Returning to the Charity-Based Model

When we think about social services, where do they come from? Many people seem to believe they originate with the government, and many of them are also very invested in the idea that the government is overspending on social services; that it should commit less to reducing poverty, addressing illness and disability, and creating a social safety net. Despite the numerous social and economic arguments for benefits programmes (a healthy, well-fed, economically stable society is also a more peaceful, innovative, and productive one), many people seem opposed to them on face, believing that people who need such programmes are clearly lazy slackers taking advantage of the system.

Yet, what many do not seem to realise is that in recent years, a slow and steady dismantling of the public benefits system has been occurring in the US and elsewhere, with a growing reliance on charity. I’ve written about this before, but it’s a subject worth revisiting, because it’s coming up again.

Historically, at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a dependence on charity-based models of social services. People who needed assistance applied through charities supported by wealthy members of the public, and some government grants. Attitudes towards these programs started to shift, however, in part in response to the First World War, when a generation of veterans was returning and expecting some compensation for serving their country. The 1930s, of course, marked the creation of numerous welfare programmes in the US as the government struggled with the Depression, and many programs were also codified in the 1940s in the US and abroad as governments began to recognise that they provided an efficient, effective method for meeting the needs of citizens.

Such programs were not designed as a permanent solution, but to help people overcome basic obstacles that stood in the way of long term social and economic success. In some cases they did result in staying on benefits for life, as in the case of people who were utterly unable to work, for example, but the intent was for them to be supported by society at large for the greater good. Because we collectively believed that turning some people out in the cold was not a mark of a fair and just society, and because advocates fought long and hard for the lives of those who might have been left out with the garbage.

Then came Thatcher in the UK, and the rise of neoliberalism, and Bush Jr. in the United States, and an insidious epidemic of gross social policy. Bush famously promoted faith-based initiatives, which were even more sinister than many people understood. It wasn’t just that he wanted to funnel government funds to faith-based charities who might discriminate against recipients, but that his goal was to replace the social safety net provided by the government with a network of charities. Even though the government can provide these services much more efficiently and effectively, he wanted to turn them over to the private sector.

As a proponent of conservative social policy, of course he did. He, like many conservatives, doesn’t believe in a safety net and thinks the government shouldn’t be providing social services of any kind. His attempt to shunt some services into the private sector was a start at breaking down the welfare system by eroding it piece by piece, making it less functional and impossible to sustain. And the trend has only continued as more and more charities have been pushed into taking on a more prominent role, even as many social service-oriented charities struggle with lack of funding and support in the current economy.

The thing about the charity-based model is that it didn’t work. It didn’t work before, and it won’t work now. Charities cannot provide the kind of comprehensive coverage the government can, and they’re not an effective use of time, labour, and funds for the purpose of providing social benefits. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t exist, but it does mean that they should not be providing services that could be better handled by the government. It is, for example, absurd to expect transgender people to apply to nonprofit funds to cover transition costs when the government could provide them directly at much lower costs.

The same funds currently addressing issues of basic survival because of the gaping holes in the public safety net could be dedicated to other purposes, like advancing social acceptance and promoting culture and the arts in marginalised communities. I’d love to see more arts grants for transgender artists, for example, but not if they would come at the cost of needed medical treatment, which may be the choice an organisation has to face when it comes to making decisions about how to use its funds to support the trans community.

Charities shouldn’t be providing basic services, nor should the government be expecting them to do its job. Their goal is to support society as a larger entity, not to make sure people don’t die, and the fact that the government is ripping the safety net apart and confidently waiting for charities to fill the gaps is telling. It believes that charities can and will pick up the slack, and that by doing so, they will save the government substantial sums of money. In the long term, this isn’t likely to be the case, as charities can’t help everyone, and those who don’t get help aren’t just going to sit there and wait to rot.

It’s also suppressing the very traits that we are supposed to be cultivating. How can people develop into artists, writers, doctors, engineers, innovators, lawyers, musicians, and more when they’re struggling for survival in a charity-based model with miles of paperwork and hoops to jump through to access even the most basic of things, like fresh food in school cafeterias? Why is the United States deliberately suppressing the potential of its own populace by refusing to support it?