Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 15 September 2013

Government Cuts and Family Ties

As usual, a return to the Tavern is prompted by the realisation, while commenting on another blog, that the comment was in danger of becoming longer than the post that inspired it.

In this case, it was a piece by the indefatigable JuliaM  - who reads Comment is Free so the rest of us don't have to - on deprivation and food banks.

The post quotes an article squarely blaming the Government for the deprivation that drives desperate people to seek handouts:
The number one reason cited for food bank referral is cuts or delays to benefits, including sanctions and bedroom tax.
Understandable, certainly, in some cases; the benefit system, like other state monoliths, is unwieldy and prone to errors and people must occasionally slip through the net. Yet it seems odd that so many people are coming forward to ask for charitable help of this kind.

The writer of the article is in no doubt who should be footing the bill:
And while food banks are meeting a real and desperate need for half a million families in the UK, surely the responsibility for feeding the poorest and most vulnerable lies with the government, not with charity? Isn't that the entire point of the welfare state?
Well, yes. Except that the welfare state was once seen as a last resort, to be used when all other means had failed. That was how you identified the 'poorest and most vulnerable' and - crucially - concentrated the limited resources on giving help where it was most needed.

Those other means were once well established in Britain, as they still are in other parts of the world; family members who succeeded in life would do their bit to maintain elderly parents or help to support their nephews and nieces. The concept of 'looking after your own' was an ingrained part of long-standing communities; even if you shunned your neighbours, you were expected to chip in to assist your close relatives.

When illness or unemployment struck, the family rallied round. Children were reared along with cousins while their parents looked for work or housing, or, at the very least, regularly fed in other households; work clothes and winter coats would be lent or handed on as needed - no need to turn up for a job interview in 'tatty jumper and dirty jeans'.

I am sure this still happens, but woe betide the claimant who admits it when officialdom is sniffing around. Farming the children out to Auntie's while you get back on your feet would leave you embroiled in a bureaucratic nightmare over residence for child benefit and tax credits, while letting on that your brother helped out with a small loan until your housing benefit kicked in is likely to be a one-way ticket to axed payments.

And that is without considering the effects of family break-up, of course. Once the stigma of unmarried parenthood disappeared and serial monogamy became the norm, the time-honoured support network fragmented in the face of hostility or indifference between former partners. With potential earnings likely to be reduced by child support payments and benefits reduced for cohabiting couples, fathers have an incentive to avoid either marriage or employment, leaving single mothers to rely heavily on benefits.

The article suggests that persuading the Government to increase housing benefit, legislate for a 'living wage' and revoke the 'bedroom tax' (a misnomer worthy of a post in itself) would tackle the problem at source by reducing poverty but, interestingly, makes no mention of assistance from family; it's either the government or charity food banks*.

Could this be because the idea of an all-providing state has effected a massive cultural shift and turned people in on themselves; why make sacrifices to help out when the benefits system says it's not your problem? Or is it because successive Government policies have put the right to 'independent living' above traditional family ties even if it is at the public expense?

Of course, some may have no access to help from close relatives (and much needs to be done to help young people leaving Council care) but can it really be true that half a million people have no family who would help out rather than see them asking charity to put food on the table?

There are doubtless vast numbers of relatives out there still doing their unsung part to help - where's the news value in everyday acts of kindness? - but, if the tales of hardship are genuine, there is a sad irony in the way that a succession of well-meaning social policies and humanitarian gestures appear to have absolved some willingly complacent families of any moral obligation or responsibility to assist.

* Even without the question of using take-up figures as a measure of actual need (Julia again at OoL), I have to admit to a certain scepticism on the subject of food banks since the grand opening of that one in Essex, where the Great and the Good were offered a glass of champagne and - oh, the irony! - a finger buffet, because "The event is straight after work and many people will not have eaten".


  1. "where's the news value in everyday acts of kindness?"

    Indeed, and there is no political angle either.

  2. Among that half a million, which I assume includes the children how many and who have mobile phones and what are they used for? How many gamble? How much alcohol use? One or two other things might be included. So how much of all these are the food banks funding indirectly?

  3. a piece by the indefatigable JuliaM - who reads Comment is Free so the rest of us don't have to

    The lady should be canonized for that. So should you. Have to come back later to this and re-read in finer detail.


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