The Poor Law is the stuff of legend. It's what inspired the ire of Charles Dickens, the zeal of well-connected Victorian reformers, and the drive of politicians like Lloyd George.
Yet while the Poor Law is long gone Britain is a place where Poor Law attitudes prevail. Look at the government's triple defeat in the House of Lords this week and that might sound surprising. But then ask yourself why it was necessary and how much it will really achieve.
That's not to denigrate the intelligence and moral compass of many of the noble Lords who decided some of the provisions of the Welfare Reform Bill were a kick in the teeth too far for people who already find life hard enough.
Nor should we underestimate the achievement of everyone behind the Spartacus Report, a demonstration of what can be achieved when ordinary, apparently powerless people choose to work together to make their voices heard.
But let's take a look at the bigger picture. What started with some intelligent and ambitious proposals a few years ago from Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice to create a coherent benefits system has turned into an exercise driven by a desire to save money, as if the measure of our achievement as a society was how little we spend rather than how much we help.
That's the mentality of the Poor Law: not what difference can we make, but how little assistance can we get away with? Check out the speeches of some of the peers in this week's debates, and some of the reactions from government ministers, and you'll see how little has changed. Listen to David Cameron or Ed Miliband most of the time and you'll find a consistent unwillingness to depict benefit claimants as people who have something to offer and not just something to take.
Of course we all know or have read anecdotes of abuse and examples of fraud. But politicians and commentators have taken those examples and foisted on us the untrue and poisonous generalisation that these stories typify the lives and attitudes of those on welfare.
So we allow the Poor Law mentality to take over, and then make exceptions for people who suffer from cancer or particular kinds of disability, as if their circumstances make them unlike other benefit claimants rather than similar to them. And we congratulate ourselves for resisting particularly Draconian measures while failing to challenge the doctrine of 'less eligibility' - that help should be a last resort given to the desperate, and so humiliating that people don't ask unless they really have to. It may no longer be the law, but it's certainly the mood of a substantial section of the public.
The problem with our welfare state is not than it gives people handouts, but that it considers the job done with the handout. It is very poor at enabling people to live in ways that make the most of their circumstances and build their skills and capacity. Yet in places or individual circumstances where there's no immediate and realistic prospect of work, that kind of help is what's needed.
If you talk to people who live in poverty you get a very different view of what life is like. Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have been doing so for half a dozen years using a model called the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach, and have unsurprisingly found that when you have very few material resources in life, things like a home and security and certainty of income, even if the level of income is pitifully low, become hugely important.
People make trade-offs between security and extra income because they know that losing an insecure job or their home could tip them over the edge. Stress and loss of confidence can set off a vicious spiral of mental and physical health problems that reduce the likelihood of bouncing back.
The state doesn't have to be paternalistic or patronising in the way it provides help . The experience of the time banking movement shows how people in difficult life situations can improve their wellbeing through peer to peer networks. It's worked for people with head injuries in Hackney, mental health problems in Catford and in hostels in Cardiff. What's important is to provide the long term support and infrastructure to enable this to happen, rather than fostering an adversarial relationship that assumes claimants are trying to milk the system.
There are some signs that the government is ready to consider such approaches in its attempts to join up support for what it calls the 'most troubled' families. These initiatives are based on the understanding that it's actually better value (including better value for money) to help people manage and make the most of their lives rather than just punishing them when they fail.
The logic of support and making the most of what people have instead of judging them by what they haven't needs to replace the Poor Law mentality that is driving our welfare state into a blind alley of blame and hostility.
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