If it was your own family that had fallen on hard times the last thing you would want is for an unknown member of the public to be sitting in judgement deciding whether they were worthy of support. But that’s exactly the problem with charitable giving – it’s all dependent on whether you are a deserving cause or not. And that’s why there is no way that Food Banks can be regarded as an acceptable part of the architecture of welfare support.
Food Banks are a disgrace but not just because it is a disgrace that one of the top ten economies in the world has an increasing dependence on charity because of food poverty. They are a disgrace because they point at the betrayal of our politicians, collectively, irrespective of party politics, to find a way of ensuring that our sprawling benefits system does not allow a person to go without food. Surely it is a betrayal of the social contract to leave hundreds of thousands of people dependent on the kindness of strangers for something as essential as food. I do not want the whim of people swayed by popular rhetoric to decide whether a given person is deserving of their charity. And what about when something else comes along that is ‘more’ deserving or the donors run out of money or become tired of giving to a system that seems not to work. This is a systemic problem that transcends the issue of benefits cuts.
Just last weekend I gave a sermon on this very topic and the response immediately afterwards was full of the usual questions: too many people are benefits cheats (actually less than 1%), if only the out of work were not so feckless they could pay their way (can you really simplify the problem to an issue of dependency or deserving and undeserving poor and you cannot ignore the ‘in work’ poverty), the criticism ignores the national debt (far from it), and to criticise without a solution is not acceptable (nonsense – that just stifles debate).
Of course the problem is complicated: we’re dealing with increases in the cost of food and utilities; in-work poverty; food wastage; poor skills to manage personal finances; personal debt; and so on. And actually changes to the benefits system are only part of this picture. But I regard it as a basic responsibility of government to ensure that the welfare state functions effectively and fairly; that includes the redistribution of taxes to essential services and to the needy in a judicious and balanced way. Food is undeniably essential.
In Judaism over one thousand years ago, pre-welfare state, there was a system of collecting money and redistributing it to those in need and providing for essential services in one’s town. The obligation to give fell on those who had lived for a certain period of time in a given locale and there was a hierarchy of needs and causes. This is found in the Talmud, a document containing discussions of sages through many generations between 200 and 600 CE.
This system of a charity fund, a food bank, clothing bank, and collective responsibility for the walls of a city are all precursors to the organised welfare state (from fuel allowance to the NHS and council tax). The assessment of need should be done fairly and equitably and the responsibility for contributing should rest with anyone who lives in the state and wishes to be, in a sense, a beneficiary. Moreover, the collection and redistribution should be done in an unimpeachable way that is efficient, well balanced and compassionately seeks to lift the needy out of their straits. Importantly, whilst charity was expected to be given in a personal capacity, the Jewish sources understand that the system works best when organised collectively – the combined ‘pooling of resource’ inevitably having more impact than the individual donation and the collective redistribution ensures that the whim of the individual does not lead to real need being ignored.
I am a strong proponent of charitable giving and acts of philanthropy. But I challenge the notion that the government can pass the buck on its responsibility for the fair and efficient collection and redistribution of tax to the services and individuals that need it. They cannot be allowed to gradually hand over this duty to Food Banks and other similar programmes. Moreover, my sense is that a willingness to see the role of charitable giving as a substitute for this inefficiency is morally wrong. To allow our politicians, of all persuasions, to get away with it is permitting an abdication of their responsibilities as our elected representatives. My Liberal Judaism, with the prophetic imperative at its heart, cannot let that happen.