In a country where abuse of the system matters more than the system itself, giving without conditions is a revolutionary act
In India’s caste system, there is a class of people known as the Dalits. There are 165 million of them – around 1/6th of the total population. Dalits are not actually a caste; they’re a group so low in social standing that they don’t even merit official inclusion. The name means ‘broken people’, but they’ve historically been known to the outside world as ‘untouchables’. They are considered too filthy to be integrated into ordinary society. They don’t have jobs. They rummage through garbage heaps for scraps of metal or food. They sleep rough on the streets or in makeshift shelters.
A school of untouchables near Bangalore, by Lady Ottoline Morrell
When I was a kid, I believed I lived in a country where that could never happen. Of course, I thought the UK had its problems. We certainly had no shortage of self-consciousness about class. I grew up the son of a church minister, a job seen as comfortably middle class for no apparent reason, but certainly not for reasons of income. But I went to a private prep school, and to church, with children whose lives and houses did match that description – well-off, you might say; or, to put it another way, rich. In my dormitory town surroundings in West Sussex, I watched men in suits get on the train to London, flowing, like well-dressed automatons to the ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’.
The closest I came to poverty back then were the whispers about “Bentswood” – the estate a few hundred yards from my family’s church. The impression I had as a small child of this small council estate, now mostly privately owned after Right To Buy, was hellish. I vividly imagined bawling toddlers, vicious fathers and mothers smoking and drinking away the child benefit, and teenagers high or getting into knife fights. I based this solely on having seen one woman come out of her house in her dressing gown and slippers to pick up a newspaper, and on the fact that at Christmas, the estate was lit up with what I considered incredibly tasteless, garish tableaux that had little to do with the Nativity as I understood it.
In my church, there were people who were genuinely different. These were what we then called the ‘handicapped’; people with often quite serious mental health issues, and some who had physical disabilities as well. I knew they came from a special home and that they had people dedicated to looking after them. I knew how uncomfortable they made other people when they said strange things during the service. And I knew how uncomfortable they made me when they came near me and asked me questions smelling, as they often did, faintly or strongly of urine, and rarely willing to accept or able to understand my answers. Most of all I knew how uncomfortable it was when one of them, a middle-aged woman, kept coming to our house and monopolising my mother’s time and energy, frequently crying and sometimes shouting.
But these people weren’t ‘untouchables’. To the contrary, I saw people welcome and love them despite their discomfort. They were part of community life, in many ways more associated with the way things worked and the life of the church than many of the comfortable families that surrounded them. In short, they were shown compassion, love and warmth, and they could carry themselves with dignity. In some cases, it was possible to see them grow into completely different people: people who had more humanity, intelligence and empathy than the average ‘ordinary’ person. And because they often spoke with less of the repressed, self-conscious, buttoned-up fear I’d come to associate with the English middle class, what they had to say often resonated far more deeply.
The lesson I learned from observing those people was simple. They were given love and, yes, charity, without strings attached, and it transformed their lives for the better. I don’t know if they knew nothing was expected in return, but I know they responded anyway. Their problems weren’t gone overnight, but their lives, and ours, were enriched many times over. I believed that anything could be overcome in the same way, and that the benefit of this approach would be obvious to anyone.
Then, at 12, I moved to Brazil with my family and my eyes were opened to what poverty and hardship could be. Suddenly, all around me was evidence of a problem that was too big for a church or a community to fix. And these people weren’t mentally ill or disabled; many of them were healthy working age adults, especially men, who stood on street corners or gazed menacingly at passers-by.
For the first time, I felt the threat of poverty. I felt the tension that comes when you live in a society where there really are haves and have-nots, and where the gap’s too evident, and too wide, to ignore. For the first time, I was a rich kid, and though I lived in a rich neighbourhood, and even a rich state, I lived in a poor country.
The sign reads, “We want a cure for hunger”. Recife, June 2013. Photo by Sebastian Freire
I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to realise that this problem could only be fixed by people with far more power and money than the richest families at my church. And I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to realise that the problem had been created by those same people. That good government could change people’s lives, but so could bad government; and that every decision a government makes – even one that only oversees a small dormitory town in West Sussex – carries weight, because it carries the lives of others in its grip.
The Iraq war turned me on to politics in earnest. I marched against the war, and watched brave, clever Robin Cook resign from the government to applause, and to no purpose. I joined the Liberal Democrats for the first time, having heard Charles Kennedy speak out equally bravely, and demand a higher standard of proof before we sent people to kill, and to die.
A couple of years later, I went to university in London. The 7/7 attack happened just before I enrolled for my first year. Overnight, the city I most associated with unrivalled enjoyment of all that’s best about humanity became a place where I sometimes looked over my shoulder. This was somewhere an innocent Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, could be mistakenly shot multiple times by armed police who believed he was the Asian terrorist they were after. In my half-Indian skin, dark after a summer spent largely outside, I was wary about getting on the tube.
These two events, and their political consequences, may have been when I first noticed it. We no longer had a government that was generous, or patient. It was instead willing to ignore what had gone before for the sake of expediency or some intangible sense of security. The language used about citizens became almost imperceptibly harsher. And meanwhile, the Conservative Party was in the doldrums, increasingly far from power, or so it seemed; embracing unthinking nationalism over the euro, and preaching hate against immigrants and criminals. No, Michael Howard: I’m not thinking what you’re thinking.
