Debra Allcock Tyler: Do the vulnerable and needy now have to prove that they're also 'deserving'?

Our columnist laments the insidious advance of paternalist Victorian attitudes to charity

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

Helen Rice, the fabulous chief executive of Blackfriars Advice Centre in south London, was discussing with me how food banks operate. There is usually a voucher system that limits the amount you may take over a period of time, regardless of how much food the bank has available or the extent of your need. This is meant to ensure distribution is fair, but the rules designed to avoid the "cheaters" often punish everyone. Helen says: "If people tell us they're hungry, we should believe 'em and feed 'em!"

And we should house them. A graduate I mentor is finding her internship with a housing association frustrating because in determining what qualifies someone for housing it considers what they have done to prove they deserve to be moved up the list – whether they volunteer, for example. The most vulnerable and needy, however, are the least likely to be functioning at a level where they are able to do things that "prove" they are "worthy".

I'm not naive. Of course it's difficult. In this climate of cuts to welfare, benefits and grants to charities that serve the vulnerable, there is more need than there is provision, so of course tough decisions have to be made. But I worry that the insidious creep of a paternalistic Victorian narrative about charity is forcing some of our colleagues to base support decisions on which of their beneficiaries are "deserving" rather than most in need.

One profound principle of charity is not to judge. Our beneficiaries are real people, who aren't always very nice. But we don't prioritise the drug-using, homeless youth who is chirpy, cheerful and helps around the homeless shelter above the drug-using, homeless youth who is aggressive, withdrawn and apparently ungrateful. Both need food and shelter, and both will have a story. We mustn't decide who gets help on the basis of who appears to deserve it more.

The fear of being cheated forces us to design systems to prevent it. But the problem is that we then, in effect, punish those who don't cheat the system to stop those who do – and who will just find a new way to cheat the system anyway. Tackling benefit fraud (amounting to £3.5bn a year, according to the Department for Work and Pensions) is a top priority, but making sure the "deserving" poor receive £12bn (government figures) in unclaimed benefits is apparently not. I don't understand why the government is ploughing another £308m into new anti-fraud measures when it could spend that on ensuring people get what they need in the first place.

There is a political narrative that has lost touch with positive values or concepts about human beings, such as trust, faith, altruism, hope, giving, respect, forgiveness. We must not let that paradigm infect us.

I don't believe most people are out to fiddle the system; they just want help. So let's design our support systems on the assumption everyone is honest and deserving. And if, every once in a while, someone takes unfair advantage of our generosity – so what? If the price of making it easier to help the many is making it easier to be fiddled by the few – well, I think it's worth it.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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