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Features

Faith in welfare

Nick Spencer

Is Christian charity better or worse than state benefit - or are both ultimately disempowering? Nick Spencer takes the long view on the relationship between the church and those in need of financial assistance.

Faith Welfare

'The clergyman … was shy and embarrassed, and did not speak except for a brief good evening; he simply hurried down the line of men, thrusting a ticket upon each, and not waiting to be thanked. The consequence was that, for once, there was genuine gratitude, and everyone said that the clergyman was a - good feller. Someone (in his hearing, I believe) called out: 'Well, he'll never be a - bishop!' This, of course, intended as a warm compliment.' 1

George Orwell's experience of Christian charity when he was Down and Out in Paris and London was a mixed one. No apologist for Christianity, let alone church-based welfare provision, he knew from first-hand experience that clergymen could be found in some of the grimmest locations - such as the Embankment above - often doing thankless and unthanked work.

He also knew, however, that well-intentioned as such charity was, it was could also be deeply problematic. Shortly before his encounter on the Embankment, Orwell had enjoyed tea that was served by a small evangelical church, which then invited him and his fellow tramps to stay for a service. It was not a success. Those vagrants who didn't instantly bolt for the door went out of the way to disrupt the worship, taking 'revenge upon the [evangelicals] for having humiliated us by feeding us.'2

Such encounters remind us that the link between 'faith' and 'welfare' - by which I mean the feeding, clothing, housing, training, and supporting of people in need - long predates our current debates on the subject. They also remind us that that link has never been straightforward. Orwell may have had an unduly negative attitude to charity - he went on to write that 'a man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor' - but we should nonetheless heed the general warning behind the cynicism: don't expect the relationship between welfare and charity, or welfare and faith, to be easy or straightforward.

 

LOSING THE SNEER

In some minds the post-war welfare settlement was supposed to have severed the links between the Christian faith and welfare. Voluntary welfare provision was inadequate and ineffectual (at best) or patchy, conditional, unfair, and abusive (at worst). 'Charity', in some circles, became a sneer word, self-evidently second best when compared to the centralised, professional activity, funded by taxpayers and organised by the state. If there were to be religious and other voluntary activities in this area, they should be on the periphery.

In reality, this opinion was never the majority one, even in 1945, not least because the post-war welfare settlement drew on Christian social thought, particularly in the shape of Archbishop William Temple, RH Tawney and the Christian Socialism that shaped many in Attlee's cabinet. Christian opinion, particularly episcopal opinion, was as positive about the welfare state as everyone else's, perhaps even more so. Cyril Garbett, Archbishop of York wrote in 1951, 'in bringing relief to the poor, giving food to the hungry, finding work for the unemployed, caring for the children and the aged, and providing healing for the sick it is carrying out the word of Christ.'3

Those who engineered the welfare state did not intend it to be anti-Christian, still less that it would eradicate voluntary activity. William Beveridge's wartime report, Social Insurance and Allied Services, had specified that the state 'should not stifle incentive, opportunity, [or] responsibility … [and] should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family'.4

 

VOLUNTARY OR NOT

Following its implementation, Beveridge himself grew more sceptical about state involvement in welfare provision, and in particular its impact on friendly and co-operative societies, and in 1948 he published a report on voluntary action, in which he recommended an eight point programme intending to safeguard and foster such activity.5 Twenty years later, Harold Wilson insisted that the voluntary sector had and made a 'distinctive, indispensable and socially irreplaceable role… in tackling social problems and creating a better society.'6

However much prominent bishops, social reformers, and politicians welcomed the welfare state as a continuation and development of the nation's rich and varied pre-war welfare ecology, which it was intended to enhance and protect rather than altogether replace, the fact remains that the 1940s marked a sea change in the way in which people conceived of welfare, and in the way welfare itself was organised and delivered. The churches were ousted from their long-standing central role of pastoral and practical provision (in such a way as has led some historians to see this as the prime driver of secularisation7) the state replacing them as the heart of the nation's welfare vision. Voluntary activity became a supplement to, rather than the core of, British welfare.