The Tories were in such a mess for so long. I could barely remember what it had been like before Blair’s enormous majority in 1997. And although so much had changed in the world after 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain still seemed like a country at ease with itself, that generally looked after its poor, and that was trying to make things better for its people. Maybe things couldn’t only get better, but in the UK at least, they didn’t seem likely to be getting worse any time soon.
But then luckless, clumping Gordon Brown finally rose to the position he’d dreamt of. And barely a year later we had a financial crisis that threw the country into disarray. It’s easy to forget that only ten years ago, we had a proper bank run in the UK. And after a decade of easy living, tightening belts was suddenly very much de rigeur. ‘Austerity’ was the new watchword, and having spent years trying to outdo each other in generosity (we should never forget George Osborne promised to match Labour’s spending plans), they now began to compete on meanness.
Bank run at Northern Rock, 2007 (Photo: Lee Jordan)
Brown’s ascent was always marked with tragedy. He displayed a craven willingness to appease the worst kinds of political pressure. His first speech to a Labour conference as leader, much like Theresa May’s almost a decade later, betrayed him as a figure who would be more politically opportunistic and amoral than anyone had expected. It’s almost entirely forgotten that it was during that speech that he first promised to create ‘British jobs for British workers‘. He continued to stand by the use of the slogan, more typically associated with the National Front and the British National Party, despite criticism from his own MPs and even from David Cameron, who was then positioning the Conservatives as a modern, internationalist party.
Then, during the election campaign of 2010, Brown had his infamous run-in with Gillian Duffy. This was a cataclysmic error not because of what he said, but because of the circumstances in which he said it. Politically, he had no option but to renege on his comments, even though they were accurate. Duffy was a bigoted woman. But her views had been given oxygen by Brown himself.
Brown as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister had also contributed to a change in the way we thought about benefits. The thrust of Blair and Brown’s many changes to benefits policy, and especially the introduction of their flagship tax credits was to switch spending from traditional forms of social security payment to conditional (and very complex) programming that provided incentives to take work and then increase the number of hours in employment.
While this had some positive effects, particularly while the economy was growing, it had the effect of removing redistribution from the political arena, or at least obscuring the true intentions of Brown and the Labour government (which, in this area, to my mind at least, were honourable).
Since the turn of the tide in 2010, and the rise of the Conservatives to power, things have got far worse. Despite the restraining hand of the Liberal Democrats for the first five years, the damage was already done when meanness (or ‘austerity’) became the key metric for political competence. And the impact of this is clearly visible.
Walking around London now is a very different experience to what it was ten, five, or even two years ago. In the centre of town, around Victoria or Covent Garden, you can count dozens of people sleeping rough. London looks increasingly similar to cities in the US, rather than to its counterparts in Europe. And from what I hear, other major UK cities like Manchester and Birmingham have seen far greater rises in homelessness. The official statistics from local authorities bear this out (although they also look incredibly conservative).
That environment is what originally sparked my desire to write this. An article by Matt Broomfield in the New Statesman, arguing for giving money ‘directly and unconditionally‘ to homeless people, has been doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter.
Just before Broomfield’s article appeared, I attended a Tech Solidarity event in San Francisco where a rapt audience of tech employees heard from Jennifer Friedenbach, the director of the Coalition on Homelessness. The non-profit org runs on $270,000 a year, employing 9 staff on a flat wage of $16 an hour (including Jennifer herself); roughly about the same as a single software engineer’s annual salary.
Friedenbach outlined a situation in which one of the wealthiest cities in the world has somehow contrived to produce one of the worst housing environments. The homeless people in San Francisco, she said, had had no difference in terms of ability, health, or other social metrics from the housed; the only difference was whether people received housing subsidies or not. But after a few months on the streets, homeless people displayed a decline in health equivalent to ageing as much as 25 years. Most damningly, she said, the cost of providing healthcare to the homeless in SF now outweighed the likely cost of housing them.
This is where we are, in rich Western democracies: so obsessed with conditionality, with testing whether people ‘deserve’ good treatment, that we impoverish them and ourselves in the service of… what? Accuracy? Efficiency?
The impact of this can be felt in all sorts of ways in the philanthropic world, too, which is obsessed with metrics and benchmarks to demonstrate ‘impact’, and loses out on huge opportunities as a consequence of the bureaucracy that this requires. (I’ll write more on this another time. This fear of failure is definitely not holding back the right wing foundations, which will gleefully throw money at and take risks on projects that share their values, regardless of whether they have their paperwork, monitoring and evaluation and theory of change exactly right.)
All of which brings me, finally, back to Bloomfield’s article, and to the point. How do we begin to solve this? The problem of homelessness is just one indicator for a wider set of political principles that, I propose, most people do not share, but have somehow become an essential measure of successful public policy. Whether a system is abused seems more important to today’s politicians and media than whether the system is achieving the outcomes we want as a society.
As individual citizens, we can of course vote for parties we think will change that. But in the meantime, in the vast majority of years, when we’re not voting at major elections, we should aim to model the values we want to see. I don’t want to live in a country that values meanness over kindness. I want to live in a society that is liberal and generous, and so giving money without conditions (not just to homeless people but also to worthwhile charities, or even extra tax) seems a great way to do that.
Every individual act of kindness is a statement of rebellion against the meanness of the state. Giving without conditions is a revolutionary act.