Ian Hislop, who is occasionally more a journalist than a satirist, presented a programme on BBC this evening entitled “Workers or Shirkers”, looking at how the Victorians dealt with the poor, and the question of whether and how they should be provided for, and in particular whether we should discriminate between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. It was a fairly balanced presentation, with some shocking moments, such as finding out that Ian Duncan Smith, lately in charge in the UK of cutting and denying benefits to the poor while claiming to be “helping them” (by which he meant providing them with the incentive of starvation to go and find employment), actually has some feelings for the poor.
OK, I maybe jest very slightly there, but not a lot. There was quite a bit on the system of workhouses instituted in the 19th century (and still in some cases active in my lifetime) which were deliberately designed to be worse than anything on the outside which didn’t actually kill you immediately. I regularly pass along a street called “Union Lane”, which now has several branches of the social welfare establishment spread along one side, which was named because before most of it was knocked down as being both supremely ugly and unfit for human habitation even by social workers, it was the site of the Union Workhouse. “Union” because it was operated by a union of several parishes rather than merely one. It still had a rather sinister reputation in my childhood, and people of my grandparent’s generation often had a terror of “going on the parish”, as people tended to call becoming dependent on the workhouses. Actually, by that time, few people alive had actually experienced the workhouses in their full horror, as they had by and large become far more civilised as the 20th century progressed, and innovations like National Insurance and Old Age Pensions had seriously reduced the need for them. A small plaque on the rather decorative former gatehouse (one of the few attractive features, and rightly preserved) commemorates its origin. I’m perhaps unusual in that the mere name of the street makes me remember the system every time I pass along it…
The workhouse system was definitely more shocking than IDS, though many of his and his successor’s pronouncements make me wonder quite how close to a new workhouse system our current government would like to get.
The programme perhaps doesn’t go back quite far enough. The various Poor Laws which were administered initially through the parishes had become necessary because charitable giving utterly failed to meet the need (and that in a country which was in those days at least avowedly something over 95% Christian). It did, however, follow through the initial institution of the Welfare State here, and adverted to the fact that even a Labour government faced with the Great Depression decided that it needed to cut back on welfare (what was not mentioned is that there was also a national debt dwarfing the one we now see in percentage of GDP due to having fought the First World War…) An obvious parallel with current conditions was not explicitly drawn but implied, leaving it more difficult to point to all the areas in which finances then were massively worse than they are now.
The conclusion? We are, it seems, hopelessly confused between a desire only to benefit the deserving and an impulse to correct suffering without reference to merit.
But then, we are not any more a 95% Christian country, more like a 7% Christian one. If we were, I could point to a very clear injunction contained in Matthew 5:42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you”. Jesus says nothing about asking why someone is in need, nor about asking whether they deserve help, or even whether we should check what they will spend it on. We are just to give whenever asked (and there are a large set of other quotations available to back this up).
However, I do notice that in at least one church in York are cards encouraging people not to give money to people begging on the street (of whom there are regrettably quite a few), but instead to give to charities helping them. Yes, I thoroughly approve of giving to those charities (and I do, regularly), and that church does do excellent work helping feed the homeless, but those cards seem to me basically contrary to Jesus’ command. If I have money, I will give something to them direct, whatever the church says. And it should not be saying that.
Of course, looking back at the history of helping the poor, as Hislop does, makes it pretty clear that the Church has never been very good at following this particular command of Jesus. Suspending judgment, it seems, is even more difficult than parting with your money.