More charity, less bureaucracy

March 21, 2012

“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.

I have heard the children in a welfare-dependent family talk about “getting paid”, as if their mother’s indolence were a sort of job. That family, like so many in the system of poverty-relief, had no father. The rise of such single-parent families cannot be attributed entirely to the availability of welfare, but such payments make antisocial behaviour that much easier.

Attlee accused charity of being loveless, but the recipient of government money experiences a profound alienation amid the welfare state’s bureaucratic structures. Care professionals have forms to fill, quotas to meet and regulations to obey. However good their intentions, they cannot avoid treating their clients as administrative ciphers. The two sides are not tied by charity, but separated by a cold wall of impersonality.

For society, the result is disastrous. Too many children of welfare families end up as welfare-dependent adults, or in prison. Too many people on benefits cannot emerge from semi-permanent unemployment, or from substance abuse.

It’s time to give voluntary help, the free spirit of charity, a new chance. If the state would withdraw, there would be fewer rules; more opportunities to develop personal relationships with the needy; and more space for organisations motivated by a higher calling, be it religious or philanthropic.

It won’t be easy to reduce the government’s role in what has been an age of expansion. But the collapse of state economic control after the fall of Communism can serve as a helpful precedent. The trauma and corruption of that transition need not be repeated. What is required is a slow and carefully planned privatisation of anti-poverty programmes.

The first step would be to make the various government agencies more like state-funded not-for-profit companies. A new legal and administrative status would make a full separation from the government easier.

A gradual withdrawal would follow. Donations would replace taxation over a decade or so. People would be generous; they would be paying less in taxes and could be persuaded that their gifts would help those in need. That is a much more attractive prospect than feeding a bureaucratic system. On the allocation side, the rules could be loosened in proportion with the advent of private funding. Competition should also play a role. As the state’s flow of money dwindled, outsiders might well take over from the former state agencies.

In the end, charitable arrangements might offer less money and less certainty than the State’s blanket coverage. But that would not necessarily be a bad thing. The culture of poverty will be less appealing if it is less comfortable. And while a modestly funded culture of charity will not be able to afford the carefully calibrated assistance of Attlee’s dreams, it can offer the poor more of what they really need: the burning fire of charity. And charity, after all, is another word for love.


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When all is said and done, there is no love here.

Those who can “make their way” in the world do not love those who they must support in the long term. You cannoy love those you do not respect.

Those who are supported in the long term do not love those who are successful. To the contrary, they hate them in the abstract because they cannot hate themselves.

The whole idea of “single parent families” is antisocial. It cheats the children, the parent and society itself. It fosters a society in which the only social acceptance for dysfunctional individuals is among those they personally bring into the world.

It creates an incentive for females to “trap” a male with pregnancy for financial gain and exploitation and then sit home and mentally stagnate. It cheapens male-female relationships by increasingly rendering them temporary or so unsatisfactory that they can not and do not survive.

Without common respect, goals, effort and dedication, is no “family”. Without common respect, goals, effort and dedication, there can be no individual or national “success”. That which is necessary to nurture our society as a whole is disappearing faster than we, as a society, can perceive and preserve it.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Edward Hadas, you are a genius. Your logic and reason are like a breath of fresh air. It reminds me of a picture of a plaque I saw in a state park, which read something along the lines of: “Please do not feed the animals, because it creates a dependency and they will starve waiting for food.” We create a crutch for the poor, an everlasting crutch which only cripples them. For me, being forced at gunpoint to give to charity (welfare) does not make me feel all warm and fuzzy like donating to a charity would. I still work for Habitat for Humanity and volunteer at local schools frequently, but under my own free will. I feel this silent war against the lower class has to stop; the first step being ending the war on drugs, the second being the end of welfare.

Posted by NorthernLight | Report as abusive

Surely, if a rich man wants to help the poor, his first course should pay his taxes gladly.

As Edward Hadas correctly points out, the most effective help for the poor is to try to ensure that there are jobs for everyone.

