Welfare has often been a politically divisive subject, yet the goal of enhancing the well-being of the whole nation is one where thoughtful people, including those responsible for policy, might gain from considering the issues in ways which transcend simplistic divisions between left and right.
The Trinity reflects the insight of the earliest Christians that God is ineluctably relational. God’s Kingdom is fulfilled when the bond of love that is God’s-self embraces the whole human family.
The gospel of Jesus Christ addresses the good of all — not just those who have made a commitment to him. This is why the concept of the Common Good is at the heart of the church’s mission and why, when the church pleads the case of the vulnerable and sustains them by its actions, it is performing the gospel of Christ.
But the church’s work for others would be mere sticking plaster over an open wound if wider social policy is not working with the grain of voluntary action rather than against it.
Welfare and connectedness
Looking in depth at welfare policy, it clearly needs to be understood in connection with wider economic policy, social policy, questions of social and world order, and so on.
Our faith locates us as part of God’s family which extends across every nation, culture and century. That global human fellowship is damaged when our definition of “us” is too narrow.
This semantic trend has had a rapid effect of separating those reliant on benefits from the rest of the population as if the former were a kind of lesser citizenry.
Dilemmas of time – and correctives
Human need often presents itself as a crisis of the moment, demanding an immediate response. But systems of support have consequences which only unfold over time. If people can rely on a safety net to protect them against immediate need, it can create a disincentive to avoid future crises.
There is nothing wrong with trying to design a welfare system which seeks to change human behaviour.
Facing up to dependency
Many critics of the welfare state emphasise its tendency to entrench dependency. But that claim needs to be nuanced. Dependency is a core characteristic of every human being.
Dependency on the state, however, is a subtly different matter. Because the personal relationship between those who give and those who receive is missing, welfare recipients are liable to feel no responsibility to escape from the welfare structures. The challenge is to see dependency in terms of mutuality rather than as a one-way power relationship.
The discomfort of distinguishing between the “deserving and undeserving poor” has combined with a more contemporary aversion to moral norms to imply that welfare systems must abdicate any responsibility for forming character. The key here is people’s ability to change — with or without help and encouragement. The permanently lame cannot be treated as if they could walk if they only had enough gumption. But the muddled, timid and confused can — with help — be enabled to live more ordered and resilient lives.
The importance of place
It should be economic common sense for welfare systems to strengthen people’s ties to their locality and not undermine them. Uprooting people to cheaper or smaller properties, often hundreds of miles away, severs informal networks of support and companionship which will have enhanced people’s resilience and moderated their demands on the welfare system.
The importance of work
We should support welfare policies which create incentives for work, and welfare delivery systems that assist people to find suitable work. Welfare should never be an alternative to employment for those who are able to work.
The importance of families
A viable welfare system needs to support individuals who are on their own, whilst ensuring that couples and families can flourish. If welfare policies have a role in promoting socially positive behaviour, policies which promote family stability are to be welcomed.
One theological objection to current policy concerns the implication that two children is the “right” number for a family and that the welfare system has no responsibility for supporting further children of benefit recipients. Despite advances in contraception, family size is not infallibly manageable.
Welfare and family breakdown
If the economy demands flexible workforces, it must pay the price in terms of weaker family structures and greater reliance on the state.
There are patently no easy answers here. But it would help if the wider social aspects of family and marriage breakdown were accorded the same attention to detail, when marriages end, as financial and child care arrangements.
Perils of bureaucracy
Since 1945, the systems for delivering welfare have become vastly more complex. The government’s plans to introduce Universal Credit deserve support in so far as they are likely to achieve the goals of simplification, transparency and intelligibility.
The more the system is streamlined and simplified, the less flexibly it accommodates the diversity of human need. This dilemma might be mitigated by ensuring that a relatively simple scheme is delivered through mechanisms with a human and accessible face. There is not much love in a system run by robots.
It cannot be right that benefit claimants are sanctioned for being caught in the dilemmas and systemic failures which affect everyone in modern society. . . The JobCentre manager (or the Minister responsible for welfare policy, come to that) may be affected by the same cancelled bus or their own sick child, but they will not be treated as an offender and see their basic level of subsistence damaged as a result.
Benefit levels and the National Living Wage
If welfare is primarily a safety net for sustaining people through short periods of misfortune, a subsistence level supporting basic nutrition and shelter for the whole family would probably suffice. But no government today can guarantee that periods of welfare dependency remain short. Nor would subsistence levels of support be right for those who, through disability, illness or other unavoidable causes, will never be able to play a full part in the economy. Moderate levels of social participation are essential if people are not to lose links to neighbours and friends with all the consequences of isolation that attend such losses. Social participation requires some disposable income above what is earmarked for subsistence – but not necessarily a great deal more.
Mutuality and contributory schemes
One approach to enabling welfare to build up social bonds, mooted from time to time across the political divide, is the restoration of the contributory principle.
The church and welfare policy today
Recent welfare policies, whilst sometimes clumsily implemented or ill communicated, are not without moral purpose. Just as Faith in the City failed to see the moral vision that informed Margaret Thatcher’s administrations, and therefore failed to engage coherently with that vision, so we must avoid the trap of seeing present policy direction as motivated solely by economic concerns. This paper suggests that one guiding principle for our collective responses should be the restoration of social bonds, the encouragement of neighbourliness and the attack on trends that exacerbate isolation.