Victorian philanthropy, welfare reform and the budget

By Bernadette Meaden
November 21, 2017

It’s a sad indictment of our society that in the run up to Christmas, many people feel the need to focus their charitable efforts on ensuring that children in the UK do not go hungry. The cumulative impact of austerity and the relentless rollout of Universal Credit mean that many children could face a Christmas which is Dickensian, in all the wrong ways.

Yet some people see Victorian times not as an era from which we have thankfully progressed, but as a source of inspiration as to how we can tackle the problems we face today. 

In a recent article by Simon Lofthouse on the Tory Workers website, Modern Philanthropy, A Second Victorian Age of Altruism, philanthropy was advocated as, "the acceptable form of wealth distribution for the 21st Century; the radical free market response to today’s challenges." The author claimed that, "In Victorian times, the wealthy used philanthropy very successfully to directly address some of their biggest social challenges."

That is an interesting reading of history. As vast wealth was amassed through Empire, charity may have helped in certain locations or in certain circumstances to ameliorate some of the most glaring deprivation – but it was only through political change and legislation that ‘social challenges’ such as slum housing, dirty water, child labour, punishingly long hours and dangerous working conditions were addressed, and life gradually improved for the general population.

The article also seems based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of altruism, saying, “One of the biggest challenges…for modern philanthropy is to ensure that it is done in a high profile way that provides a win-win situation for those contributing and those receiving. In this way, free market organisations will be more willing to share their wealth and to be more altruistic? The capitalist, free market would be seen to be responding to people’s problems and seen to care.”

Altruism is about acting to promote the welfare of others, even at a risk or cost to ourselves – not when we can secure a ‘win-win’ situation. Philanthropy motivated by a desire to improve the public image of an individual or a business, or to help win people over to the virtues of free market capitalism, is not altruism.

Mr Lofthouse is nothing if not ambitious for philanthropy, believing it could even tackle the housing crisis. “Fund the establishment of factories that can build very large numbers of high-quality, pre-fabricated homes. Then work with local authorities to identify appropriate sites for development, whilst providing financial support for those who want to live in them.  This would represent a radical, end-to-end home building echo system funded by the capitalist, free market.” What this actually sounds like is a partial, privatised alternative to the welfare state – presumably minus any democratic accountability.

The fact is that philanthropy will always be a poor substitute for economic justice, a patchwork way of addressing some of the symptoms of inequality, whilst never addressing the causes. The philanthropist will always be in control, and his or her philanthropy will be an expression of their interests and values.

The  Alzheimer’s Society recently celebrated  the fact that Bill Gates had donated $50 million to Alzheimer’s research, “motivated by personal experience of Alzheimer's disease in his family.” Of course this is good news for people affected by Alzheimer’s. But presumably if Bill Gates had had personal experience of Motor Neurone Disease in his family then that would have been where the $50 million went. It is all very arbitrary.

We cannot tackle the challenges facing society based on the personal interests and concerns of the super-rich. To tackle society’s challenges properly we need a comprehensive strategy, a plan, and reliable funds which can be distributed fairly and accountably on a national basis.

Mr Lofthouse may not be aware that the Victorian Charity Organisation Society or ‘COS ’was also referred to as ‘Cringe Or Starve’.  As Lesley Hulonce writes of the COS, “Any gift which did not make an individual better, stronger and more independent, they felt damaged rather than helped the recipient… It was partly to meet this difficulty that the COS was established – to discriminate between the honest, industrious struggling poor, and the vicious, idle, and improvident’.”

Fast forward to 2011, and as Iain Duncan Smith began proposing his welfare reforms, the Telegraph reported "The Work and Pensions Secretary said that increasing 'benefit income' simply pushes the 'family further into dependency' and makes it less likely that their children will ever escape from poverty." The destitution people on low incomes now increasingly face is occurring because these Victorian attitudes, of ‘encouraging dependency’ and of the deserving and undeserving poor, have permeated the rhetoric and policies of welfare reform.

To properly address the social problems we now face, what we need is not philanthropy from the wealthy, and it’s certainly not the welfare reforms which are currently devastating the lives of our most disadvantaged neighbours. What we need is a renewed belief in community, an understanding that social responsibility means paying fair taxes, an end to talk of the deserving and undeserving poor, and a bold confidence that a properly funded welfare state can ensure a decent, dignified life for everybody. As Clement Attlee wrote in 1920, when the Victorian era was still within living memory, “If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.”

So those of us who are able to give generously to foodbanks and homeless shelters this Christmas should do so, because unfortunately there is desperate need for such help. But don’t let’s imagine our charity can be the solution to problems which have been caused by political decisions, and can only be solved by political decisions. That is what Budgets are for, and the Chancellor has the opportunity to improve the lives of the poorest people, if he chooses to do so.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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