 

A MODERN OBITUARY

Many commentators think that we are going through a similarly seismic change in welfare today. The more creative have taken to composing obituaries for the post-war settlement. Writing in the Guardian in January 2013, Aditya Chakrabortty opined that 'for much of its short but celebrated life, the Welfare State was cherished by Britons. Instant public affection greeted its birth and even as it passed away peacefully yesterday morning, government ministers swore they would do all they could to keep it alive.'8

This may be judged a slight exaggeration, given that the Department for Work and Pension's annual budget stands at around £165 billion and that spending on welfare as a proportion of GDP has risen from 4.7 per cent in 1951 to 7.2 per cent today. However, it is certainly true that the welfare state today is a very different beast from that of the 1940s. In the words of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 'very little of today's welfare system bears even a passing resemblance to the system envisaged in the Beveridge Report.'9

This difference may be seen not only in the size, range and distribution of welfare spending, but also in the increased range of welfare providers and the greater emphasis on means-testing. The 1978 Wolfenden Report on the future of voluntary organisations called for an increased role for both the private and voluntary sectors in welfare provision, and this theme has been taken up with ever greater vigour by successive governments.

 

PERPETUAL CRISIS

In spite of such change, an atmosphere of perpetual crisis has hung about the system for the last 30 years. In 1984, the theologian Duncan Forrester began his book on Christianity and the Future of Welfare by observing 'the time of little adjustments here and there is past; today a radical reconsideration leading to far-reaching changes is inevitable … welfare is in crisis.'10 Others have said the same thing pretty much every year since then.

And they are saying so today. The financial crash and ensuing multi-dip recession have created economic conditions in which politicians say that welfare provision of the kind and extent heretofore expected has become unsustainable. However one interprets it, the 2012 Welfare Act is the most substantial change to the system since its inception.11 This, coupled with the Big Society idea - remember that? - in which local, com munity and voluntary organisations are encouraged and helped to take on and deliver public services, constitutes a substantial change to the welfare landscape. This presents 'faith groups' with one of the biggest opportunities in living memory. Having long been honoured in the rhetoric of welfare, they are now practically important. No one, except those hardened secularists who are convinced that nothing good can come out of Nazareth, seriously doubts that the range, depth, commitment, and persistence of religious actors in this field is essential. Welfare needs faith in this regard more so today than at any time in the post-war period.

 

A SHARED IDENTITY

There is, however, another sense in which it needs faith, which it too rarely recognised. The reason why the Attlee settlement was as popular as it was at that time was that the nation had then an almost unprecedented sense of collective identity, belonging and destiny. A nation that had pooled its resources and energies as never before to come through the greatest external threat in its history was a nation acutely conscious of a sense of 'us'. That sense was heavily based on the negative, circumstantial reasons of needing to defend itself against a deadly foe. But it was never wholly pragmatic. Indeed, Churchill and others worked hard to emphasise the positive and principled reasons.

This was the 'Christian civilisation' narrative that Churchill (himself no Christian) so often delivered. Nor was it a uniquely Churchillian riff. Stanley Baldwin, three times prime minister in the inter-war years, had spoken in a similar way. The prominent Conservative Lord Halifax, the historian Arnold Toynbee, The Times' editorial and the government's Ministry of Information all pushed the same line, namely 'a real conviction of the Christian contribution to our civilisation and of the essential anti-Christian character of Nazism.'12

It was precisely this sense of quasi-sanctified identity that was transmuted into a common peacetime object, namely a nationalised system of mutual social protection secured by insurance. Ironically, it was a transmutation that Churchill opposed (hence his notorious 1945 election broadcast in which he tried to scare the population into believing that a vote for Labour would be a step along the road to 'some form of Gestapo'). But it was a transmutation that the British people wanted. An immensely strong national sense of 'us' had been called on to win the war. Now it was used to win the peace.

 

A CAVEAT

Now, it is important to make a caveat at this point, and to make it clear. For all Anglican bishops and normal Christians rang the praises of the post-war settlement, the welfare state was not the unique gift of Christianity to the British people. The British labour movement had many who owed more to Marx than Methodism. Moreover, some of the most cogent and intelligent critiques of state welfarism came from Christian pens drawing on Christian arguments. Both Christianity and state welfarism are too big and complex phenomena for there to be any clear and irrefutable lines drawn between the two.

Caveat duly the noted, the underlying point remains: the creation of the welfare state in the post-war period was an act of faith - of faith in one another, in a shared identity, in a common objective, and in shared ethical norms that would enable its operation. It was because 'we' knew who we were, and that we had a common responsibility to one another - a knowledge that was forged by Hitler and by Christianity - that we were able to establish the welfare settlement we did.

