I was struck by the advice of Nick Hurd MP that whilst we may be recipients of a universal benefit we should give it away to a charity if we do not need it. I am sure Mr Hurd has a tricky role as Minister for Civil Society (what a great title), but the problem with his noble suggestion is at the heart of the tension between the role of the welfare state and of private philanthropy (and dare I say, Cameron’s ‘Big Society’). I happily pay my taxes and support the welfare state, but not so that the wealthy can pick and choose a personally favoured cause to which my money may be redistributed. Rather, I see it as a basic responsibility of government to ensure that the welfare state functions effectively and fairly; that includes the redistribution of taxes to essential services and to the needy in a judicious and balanced way.
I am conscious of the fact that some of the principles of the welfare state system are already found in some Jewish sources from over one thousand years ago. In Judaism, pre-welfare state, there was a system of collecting money and redistributing it to those in need and providing for essential services in one’s town. The obligation to give fell on those who had lived for a certain period of time in a given locale and there was a hierarchy of needs and causes. This is found in the Talmud, a document containing discussions of sages through many generations between 200 and 600 CE; these sources describe complex scenarios in which the measures of poverty are challenged when confronted by individual cases and the trustworthy nature of those who manage the charitable funds must be maintained at all times.
This system of a charity fund, a food bank, clothing bank, and collective responsibility for the walls of a city are all precursors to the organised welfare state (from fuel allowance to the NHS and council tax). The assessment of need should be done fairly and equitably and the responsibility for contributing should rest with anyone who lives in the state and wishes to be, in a sense, a beneficiary. Moreover, the collection and redistribution should be done in an unimpeachable way that is efficient, well balanced and compassionately seeks to lift the needy out of their straits. Importantly, whilst charity was expected to be given in a personal capacity, the system works best when organised collectively – the combined ‘pooling of resource’ inevitably having more impact than the individual donation and the collective redistribution ensures that the whim of the individual does not lead to real need being ignored. Ultimately, the system will never be perfect but it is our duty to contribute nonetheless.
I am a strong proponent of charitable giving and acts of philanthropy. In spite of our economic situation, we are still a wealthy country with many of us, in absolute terms, situated in the top few per cent of wealth in the world. Most of us can still afford to give, even if it is a small amount, on a regular basis. Moreover, this is not a rant against wealth and prosperity, since some of the wealthiest individuals are also the biggest (even in percentage terms) donors to charity and speaking with colleagues and friends who work in the charitable sector they are ever more desperate for your donations. I also suspect that many who receive a universal benefit who do not need it are also giving generously to charity. If anything, we need to up our giving because charities are struggling in the current climate.
And of course, I recognise the difficulties in unpicking the complexity of a universal benefit (especially when the political mood is against universal benefits). One example of the difficulty can be seen in the shambles of child benefit, such that one household with two earners will receive a full child benefit whilst having a combined income of nearly double the family next door who receive nothing. However, that does not mean the government should give up. With Mr Hurd’s suggestion it seems to me that our politicians, with their combined brilliance, are now telling us that they are unable to perform their basic duties and have done just that – given up.
I challenge the notion that the government can relinquish its responsibility for the fair and efficient collection and redistribution of tax to the services and individuals that need it. Moreover, my sense is that a willingness to see the role of charitable giving as a substitute for this inefficiency is morally wrong. It is heart breaking to hear stories of the elderly dying in freezing conditions and families and children finding themselves dependent on food banks and charity. If the mood is, and I’m not yet wholly convinced, that universal benefits are a waste of public money when given to those who do not ‘need’ them, then I do not want the government to settle for having to give the money back to those who in their eyes do not need it with a plea that they give it to a cause they support. That is just lazy and a denial of responsibility.