To each according to his needs

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.

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

11 thoughts on “To each according to his needs”

  1. Let me say first, I didn’t watch this programme.  If I were to design such an experiment I would first take all personal histories of each of those residents: all of it.

    And when, at the end, a resident questions why they should bother helping anyone in need, I would challenge them with their own history.

    Who paid for the medical care their mother recieved while bringing them into the world?  who paid for their education?  Who paid for the home they were brought up in (decent chance it was a council house built in the post-war period)? How did they get to their holiday as a child by the seaside – was it a train?  Who subsidised that?  Who still subsidises that?  Who pays for the roads they drive on, the pavements they walk on?  Should society have paid those subsidies?

    And after that, I’d fly them to the Sudan or perhaps the Congo,and show them what a society with no government, no government services and no welfare looks like, and how it affects everyone except the very richest.

    And then I’d put them in a wheelchair for 6 months or a year.  With no help from anyone.  And while they are in that wheelchair, I’d give them the details of every subsidy given to the companies that product and every service they buy.

    Wonder if their questioning of the welfare state would change at the end?

  2. Alas, the worst comments about tracy came in the second half of the programme.  The poor lady was told that she ‘shouldnt have so many children’ by another single parent who was outraged that she should need housing benefit. (she has two, a 19 year old and a much younger child. hardly too many children.)

    their judgement of her was gross and disgusting.  We’d been told earlier in the programme she was a cancer survivor. We don’t know the ins and outs of her life, but i can imagine being a single mother and having to go through cancer doesnt leave you in a very financially stable position. She is also a student, so trying to get education to get a job, which is what she’s SUPPOSED to be doing. but no, she’s on benefits so she clearly is a sponger.

    people do not understand that those who can, pay a little so society benefits a lot. We would be a horrible place if the poor were left unaided, we’d have a much higher crime rate for starters, and we’d have a huge health crisis on our hands, and not to mention all the services we do recieve that people use. Just because a person does not use all these services does not mean that person is entitled to opt out of funding them. We arent just paying to insure ourselves, we’re paying to insure our society.  Yes, there will be people who never pay INTO it, but in return we have more stability and better living conditions as a whole, and the potential for those people, once they get on their feet, to pay back into the system.

    1. I wrote a gently right-wing response, but my PC ate it! So this brief one may be even worse… 

      I haven’t watched the programme yet but some general comments…

      “The poor lady was told that she ‘shouldnt have so many children'” – I think people who have children without considering how they will support them are irresponsible. This is different from planning well, but having life **** on you.

      “people do not understand that those who can, pay a little so society benefits a lot” – I don’t think working people pay a little. Tax take is 35% of GDP, and total tax paid by most workers is over 50%. That’s not a little.

      Here’s the interesting thing: it seems that our apparently hated right-wing government is being far more generous with social/benefit funding than a random sample of normal people would choose to be. That says something interesting about society and democracy.

      Of course a majority apparently want to bring back hanging too…

      Cheers,
      David.

  3. Just watched it… thing I found most interesting was how the community rallied round to provide care, food, company, ironing etc for the old lady but didn’t do the same for the Tracie and her daughter. The program didn’t give much in the way of ideas of peoples working patterns or express why Tracie’s studying required so much before and after school care for her daughter when she clearly had time to go to help see Janete’s dad.

    The program did show the importance and extent of what the council does, which is good. And most people did seem to agree that the council helping people’s need was important! But as is always the case, when you are in one boat it is often very difficult to imagine what it would be like on another, to place yourself in the shoes of another requires a great deal and many are simply not up for the challenge of trying!

    I think one point the program brought up is the ability of people to endure hardship and rally together for the good of everyone. But it also highlighted people’s selfishness too! There is an element of society requiring more from people in terms of helping out others, but there will always be people who do not want to help because they do not understand why they need to and in fact because they simply do not want to or do not want to make time to. For example if fewer people did graffiti and dropped less litter/dog poo there would be less for the council to pay for clearing up, but that requires individuals to realise the damage they are causing, understand the cost consequences that will have on the wider society and most importantly for them to even care! A society that does not care and looks out for number one, will be a split one. There will always be need, which in a caring society would be less of a burden on government, but in a selfish society will only magnify the problem and divide the people over the way to deal with the problem.

  4.  Seemingly in this country currently you are a minority. Thing is see people find it easy to be selfish. Capitalism is fundamentally about “what I’ve got”  and not “how can I be compassionate”.

    I made my first blog post yesterday talking about people “ranting” and how I believe it disengages the very people you need to engage. Now rightly so your not ranting here, but you do say “I don’t want to live in a society where” and the issue currently is that it is a society that’s not too caring BECAUSE it’s easy to dislike ANYONE who doesn’t share your view AND is rude in the process (no you haven’t been rude). Suddenly we aren’t “all in it together” It’s “us and them”. All you can do is chip away at people’s consciences and I believe THAT is the way forward. 

    I truly believe that in reality no one actually wants anyone else to suffer, the issue is how the media and gov sell it to the masses and the fact that the masses buy into this. 

    1.  I think there are those who do want others to suffer: those who are different, seen as being weak or less able are to be punished.  It’s what bullies do.  And that is what they were doing to that single mum.  There is always someone who gets to be the bullying, it’s societies job to stop that.  Instead, society and in particular the government and the media have served to encourage that bullying behaviour rather than explaining why there is unemployment around the world and why wages are so low people can not live adequately without those beneifts.  Where is the debate about wage policy, job policies, rent controls?  The bullies won’t allow that – bring it up and they will shout you down, refuse to take responsibility, refuse to consider the possibilies, because bullies, simply do not want to.

      1. I’d say they don’t actually “want” others to suffer they simply don’t care if they do suffer. I’d suppose these same people are the ones who want “undesireables” living next door to someone else and as long as something doesn’t affect them they could care less.

        You talk of bullies, AND I’m not going to argue that point except to say I see the EXACT same attitudes on both sides of the political arena.

  5.  This reminded me of an excellent Steve Bell cartoon – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cartoon/2011/jan/21/steve-bell-david-cameron

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