 

RESPONSIBILITY ERODED

Things are different today. Few prominent British politicians would now describe contemporary Britain as the hope for Christian civilisation. The sense of national destiny and responsibility that was once pervasive is gone, as is any substantive notion even of national identity (witness the repeated attempts to define Britishness over the last 20 years). Large scale net inward migration; the evaporation of a normative Christian moral atmosphere, however faintly it was once felt; and the now-instinctive mistrust of authority and government - all these have combined to erode still further that overpowering sense of mutual responsibility that underpinned the Attlee settlement. The nationalised sense of 'us', which founded and sustained the welfare state, is much weakened.

And this has taken its toll on the public's attitude to welfare. According to various research studies today, the original concept of the welfare state remains highly popular.13 Only one in ten people disagrees that the creation of the welfare state is 'one of Britain's proudest achievements'. However, public attitudes to its present operation are much more sceptical, with a growing proportion of the population associating today's welfare state with unfairness, inefficiency and dependency.

Three examples. One: around half of people believe that people would 'stand on their own two feet' if benefits were less generous, compared with a fifth who disagree - the reverse of the situation 20 years ago when only 25 per cent agreed and 52 per cent disagreed. Two: the proportion thinking the government should increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits has declined steadily from five in ten in 2002 to three in ten in 2010. Three: support for extra spending on benefits has continued to fall through the doubledip recession. While 55 per cent of people in 1987 agreed that government should 'spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes' 35 per cent did in 2012.14 Overall, recent British Social Attitudes surveys paint a bleak picture for those who seek public support for on-going state-welfarism.

 

DEEP STIGMA

The context of this shifting view is also important. Historically (meaning over the last 30 years) the public has tended to be more sympathetic towards benefit recipients and more supportive of increasing welfare spending during economic downturns, and vice versa.15 This makes intuitive sense: during periods of recession people feel more vulnerable, as well as knowing more people who are on benefits, thereby drawing the stigma that is often attached to welfare. During times of plenty, the opposite is true. Research over recent years has shown that this inverse correlation - between wealth and attitudes to welfare - is becoming decoupled, and public opinion about universal, statebased welfare provision is much more reserved than it once was, in spite of the deepest and longest recession in the post-war period.

The upshot of all this can be simply put: the British no longer have the faith they once had that is needed for extensive state-welfarism.16 For a series of complex reasons, we don't believe the system is sufficiently fair, just, or well-administered to merit our substantial ongoing support.

 

LIBERTARIAN RULES

How (as Christians) might we respond to this? Three options present themselves. The first is the essentially libertarian response: throw in state welfare towel and dismantle state-based provision altogether in favour of a society of self-interest, achieved through market mechanisms and regulated by a minimal, or night watchman, state. This is not, I would humbly contend, a serious Christian option. For all that some Christians see the market as having an almost divine status, a libertarian response of this nature fails to recognise what lies at the heart of Christian idea of the human.

We are fundamentally relational beings, created for and fulfilled by the love of other agents, human and divine. Such 'relationality' - such an ugly word: 'communion' is perhaps better - demands the recognition of common interests, common objectives, 'common objects of love', and although the state does not have to realise these, the state that does not even recognise them, is not a godly state. Even when such a libertarian state works well (and it rarely does) the human cost is too high.

Option one is not, therefore, a serious choice. Most British Christians prefer a second response which is more or less its mirror opposite. This involves wringing our hands at how individualistic and mean-spirited the British public has become, and how venal and selfish our politicians are, and then soldiering on regardless, paying no attention to the new public landscape.

 

MESSIER OPTIONS

This may feel like a more moral response but it may well not be. Perhaps the post-war state did over-reach itself, becoming as guilty of hubris as the pre-war one had been of indifference? Perhaps a welfare state can't deliver what it once promised? (If it could, it is hard to see why it has needed to expand in the way it has, even during periods when it was supposedly being cut down to size). In any case, moral or not, this is not a democratically realistic option in the circumstances. Carrying on with business-as-usual is positively Canute-like, not so much in commanding the incoming waters to stop as ordering the withdrawing tide of public opinion to return to where it was three generations ago.