On the other hand, it is accepted that some aspects of the welfare state are not helpful in the long term, and that is why Work for the Dole was introduced by the Howard government in Australia.

Posted by GrahamLovell | Report as abusive

As if private charity has no bureaucracy. To the contrary, their bureaucrats pay themselves much better than the state employed ones. Lots of charities spend most of their money on themselves. I give money to beggars, homeless, etc, on the street. Never to charities!

Posted by nossnevs | Report as abusive

I personally know quite a few people that could work but don’t want to jeopardize their Social Security disability payments. You can only earn so much before you lose the check so they work under the table or quit before they hit the annual maximum allowed. I think SSDI is the biggest scam opportunity out there. All you have to do is get a doctor to say you can’t work. This is really easy to do, then you also get free medicines (drugs) that you can sell for extra income. The array of illnesses that qualify you for SSDI includes mental health – easily faked. One lady I know gets $1800 per month because she used to have a good job. She got convicted of stalking a co-worker, claimed mental illness, went into a mental hospital, and now gets paid by the government to stay home. She is now addicted to Klonapene (?) that she gets from the doctor that diagnosed her. He also has a profit motive.

Posted by Caardvaark | Report as abusive

IMO charity is no busyness of State (but only above most basic things, incidentally basic healthcare is one of these). But at same time arrogancy of ultra-rich is offputting.

Problem is that after several decades of relative prosperity world do once again slide to previous state of inequality. And you can see in numerous articles and interviews that number of modern “aristocracy” simply despise people not of their status. At same time capability to produce new small busynesses and moderate-salary jobs is eroded due to states bowing to these “aristocracy”‘s “efficiency”. So there’s two ways (inside paradigm of capitalism of course) – first is “level the field” for busynesses once again, which is definitely not the way goverments act (“too big to fail” anyone?) or tax the rich to support “unnecessary” people.
And, on gripping hand, there’s one (English? Double translated) proverb – “You’ve bankrupt? Time to lead a charity”

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Nossnevs, I believe Edward is saying it should be your choice if you don’t want to give money to charities. It’s nice that you have the choice, and you that you choose to give the money directly to the poor. With the government hands in it, there is no choice.

Posted by NorthernLight | Report as abusive

Wonderful! When I grow up, I want to be a Republican so I can get rich and spit on poor people.

Posted by urownexperience | Report as abusive

Mr. Hadas, your points are well taken. The current system of government “charities” is a repressive enterprise encouraging people to make extremely poor choices (single motherhood etc). The government traps these people in a subsistence living, depending on a government subsistence check, barely adequate for those who are truly not capable of gainful work. The large percentage of people dependent on government checks who are capable of gainful employ are discouraged by the loss of benefits that would occur should they actually get a job, and so are limited to black market employ such as drug running and prostitution, and thus they get caught in a life they can’t get out of, and are easily manipulated by our politicians to vote in a block for any increase in the benefits they recieve

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

Edward Hadas is onto something. I’ve referred to this as “the Christmas ethic” – its more blessed to give than to receive. It takes some “spiritual intelligence” to be captured by such an appreciation for doing into others…. The governments efforts to help might also be viewed as symptomatic of our collective lack of a more elevated spiritual intelligence. Let’s mature and give of our labor and abundance to the less fortunate among us, as an act of karmic compassion and wisdom.

Posted by DrAda | Report as abusive

This is easily one of the most misleading and factually deficient articles I have ever seen.

It starts in the first paragraph with the assertion that “The welfare state that he helped create has decimated private charities for the poor.” On what data is this assertion, stated as though it were fact, based? Even if you were to present data that demonstrated a negative correlation between government welfare spending and voluntary charitable donations wouldn’t a more rational explanation be that less charity is actually necessary in those states whose governments provide for the needs of their people? Another, perhaps more accurate way of stating this would be: Increased government support for the poor has reduced the need for private charities.

