Perhaps it’s the time of year, perhaps it’s the outbreak of flu but the news in the opening days of 2018 has been reminiscent of Private Fraser’s catchphrase from Dad’s Army, ‘We’re doomed’. Queues in hospital corridors, a crisis in social care provision and the prospect of huge black holes in pension provision all point towards the conclusion that the welfare state is no longer affordable.
In part, this is because the Welfare State is a victim of its own success. Life expectancy in the UK is now 13 years longer than when the NHS was created. But as people live longer and medicine gets more advanced, we have rising needs and at a time of economic recession declining resources. The share of public spending accounted for by health is 29.7%, while spending on pensions represents more than 40% of the entire welfare budget. Originally social security payments constituted 10% of the national budget, now it is 30%. Instead of covering this cost by raising taxes, governments have borrowed so that servicing the deficit now costs as much as the state spends on education.
The outcome of a lost decade of economic growth has been a shocking squeeze on resources; almost every area of public life feels under-resourced. The welfare safety net has gaping holes. There has been a 130% rise in homelessness since 2010 and an extraordinary rise in food poverty. In the year to March 2017 Food Banks gave out over 1.1million food packages; in 2008/9 they gave out just 26,000.
The system requires a new approach where a spirit of co-operation between the state and local communities prevents the government being blamed for everything and where local voluntary groups are partners in the delivery of social justice. More of us need to be involved in addressing the pressing needs of our society and to see this as part of our civic responsibility.
In 1942, the Beveridge Report set out the framework for the Welfare State. In the aftermath of the hungry 1930s and amid the sacrifices of war, the report identified five great evils that a reform of social insurance would seek to eradicate. They were Want, Idleness, Ignorance, Disease and Squalor. What Beveridge was aiming for was ‘co-operation between the state and the individual’. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple said the report was ‘the first time anyone had set out to embody the whole spirit of the Christian ethic in an Act of Parliament.’
Over the years, however, more fell to the state and less to the kind of co-operation Beveridge envisaged. That is now changing.
Increasing numbers of faith groups across the country are getting involved in social action projects and as they have done so one particularly striking theme has emerged. What might have started off as a project meeting a particular need becomes a shared enterprise where church and community groups work with and not just for the people in need. Those who give find that they receive, whilst recipients discover that they have something to give as well.
I am sure that there are many such examples locally, but one that springs to mind is the Link scheme whereby volunteer drivers provide lifts for people to various appointments. This is one of those happy instances when it appears that everyone benefits from the interaction and relationships that develop.
This suggests that the most effective pieces of social action can go further than eradicating five great evils, but can offer ‘goods’ as well. It has been suggested that the five goods are Relationships, Creativity, Partnership, Compassion and Joy. Next time we are involved with some voluntary work, it might be worth looking at what we are doing, not just in terms of the problems we might be fixing, but also in terms of the flourishing that can flow from it.