How generous are we now, as times get harder? The British Social Attitudes Survey, published last month, suggests that our attitudes towards the unemployed and the retired are becoming less generous; those out of work are generally viewed as not deserving of welfare. In 2011 almost two thirds of Britons thought that unemployment benefits discourage work, and just over half the population thinks that if benefits were less generous people would become more self-reliant. The latest survey also shows a continuing decline for public spending on all types of benefits; only 28% of the population thinks the government should spend more on welfare benefits.
The gag on generosity in hard times is not inevitable; during the recession of the early 1990s only one third of Britons thought that unemployment benefits discourage work. Unemployment now stands at 8.1% (2.57 million people); this is its highest level since 1996. So why are we not feeling sympathetic? Perhaps we are influenced by the stance of the Coalition government; its Welfare Reform Act, passed into law in March 2012, aims to reduce levels of welfare spending and to incentivise employment for those able to work. Yet from 1997 to 2012 the Labour government also toughened its attitude to welfare spending; those voters who trusted the party’s standpoint appear to have followed its lead. The view that for the unemployed money is not the answer, or not the only answer, has become powerful and pervasive.
Yet the latest Social Attitudes Survey shows there is one new trend towards more generosity; there has been a five percentage point increase (from around 30 to 35 percent) in those who recommend higher spending on public services such as education and health, even if this means increased taxation. So, although handouts to the ‘down and out’ are unpopular, we are still willing to support education, which is an invaluable benefit in kind for all young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. If the aim is to increase social mobility education that raises aspirations and opens up opportunities is vital. The latest survey shows that more than half the population want spending on education to remain at its current level; should more of us join the 35 percent who want more investment in this area?
The current trends in giving to the charitable sector are also, in the main, encouraging; this year charitable giving has remained just as strong, despite the recession. The majority of the population (58 percent) give to charity, and 11 billion pounds were given in total last year. Yet within the charitable sector there appears to be a trend away from ‘altruistic’ giving that expects nothing in return. More and more people see charitable giving in terms of a market system; rather than being ‘donors’ we want to be ‘investors’, with a social or financial return on our money. We are increasingly willing to shop ethically and buy products that create a ‘fairer’ market system. With a tax and regulatory framework that encourage giving it is not surprising that people further up the income scale give more in absolute terms. Larger donations are important; eight percent of donors give £100 or more a year, which equals more than £5 billion a year, almost half of total giving. In 2009/10 80 major gifts from individual philanthropists were worth an additional £872 million; a considerable sum of money, true, but not, it might be felt, from an impressively large number of donors.
The traditional view that philanthropy is for hand outs, or that it should support those the state is not supporting, is no longer prevalent. There is widespread antipathy within the charitable sector about simply giving money to poor people. In addition, only a small number of charities advocate the interests of disadvantaged groups. In considering how social inclusion and mobility might be increased, it is, however, encouraging that giving money to children is the third most popular charitable cause (receiving 11 percent of the total amount), and has the third highest number of donors (24 percent). Medical research and hospitals still come out as being more popular with donors, yet the welfare of our young people is seen as akin to matters of life and death. Children’s charities do not replace the work of the state, but play distinctive roles; sometimes providing services under contract to the state, sometimes campaigning for change, or undertaking independent policy analysis and research. This makes for a measure of political controversy; those on both the left and right have sometimes claimed that giving to charity is pernicious, but is it not false to distinguish between government spending and charitable giving?
It is interesting that both welfare and charitable giving are generally thought of, and measured in, monetary terms, but it does not have to be so; the giving of time is vital, and can have the power to change the lives. Welfare ameliorates the pain of poverty, but how much of a role does it play in empowering people to work their way out of poverty? How is it possible to give children from poorer backgrounds aspirations which are higher than those of their parents? Is money the only answer? Arguably young people need not just money but mentors who invest their time and hopes for the benefits of others. Charities such as churches and youth groups have a role, generally unacknowledged, in raising aspirations, simply by providing occasions for young and old to spend time together; when a diverse group of people meet at places of religious worship barriers are broken down and the sense of a common good becomes more real. ‘One nation’ is a slogan much used by politicians, but it is our religious leaders who make it a reality each week in our churches. Although only one in seven Britons say that they worship each week, monetary giving to religious organisations remains strong; while 17 percent of the total amount given to charities goes to medical research, religious organisations come in next, receiving 16 percent to the total. Congregations are getting smaller yet support for Churches remains strong and their role in our civil society is more important than ever.
Despite these hard times, time out, and time with others, particularly with young people, remains a valuable investment in the future.