not only hungry but also destitute.
But we don’t have to imagine it. We only have to go back a few decades or so to see exactly what the absence of a welfare state and the reliance on charity did to our society. Many people lived and died in conditions which are hard to imagine in our (mostly) clean and tidy world. Charities did their best to help, but it was like the famous story of King Canute. They were simply trying to hold back an unstoppable tide of poverty, disease and squalor.
So how would charities fair today, if the welfare state suddenly disappeared? Many people would become destitute, with nowhere to live and little or no money to support themselves. Charities rely on fundraising. Whereas in the time before the welfare state there were a generous number of rich philanthropists, who saw it as their Christian duty to give money and set up schools, orphanages and the like to help the poor; now we have super rich people who are getting ever richer. As this article states:
There are now 447 billionaires [in the world]. According to calculations by an American think-tank, their combined wealth is now worth more than the annual incomes of at least half the world’s population.
Ever since the rise of the right wing parties across the world, and in particular the Thatcher government in this country, we have been encouraged to be selfish and self centred. To view those poorer than us as “scroungers”, people who can’t be bothered to work to earn an honest crust and who are beneath us “hard working families”. Recognise those words in quotation marks? They are being spouted daily by our millionaire political leaders today. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. We don’t need to avoid singing that verse of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” any more, because it’s only too true of our unequal and selfish society.
Some might say this is also due to the increasing secularisation of our society, but I don’t believe that religious belief makes a person any more likely to give to charity. I think it depends on a person’s mindset, and we are being conditioned into believing that people aren’t worthy of charity. One of my rich relatives sneers distainfully at charity gifts (the kind where you buy a goat for a family in Africa to provide them with a living, rather than giving your gift recipient something they neither need nor want) and tells us that he’s sure the people we gave his gift to will be very happy (insert sarcasm here). Yet he can be incredibly generous to his family and friends. He just doesn’t see the point of charity.
And I think this malaise and conditioned thinking is why the welfare state is still so vital. As someone famous once said: the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its weakest members.