You state that “the share of GDP taken by federal and state welfare programmes, as measured by the OECD, is 10 times higher.” In 2006 (according to your OECD reference) public spending on social services in the US represented just under 16% of GDP and, according to Philanthropy UK, charitable giving in the US was 2.2% of GDP that year. By what math is 16% 10 times 2.2%? According to my calculations 16% is much closer to 7 times 2.2% than 10 times. Is this how you manage all of your data? This statement also includes what is probably the most misleading of your claims, what you refer to as
“federal and state welfare programmes” as measured by the OECD includes items such as public pensions, veterans benefits, medicare, unemployment insurance and social security. These items actually constitute the vast majority of those expenditures and none of them would be considered welfare by any reasonable person. Do you consider a veteran collecting their pension to be on welfare? I surely don’t, I think they earned every penny of it.

I imagine that you realize that comparing these things you term “the charitable (voluntary) sector” and “federal and state welfare programmes” is entirely meaningless. I do not say this lightly because it deems you dishonest rather than merely incompetent, a far greater insult, but I see no other option. When you make an attempt to compare money the government spends primarily on pensions and health insurance to charitable donations that go primarily to churches and education (a combined 49% of charitable giving in 2010) you really do leave yourself open to the criticism. Just how much of the money donated to churches and educational institutions goes to support people below the poverty line is anyone’s guess. Maybe this is how you prefer your charitable donations to be spent? Just 25% of charitable giving in the US goes to human services, health and public society benefit according to the Foundation Center and Giving USA. How much of that 25% is spent in the US is also anyone’s guess. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which accounts for a significant portion of the $23B given to health causes in 2010, likely spent most of it’s money outside the US. Essentially all government social spending is spent within the US. These two items just really have nothing to do with each other and I think you realize that. But it obviously suits your ideological purpose to compare them.

You claim that “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.” Clever wordsmithing to avoid saying anything meaningful or measurable, but what does real data show? If you look at the 33 countries monitored by the OECD and perform correlations for a variety of measures of equality and well being with government social spending you’ll see quite a different picture than the one you paint. Here are some examples:

Government Social Spending to CIA Gini: -0.5
Nations who spend more on social programs have lower inequality.

Government Social Spending to Poverty: -0.6
Nations who spend more on social programs have a lower poverty rate.

Government Social Spending to Crime: -0.5
Nations who spend more on social programs have lower crime rates.

Government Social Spending to Old Age Poverty: -0.5
Nations who spend more on social programs have lower old age poverty rates.

These are actual correlations based on data from 33 nations, and while correlation does not imply causation, in light of this data it is absolutely absurd to suggest that decreasing government social spending will somehow improve any of these measures. When the correlations are in such significant, direct opposition to your hypothesis it’s time to rethink your position. As with most ideologists though, I’m sure you’ll be more comfortable developing strained, contorted rationalizations to explain them away.

In addition, if one looks at social spending and poverty in the US over the past 50 years (the period over which poverty data is readily available) one finds the same relationship. The correlation between social spending (minus veterans benefits, medicare and social security, which are not welfare at all) and poverty rates is -0.6 which indicates a rather significant correlation between higher social spending and lower poverty rates. I have a bit of trouble accepting that this correlation has any dependence on “the decline of proletariat and peasantry” in the US over the last 50 years. The data in this case is certainly not on your side.

Ridiculous anecdotal statements like “I have heard the children in a welfare-dependent family talk about “getting paid”, as if their mother’s indolence were a sort of job.” are the bread and butter of ideology snake oil salesmen like yourself. Surely you can do better than this. I’ve heard children talk about the wondrous things Santa Claus brought them for Christmas. Should we suppose that these poor things will grow up to be dependent on a fictional fat old man in a red suit driving a sleigh? They’re children. Rather, your language provides a clue to your assumption that all those who receive government assistance are simply habitually lazy and that their individual situation need not be considered. This from someone who at least appears to claim to be concerned about the poor.

