Two things over the weekend reminded me of a chapter from Robert Tressell’s “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” called “Facing the ‘Problem’. Both are related to the increasing proliferation of food banks. Firstly, there was a varying reaction to the news that the Trussell Trust had given an emergency food parcel to almost a million people over the last year. The DWP reacted quite angrily, accusing the Trussell Trust of being “publicity-seeking” and that the increase was purely a result of them “aggressively marketing their services”, but David Cameron actually seems quite pleased with the expansion of food banks, saying he wanted them to expand. Secondly, The Mail on Sunday decided to do a hatchet job on food banks in an article entitled “No ID, no checks… and vouchers for sob stories: The truth behind those shock food bank claims”. The article gives the strong impression that most food bank uses are just spinning the food banks a line in order to get free food, and many of them have no urgent need for the food parcels. It quotes Tory MP Brian Binley as saying he had “always been very suspicious” of the level of abuse in some food banks, and that “there are always a lot of dishonest people who will cadge their way into situations”.
In the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (written before the introduction of the welfare state), those who become unemployed either pawn their possessions or rely on credit to survive. The last resort is relying on the ‘charity’ of the capitalist class:
“…district visitors distributed tickets for coal and groceries. Not that that sort of thing made much difference; there was usually a great deal of fuss and advice, many quotations of Scripture, and very little groceries… These ‘charitable’ people went into the wretched homes of the poor and – in effect – said: ‘Abandon every particle of self-respect: cringe and fawn: come to church: bow down and grovel to us, and in return we’ll give you a ticket that you can take to a certain shop and exchange for a shillingworth of groceries. And if you’re very servile and humble we may give you another one next week.
They never gave the ‘case’ the money. The ticket system serves three purposes. It prevents the ‘case’ abusing the ‘charity’ by spending the money on drink. It advertises the benevolence of the donors: and it enables the grocer – who is usually a member of the church – to get rid of any stale or damaged stock he may have on hand.
When the visiting ladies’ went to a workman’s house and found it clean and decently furnished, and the children clean and tidy, they came to the conclusion that those people were not suitable ‘cases’ for assistance. Perhaps the children had had next to nothing to eat, and would have been in rags if the mother had not worked like a slave washing and mending their clothes. But these were not the sort of cases that the visiting ladies assisted; they only gave to those who were in a state of absolute squalor and destitution, and then only on condition that they whined and grovelled.”
The birth of the modern welfare state should have made this a thing of the past, but we are now seeing the safety net being eroded to such an extent that more and more people are relying on the whims of others for emergency food aid. The ‘visiting ladies’ have now been replaced by GP’s, Citizen’s Advice Bureaus and the job centre who are being asked to decide on who is a ‘deserving case’. You need a ticket to go to a food bank, just like in Tressell’s day, and the are already noises from certain Tory MPs about expanding the ‘ticketing’ system to mainstream social security. If people become reliant on charity to survive – charity that can be denied at will – they are no longer free, and those in control of the charity become very powerful indeed.
In the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, work for the protagonists is insecure and poorly paid – not enough to live on, and the spectre of unemployment is never far away. In some respects, we seem to be backsliding to those pre-welfare state days. In a modern, western economy, that should be give Cameron a sense of shame, not the sense of pride he inexplicably seems to feel.