Last night I watched a TV programme that made me very sad. In the end I turned it off for the sake of my mental health. That programme is “The street that cut everything” and it is an experiment where council services are removed from a whole street, and shows the results of the resident’s efforts to find replacements for those services. Although the programme is quite contrived and has been criticised by many as not an accurate representation of what will happen, it does reveal quite a lot about people’s attitude towards services and sharing of resources.
One case in particular stood out to me. A single mother called Tracie was particularly affected by the removal of council services. She lost housing benefit, her younger daughter lost free school meals and after school clubs and her older daughter lost her university fees. While the residents of the street did eventually agree to pay for these costs out of the common purse, some of the views expressed in the lead up to that decision were unpleasant.
“Free school lunches, what’s wrong with taking a sandwich?”
“If there’s any kind of monetary thing to be had, they’re there, they’re like vultures, claim claim claim claim”
“I had a daughter who worked all her life on her own, never, never didn’t do her job, never claimed a benefit at all, she got there – with a little help from us. I know if you get off your bottoms, there is something out there.”
“Are we allowed to evict her ourselves?”
These comments are those of privileged people that have never dealt with hardship. Free school meals may be the only hot meal that children from poorer families will get in a day. That may be because of poor parenting, but is more likely to be because of a lack of of money to pay for decent meals. Providing a hot meal at lunchtime ensures proper nutrition for children and may prevent health problems later. The comment about vultures and claiming benefits is absurd: of course people will claim benefits to which they are entitled. If they qualify for means tested benefits then they need those benefits to live. Actually, many benefits remain unclaimed and that is a big problem that causes hardship for many.
The comment about the daughter that worked, was never sick and never claimed benefits is also a bizarre one. Even though she worked, she still had to get help from her parents. If she had actually been unable to find a job or unable to work through illness or accident, she would have had to either rely on a lot more help from her parents or claim benefits. Many people are not in a position to receive help from their parents. Saying that there is work out there for those that try just shows complete ignorance of our current situation where two and a half million people are unemployed but only half a million jobs are available and many of them are only part time, and cannot provide enough to live on.
The comment about evicting the benefit claimant is just sickening. How far is it from turfing out the “burdens” on society to the gas chambers of nazi Germany?
Still, there was a nicer comment from one person that showed some understanding:
“That’s why you pay in. There’s points in your life when you’re getting very good value for money, and there’s points in your life where you probably don’t. That’s the way it is.”
This leads me on to my main point.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
I haven’t read Marx, but I have heard this phrase many times. I believe that it should be the cornerstone of our welfare state. It is a principle that should ensure support for the unemployed, the sick, the disabled and those in situations where they are unable to support themselves.
In the Victorian era, the poor had to rely on the charity and generosity of the rich for medical care. Some areas had charitable hospitals and some did not. Some people were able to find a doctor that would not charge the poor, and some were not. If there weren’t any philanthropists to help, then no help was given. Reliance on philanthropy and charity ensured that many people lived short, squalid lives, and died horrible preventable deaths.
Even a hundred years ago and further back there were health care insurances and mutuals and friendly societies that would provide healthcare and support to people that had paid in to these schemes. Most rich people seem to accept insurance policies as fair as long as everyone pays the same into the scheme, even though the amount paid out to each person varies according to need. In fact the amount paid out must vary, as if everyone needed the most expensive surgery or the most expensive cancer drugs the premiums necessary to fund the scheme would be huge. Although payment out is unequal, it is dependant on payment in, and excludes pre-existing problems. With the welfare state payment out is according to need and generally unconditional. Actually, many of our benefits come in contribution-based and income-based variants, but if there are no contributions some form of benefit and all forms of health care will still be given. The difference is that contribution based benefits are not generally means tested. I am not sure if people have a problem with benefits being paid to those who may not have paid in, or if their problem is that they think everyone that claims a benefit is a cheat or somehow unworthy, or both. Certainly the view being pushed by the government and by the tabloids is the latter.
Recently there has been an increase in verbal and physical assaults against people on benefits. I think this is in no small part due to the fact that government ministers and many newspapers have been directing anger over the deficit cuts at the poor, the sick and the disabled. Fault also lies with the public for going along with that view. The views of those people taking part in the programme mentioned above would seem to be more prevalent among our population than I had thought. That gives me pause to wonder if actually, a welfare state is right and is what the majority want. Of course many people that have sufficient funds to live a comfortable life may argue that those that haven’t will always vote for a welfare state.
I know that I do not want to live in a society where it is acceptable to leave the sick to die from diseases that could be prevented, or to bankrupt people to pay for medical treatment, or to throw people out on to the streets if they cannot earn sufficient to pay for rent and food, or to prevent children from accessing education because their parents are not rich enough. These things are painful for me to see, and on those few occasions when both my wife and I have been working and earning enough to live on, I have not hesitated to help out my friends when they have asked. I have received more help from friends and family than I can recall. To put it bluntly, I cannot imagine the mindset of someone that would think that not helping people is acceptable. And yet people that think just that clearly exist, and may even be a majority. I imagine that some of them, like in The street that cut everything, would eventually grudgingly accept that they should help those less fortunate than them, but if not put in to an emotional situation or confronted with the harsh realities of the situation they may never even consider it.
And so I have to end with questions. Does a majority in this country even want a welfare state, or would they prefer the issues that I outlined in the last paragraph? Will a welfare state only exist if forcefully pushed through by charismatic government ministers? Is this a situation where the people don’t know what’s good for them? Or should we abandon the idea as undemocratic? I know what I would prefer.