The third option is messier, neither easy nor straightforward, and involves rejecting both the minimal and maximal options in favour of… well, let's not use the phrase 'third way' here, but rather a more plural option. Public opinion, for all it has swung against welfare statism, has not swung against welfare per se. The idea that we should look after one another remains strong; it's just that we should look after one another as family members or volunteers or employers as well as citizens. We should perhaps pay more serious attention to the public opinion about a greater variety of welfare provision.

 

MUTUALITY RESTORED

This does not mean selling the welfare state over to the voluntary or church sector (and church submissions to Parliamentary Select Committees on welfare make it very clear that they don't want it). But it may mean moving towards an insurance-based system in which the sense of mutuality and belonging necessary to any welfare is fostered rather than undermined. And it will mean drawing more heavily on those voluntary, charitable and church groups that are prepared to meet public needs at their own cost, in a way that the public no longer feels the state can or should.

We should not be too unnerved by the weekly welfare- crisis headlines we read, any more than we should take too seriously the stories of welfare-scroungers beloved of the right, or the stories of welfare-victims favoured by the left. Welfare is too vast a subject to be captured by headlines or horror stories, and the system too ambitious and complex ever to run smoothly.

Wherever we are today, we are better than Orwell was in the late 1920s, when grimy, depressing lives ground along the bottom of society with little hope of rescue or restoration. We cannot go back there. But nor can we preserve in aspic a system that has been fluid ever since its inception, still less ignore a general public with legitimate moral concerns about its operation. We must move forward, fully alert to the fact that will be doing so by faith and not by sight.

 

NOTES

1 George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, in Collected Works, Vol. 1, p. 187

2 Orwell, Down and Out, p. 184-86

3 Cyril Garbett, In an Age of Revolution (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1952), p.151

4 William Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services (London: The Macmillan Co., 1942), pp. 6-7

5 The eight points were: 1. Co-operation of Public Authorities and Voluntary Agencies; 2. A Friendly Societies Act; 3. A Royal Commission on Charitable Trusts; 4. Re-examination of Taxation of Voluntary Agencies; 5. An Enquiry as to the Physically Handicapped; 6. A Minister-Guardian of Voluntary Action; 7. Specialised Staff Training; and 8. Continuance and Extension of Public Grants to Voluntary Agencies.

6 Quoted in Matthew Hilton and James McKay (eds.), The Ages of Voluntarism: How We Got to the Big Society (Oxford University Press & British Academy, 2011), p. 88. See: http://www.vahs.org.uk/2012/05/ review-ages-of-voluntarism/

7 See, in particular, Frank Prochaska, Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain: The Disinherited Spirit (CUP, 2006)

8 Aditya Chakrabortty, 'The Welfare State, 1942-2013, obituary', The Guardian, 8 January 2013: http://www.guardian.co.uk/ commentisfree/2013/jan/08/welfare-state-1942-2013-obituary

9 http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/6475

10 Duncan Forrester Christianity and the Future of Welfare (XXXX) ix, 3

11 With its introduction of the universal credit, a new "claimant commitment", a Personal Independence Payment, a cap on total benefits, changes to Housing Benefit, and reforms of the Social Fund System, Employment and Support Allowance, and Child Support benefit. For more details on these see: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/policy/welfarereform/ legislation-and-key-documents/welfare-reform-act-2012/

12 Quoted in Ian McLaine, Ministry of morale : Home Front morale and the Ministry of Information in World War II (London: Allen and Unwin, 1979), p.151

13 See, for example, Clery, Elizabeth (2012), 'Are tough times affecting attitudes to welfare? in Park, A., Clery, E., Curtice, J., Phillips, M. and Utting, D. (eds.) (2012), British Social Attitudes: the 29th Report (London: NatCen Social Research), p. 12; Peter Kellner, 'A quiet revolution', Prospect, March 2012: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/ a-quiet-revolution-britain-turns-against-welfare/

14 www.britsocat.com

15 Taylor-Gooby, P. (2004), 'The work-centred welfare state', in Park, A., Curtice, J., Thomson, K., Bromley, C. and Phillips, M. (eds.), British Social Attitudes: the 21st Report, London: Sage

16 As an aside, it is also worth noting that the shift from this original system (which was structured on contribution and insurance) to the present one (a heavily means-tested system funded primarily through progressive tax rates) - in other words, a system in which the centre of moral gravity has shifted from just desert to perceived need - has made the need for public faith even greater at just the time it has been waning. See Nick Spencer, 'Welfare and Moral Community' in The Future of Welfare (Theos, 2013).