Apparently, the proverb ‘charity begins at home’, albeit in a slightly different form, was first recorded in the 14th century. The imperative is to care for one’s own family before all others, which is both understandable and uncharitable at the same time. The satirist and playwright, John Marston, wrote, ‘Let your own longings first be satisfied, All other pitty is but follish pryde”. It kind of illustrates the dichotomy of the proverb and also the basic social principle on which our society’s view of all things charitable rests. Margaret Thatcher was not the only politician to pick up on the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude of this approach. In 2010 the then coalition government used the declared period of austerity to cut back on government funding as support for charity, while at the same time trying to encourage the many charities then in existence to take on more social care issues themselves. Charities generally focus on issues including social services, housing, education, human rights, communities, health and medicine, and conservation and the environment. Obviously, if people already strapped for cash are willing to stump up money for charities to take on this work then why should the government do it?
In Britain there are 168,000 registered charities. It is estimated that in 2016/17 they contributed approximately £17.1 billion to the UK economy and employed some 870,000 paid workers. They are also supported by an army of volunteers as well. Indeed, charity in Britain has become something of a big business. A chief executive of a large charity can expect a salary of £200,000 a year. Charities can, quite legally, claim that all the money they raise goes to the cause they represent. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations says that it is understood that every charity must spend a small proportion of their budget on governance to ensure that it being run legally, and also on necessary administrative and support costs. What constitutes a ‘small proportion’ is not defined, however. Ten of the UK’s largest charities were found to include £225 million in governance and support costs in a collective charitable spending budget of £3.9 billion.
Henning Wehn said ‘We don’t do charity in Germany, we pay taxes. Charity is a failure of government’s responsibilities’. I tend to agree. In response to this comment, Kimberley Ferguson wrote in Charity Comms, a membership network for professionals working in UK charities, ‘Putting the accuracy of this statement aside, it is widely recognised that in the UK, charities support the most vulnerable who would have otherwise fallen through the gaps’, and there is the rub; society has always allowed these gaps to exist for the vulnerable to fall through. In ancient Rome a Patrician’s standing was reflected in how many poor plebians he gave charity to.
The vulnerable are only of interest to any government when there are some political points to be made by using them. They are an amorphous, vague, and uncountable part of the general population. You will frequently hear a politician refer to the vulnerable, or more likely, the most vulnerable, without ever defining who they are or where they can be found. They are both useful as political football and yet often seen, and represented, as a drain on social resources at the same time.
The fact is that society chooses for all the social ills that are addressed by charity to exist in the first place. Britain, as a nation, has vast resources at its disposal. This has been demonstrated in no uncertain terms this year with the government’s response to the pandemic crisis. Remember, in 2017 when a patronising Theresa May, then Prime Minister, told nurses that they could not expect a pay rise in line with living costs because ‘there is no magic money tree’? Curiously, she found £1billion to pay the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to prop up her minority government. Boris Johnson has apparently found more of the fabled money trees since. There must be an allotment full of them at the rear of number 11 Downing Street! The point really is not about how much money there is but how it is spent. Poverty, homelessness, unemployment, care for the elderly, care for the disabled, care for military veterans, etc., all of this is within the ability of society to achieve if it wants to; it chooses not to. I am not saying that this is a conscious choice, although I believe it is by many, but rather the result of general apathy. People only seem to be interested in a social issue when it impacts upon them. The ‘I’m alright, Jack’ attitude rules until then. However, when an individual finds that they need a degree of support the reality of the situation that they have long chosen to ignore quickly becomes apparent.
Governments represent the societies that elect them, a basic principle of democracy. For as long as civilisation has existed successive societies have found reasons not to spend money on certain issues, poverty for example. Indeed, in societies characterised by a social hierarchy based on wealth there is an obvious and logical need for a poor class to exist. In Britain it does not matter what the Christian religion might have to say on the subject. Recently, Theresa May, a declared Christian, voted against the plan to extend free school meals to poor children. The government won the vote, but recently performed another u-turn on the subject. The point is, it is the elected government of the day that allows the gaps to appear through which the vulnerable fall. To paraphrase Francois Rabelais, nature abhors a void, and into this gap steps charity. Where government chooses not to act in order to alleviate suffering charity takes up the slack, and politicians are only too happy to allow that situation to continue. Why not? They get to spend public money on other more important things, like pay rises for themselves and personal allowances that would drive your average benefit claimant to levels of envy, while the citizens get to feel good about themselves by supporting the charity of their choice, all the while ignoring the cause of the issue that they deceive themselves into thinking that they are alleviating.
And charity has become big business in the process, another reason why governments love it!