Welfare reform is the ongoing struggle of Government to provide a rational system of support to those in need. According to Jacob Kellner, a Professor of Social Work at Hebrew University the underlining ethics of welfare are two competing ideas from history: the political model of planning as exemplified through Plato’s ideal state and the humanitarian model which concerns itself with the welfare of the individual which many religious communities adopt and is exemplified in Jewish thought through the writings of Maimonides.
The Platonic political model is one where rational decisions are made by a group of wise people on the basis of knowledge and applied to the collective on the assumption that the family and the individual are both selfish and irrational.. This is in essence what the Government has to do. It is tasked with allocating limited resources to those who have the greatest social need. The problem for successive Governments and for those familiar with the critique of Platonic thought is that planned models are often unsuccessful in predicting the multitude of possible outcomes e.g. changes in the economic situation or demographics can be unpredictable etc.
The humanitarian model as favoured by Maimonides is based on the concept of communal responsibility. An individual is responsible for the other and through acts of loving-kindness (G’mulut Hasidim) is obliged to look after the sick and clothe the naked. It is how this is achieved which differs from the Platonic model. Essentially, the Torah calls for justice to be brought to the stranger, the orphan and the widow or those most in need in society butunusually Maimonides explains poverty is not only seen as a physical deprivation but also a state of mind. His example in the Mishne Torah is if a rich man has no money on his travels and comes to a community then that community should provide for him without asking for repayment when he arrives home or if a man falls on hard times who has a horse and servant then that man should not be deprived of them. The idea is that welfare should be done with dignity and often anonymously. Helping a person maintain their status and dignity will enable them to get back on their feet.
The highest form of charity in Judaism is to help an individual to help him or herself. The Maimonidean concept is based on a responsible society where individuals feel the obligation to give and others want to receive help and better themselves.
This means that those receiving need to value the concept of betterment, work and recognise their responsibility to themselves and others. In our society this would be best dealt with by incentivising work and giving it value. I have met many families who are in the benefit trap: they are in a situation where they will lose out by returning to work rather than receiving benefit. This cannot be right. A more graduated system that rewards work and does not cut benefits for those re-entering the workplace needs to be considered. Secondly, a Government planning on cutting the welfare bill should seriously question policies elsewhere that put people out of work. Jobs rather than salary levels and bonuses should be valued. The planned cuts could see250,000 people out of work and that only adds to the welfare bill and devalues the concept of employment.
A responsible society is also based on there being a sense of community and solidarity towards the other. In small communities, towns and villages, in a pre-industrialised model of society this is easy enough to maintain. In the large nation states and a post-industrialised society this is a harder concept. Solidarity is usually developed out of either concepts ofeither universal humanism or national identities.
The community as a local force can better judge its own needs and is more adept at making those decisions than a department of a large state with over 60 million inhabitants. It is with this in mind that both main political parties have tried to re-emphasis the notion of community in Britain and this is an experiment worth pursuing. Cameron’s Big Society recognises this especially when it comes to the third sector running local services and providing volunteers to do good; Miliband has adopted ‘Blue Labour’ thinking and the concept of the ‘Good Society’ based on mutualism, localism and human relationships, favouring public delivery at alocal level rather than the top-down model.
Iain Duncan-Smith’s reforms seem to be divorced from the localism agenda of both parties. In London’s poorer inner-city neighbourhoods for example where incomes are low but rents are high there is a fear that the new benefits regime will cause entire communities to be moved out from their homes to beyond the Greater London boundaries which is neither dignified nor responsible. New housing caps will hit large poor families the hardest as will the new overall benefit cap for families which does not differentiate adequately between families of one child and those with eight. This will break up communities that have existed for decades and cause the collapse of social structures whether they be ‘big’, ‘good’ or ‘responsible’. This is in part due to local differences and the inability of a national scheme to differentiate between family in different areas of Britain.
The real question is whether the concepts of the political state and of community-based humanitarianism can be brought together. Can a concept of a welfare system be delivered more locally, to meet local needs, maintain communities and promote solidarity? Now, that would require real reform.