The How of Welfare

The other week I went to a Faith and Public Policy seminar by Nick Spencer called ‘The Why of Welfare.’ Having listened and thought about it, I don’t think it was about the why of welfare – the assumption being, actually, that human welfare matters and should be considered in any society – but about how we ensure welfare.

It felt, to me, like it builds on some of the various things I listened to over the summer which resulted in my ‘Starter for Ten’ piece, in which I picked out a couple of initial questions:

  • “Does the church, by stepping in to run community projects and by actively promoting local churches to take them up, let the state of the hook for the social care of its citizens?”
  • “Does the government, by acknowledging and promoting the missional role of the church in the community, take advantage of it, and roll back the State without a proper discussion of what we think the state should do?”

And then one third question – which is very directly connected to what Nick Spencer was talking about in the seminar:

  • Do you think that the State should be responsible for social care, and if so how? Should it be directly responsible, or should it enable other bodies to be able to be responsible for social care in a number of ways – and regulate them?

So, a quick overview. Spencer’s position was that, if the basic definition of welfare is fundamental human mutual responsibility, then yes, that is and ought to be a Christian position – the question isn’t ‘if’ or ‘why’, it’s ‘how’. Since the Christian concept of God and the good is irreducibly relational – humans made for God and one another, then for this particular bunch, the debate becomes about the understandings of roles and responsibilities in participating in, supporting, creating, etc, that mutuality. And the position you take in that debate, for him, should not be a shibboleth (for a definition of shibboleth, watch this clip – see, you can explain everything with West Wing) – because disagreement is pretty much inevitable as we each journey from reading scripture, through personal experience and context, to the development of political positions and ultimately policy details.

As he said, Christian thought and activity has always been contextual, and should always be, because it has always been incarnational – from the moment Christ was born in a particular time and place – and as everyone’s experience of the world and of God in their world is different, they will end up in slightly different positions on how things should happen in practice, even where they subscribe to the same fundamental tenets and worship the same God. And the further you move towards what I would affectionately call ‘wonkery’ – i.e. the details of how you’re going to do what you’re proposing to do for the common good, the more stretched the connections become as you interpret scripture, and the more important goodwill towards motivations and grace in disagreement becomes to Christian unity.

He made one suggestion, with a caveat, (and I paraphrase):

  • The role of government and the state is to deliver common infrastructure to enable people to build and secure right relationships through and contribute to their society through God-given creativity and productivity. One aspect of this is ensuring the provision of a basic level of welfare (e.g. housing, education, health), while acknowledging a personal responsibility to make the most of and build on those basics.
  • But securing and ensuring provision does not necessarily mean the state providing them directly: it might be the government ensuring them through private or third sector bodies. We often gravitate towards state provision, because we have got used, historically, to the idea that the state can, will and should do these things. We need to question that tendency, to think better about how we do welfare.

This caveat was the thing that challenged me most, given that I come from a faith perspective that thinks that social justice is something that’s important to Christianity, and a political perspective that’s generally positive about big government and the state. I don’t often challenge that pair of assumptions, and that makes me snippy about people who come from alternate perspective.

But actually, when thinking about positions people take in the debate over what welfare is, and who provides it, if we often check on the underlying assumptions – political, sociological, theological – beneath them, we leave the debate at the mercy of rhetoric and political point scoring, with those who use the keywords best winning out. It’s shallower and simpler, and means we don’t get to the root of the problem, but it does make it a whole lot harder for people to disagree with us or become alienated from us (and therefore to not vote for us – with money, time, support, actual votes in an election, and so on)…

So what was helpful in what he said – given that he sought to proscribe nothing or prescribe nothing, but only to provoke thought. Well, for me, these things gave me something to chew on:

  • The good society is where everyone contributes to and thinks of the Common Good: prosperity is not our lodestar, relationships are. This idea exists across denominations, even if differently expressed, from conservative evangelicalism to Catholic social thought – and, indeed, beyond Christianity. Hanging on to this will – hopefully – help us retain goodwill and grace towards each other while disagreeing.
  • Two Kingdoms: it has been argued that God rules in the world through a legal kingdom and a spiritual kingdom (government and the church, essentially). Spencer would argue that the the division is too simplistic, but that the idea of the spectrum from one extreme to the other is helpful in terms of thinking about how we do things – and in recognising that something like ‘welfare’ tends to fall into the liminal zone between the two. Even if you don’t believe in God, there’s a strong probability that you’re working along a spectrum of ‘public’ to ‘private’ responsibility or ‘statist’ to ‘libertarian’, where ethics will mesh with politics. I prefer to think of it as a fuzzy-bordered Venn diagram – where our opinions are all hanging out in different parts of the same space.
  • Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, and its exploration of different kinds of ‘gift’ in different relationship – exchange (the market); duty (the state); generosity (civil society) – as a helpful way of thinking about how we do welfare. Things to add to the reading list…
  • It’s worth being wary of and critiquing rhetoric around the idea of community – community is people, and if people don’t do things, things don’t get done. If we want things to happen in communities, we need to strengthen institutions or hubs, in order to enable and encourage people to be community (this, probably, has been the big failing of the Big Society idea lives, and the crack down which stuff that the government wants to shift from State to Not-State is falling).
  • Government is essentially coercive, and sets boundaries. It is, in general, a blunt instrument. It can proscribe behaviour and police boundaries, but it is not great at managing the centre with nuance in a way that allows for specific context. And do we really want it prescribing the way we do right relationships, universally? Given that one of the themes I hear most, in the stories of the people who come to my church’s Foodbank, is about the pain that the blunt, one-size-fits-all-ness of the current benefits and welfare set up, can cause as rigidly applied across the board without nuancing or relating to context.

These last two pair off, I think, and the art to finding a possible solution on welfare is going to be the art of negotiating between the possible providers of it (be it state, market, community, aliens… Ok, probably not aliens) with all their strengths and weaknesses to create something that can flex in according to the situation, to meet the needs of people in a humane way. So, your challenge for 2014…

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