“Charity is a cold, grey, loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at whim.” Clement Attlee wrote that in 1920. As British prime minister after World War Two, Attlee turned thought into policy. The welfare state that he helped create has decimated private charities for the poor.
It’s much the same in all rich countries. Governments now take the prime responsibility for the care of the poor. Even in the United States, where the charitable (voluntary) sector is relatively large – twice as high a share of GDP as in the UK, according to the charity Philanthropy UK – the share of GDP taken by federal and state welfare programmes, as measured by the OECD, is 10 times higher.
But Attlee’s judgment has been proved wrong. If organised charity was cold, the carefully calibrated payments and entitlements of the welfare state are icy. The welfare state has many aspects but in terms of the alleviation of misery it has not worked as intended. The decline of hunger and voluntary homelessness – and the spread of electricity, telephones and the like – might suggest otherwise. But the increase in overall prosperity and the establishment of the principle of a “living wage”, rather than the mechanisms of government entitlements, have wrought these changes.
In any case, Attlee and his allies thought the welfare state could do much more than merely keep wolves from doors. They thought it could destroy what Oscar Lewis would later call the “culture of poverty”. The anthropologist talked of “a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging”.
But while the decline of proletariat and peasantry has reduced the proportion of the population of rich countries who live in that culture of poverty, the welfare state has tended to increase both the marginality and the dependency of those who do. They live in their own world, dependent on the government programmes and rewarded for irresponsibility.