Did you ever stop to think for a moment (I know I’m going out on a limb here) that just perhaps the main reason why “Too many children of welfare families end up as welfare-dependent adults, or in prison.” is much more simply that they were underpriveleged? Perhaps, just perhaps growing up in an urban ghetto with significantly higher rates of crime and drug and alchohol addiction, dismal public schools, few opportunities for meaningful employment, and a single parent who probably doesn’t have a high school education might contribute a bit more to why “children of welfare families end up as welfare-dependent adults, or in prison” than the fact that their mother bought her groceries with a government issued debit card? Your suggestion that these children would grow up to be more productive members of society if their mothers had to wait in line at the local church or food pantry for their groceries is absurd.

Your assertion that “The rise of such single-parent families cannot be attributed entirely to the availability of welfare, but such payments make antisocial behaviour that much easier.” would appear, without the doublespeak, to be translated as welfare is nearly entirely responsible for the rise of single parent families 😉 ;). Once again though, this assertion fails even the most rudimentary factual analysis. There is essentially no correlation between government social spending and single parent families across countries measured by the OECD. What little correlation there is though is negative (-0.2) meaning that, if anything, countires that have higher social spending actually have fewer single parent families, not more as you slyly insinuate.

Besides, one of the primary contributors to single parent families, divorce, is certainly not limited to the poor. One significant difference between the poor and wealthy newly single mothers though is that it is much easier for the wealthy ones to find new husbands (if my neighborhood is any example, much younger, fitter ones with a great deal more hair than their predecessors) when they were left with a $2 million home, the Range Rover and one of the Porsches.

You claim that “What is required is a slow and carefully planned privatisation of anti-poverty programmes.” when, by any reasonable prediction what this would create would be the equivalent of the US health care system, the most privatized and also the most inefficient, expensive system of any developed nation on the planet. That experiment has failed and now you want to subject the poor, who are already suffering as a result, to even more of your ideological “solutions”.

Lastly, your final paragraph is one of the most presumptuous piles of tripe I’ve read in quite some time. I can’t begin to imagine why Reuters publishes this baseless rubbish.

Posted by jtfane | Report as abusive

While the last response comment offers interesting and thought pondering arguments,
it should be pointed out that the responder does not ever mention or refer to the personal responsibility and accountability emphasis that was discussed in the original article.

Other sources and studies show a very direct correlation with government involvement and government financial health. In a utopian world, socialism and communism may actually work to the benefit of all. However, we can all clearly agree that our culture, society, and world is not anything close to a utopia or an ideal world. A government should not exist to provide welfare for not contributing myers of society. Yes, there are many US citizens that are validly in need of assistance. However, there are also many US citizens that abuse the welfare system by taking and not “putting in” to the bucket. Where are the studies and research to show how many welfare recipients are actually capable of working and contributing to society? Are there any reports or audits that give a clear picture of who is trying to work, care and provide for themselves, and ween off welfare? It seems to have become a cultural acceptance that one on welfare stays there indefinitely because of their misfortune. And the system seems to provide no true checks and balances agenda to encourage personal growth and responsiblity.

So, in response to the article and it’s comments following,
I would like to say I agree, I would much rather share my hard earned money with charities of ky choice. Personally, I would choose charities that encourage accountability. I find it illogical to consider giving endlessly to those who refuse to help themselves or a system that supports that type of mentality. I have found that most that are supportive of huge government control, meddling, and free enterprise limitations are one of two types:
1. Those who receive more from the welfare system than they pay in taxes
2. Those who have been given financial comfort and security by family or friends and Dodd not actually contribute long work days, times of limited funded available, and

Sadly, I have little faith in the efficiency of our government. I know not once person that enjoys going to the DMV, county clerk, social security office, or any other government run establishment.
I usually experience long lines, inefficient policies, grouchy mployees that receive wage increases based on pure existence rather than performance.

In short, I don’t trust the American government to redistribute my “charitable giving” in an effecient and effective way. What a wonderful idea- to give the hard working givers a choice on to whom they want to share their hard earned dollars.

Posted by RachelErinS | Report as abusive