In an article forwarded from the Boxing Day Mail on Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury warned: ‘The Victorian distinction between the deserving poor and the rest is very seductive.’
He added: ‘Even if there are those who are where they are because of their own bad or foolish choices in the past, that doesn’t mean they are any less in need in the present.’
The consequences of such an attitude, that the poor should be absolved of any responsibility for their own circumstances, whilst motivated by the most sympathetic of motives are actually destructive of the poor, not of poverty.
Dr Williams’ argument means that even if poor people are dishonest or irresponsible in their lifestyles the rest of society should support them in their choices. He ignores the equally destructive corollary that nothing different should be done to aid those who despite hard work and honest endeavour are still poor.
The idea that the immoral and irresponsible should be treated in exactly the same way as those whose behaviour has been irreproachable is itself profoundly immoral and damaging to society.
No one deliberately chooses poverty. But many deliberately choose lifestyles which lead to poverty. Those who, like Dr Williams, are ‘non-judgemental’ negate the importance of such choices and the concept of personal responsibility.
The view which holds that it is odious to hold any responsible for the consequences of their behaviour is common. It owes a great deal more to Marx than to the Bible.
Marx taught that people are not responsible for their own circumstances but are instead helpless in the face of an exploitative economic system. The individual’s behaviour and its consequences were deleted from the discussion. The Bible teaches us that we are, as individuals, responsible for our own actions and their consequences.
Many are poor through lack of ability, illness or other circumstance. But others contribute to their poverty through their own deliberate choices. Yes, there are single mothers who are the innocent victims of desertion or violence. There are also women who choose motherhood without a permanently committed father around. By doing so they commit themselves and their children to poverty and a myriad of other disadvantages.
Reducing poverty depends to a large extent upon restoring the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Not because it is motivated by an absence of compassion, as Dr Williams implies, but by its opposite, a deeply principled desire to end the trap of permanent poverty.
The way to do that is not to disperse large amounts of money indiscriminately, but by encouraging behaviour that will end poverty. To do this we must not condescend to the poor but rather view them as being governed by the same impulses as everyone else.
As Dooyeweerd points out what distinguishes humanity from the animals is that we make responsible choices. Dr Williams unwittingly treats the poor as less than human, incapable of making responsible moral choices.
If those who make immoral or amoral choices benefit from those choices through an undifferentiated welfare system we have created a fundamental injustice within society. Those who refuse to cheat the system and live lives of self-restraint are demoralised and their positive influence over their children undermined. An undifferentiated welfare system which rewards irresponsibility leads to the moral degradation of society.
Look back to the Hanoverian period, a time when crime was rampant throughout Britain, when illegitimacy was common and drunken squalor was the norm. A strangely familiar scenario. Then look to Victorian Britain where there was order and the beginning of social mobility, the family was the bedrock of society, and there was a public acknowledgement of morality.
There were huge flaws, social, economic and moral, in Victorian Britain which must be deplored, but it was a significant improvement upon what went before. It is fashionable to look at the hypocrisy and bewail the patronising attitude of the Victorians to the poor. What is still in the process of replacing them is worse, it is a condescending attitude which cares little for the poor other than as counters in a political struggle and is prepared to sacrifice them on the altar of supposed equality.
During the era of Victoria evangelical Christians transformed this country. Slavery was abolished, industry was regulated, drunkenness was curtailed, crime was opposed, orphans were sheltered, the poor were fed, educated and given a route out of poverty. All because evangelical Christians taught the dignity of every human being and believed that people could take responsibility for their own lives.
It is these effective Christian actions which embarrass Dr Williams. Unfortunately the commitment of the Church to the moral code and understanding of humanity revealed in Scripture has been eroded drastically. Expediency has replaced morality, the social work department has replaced the church, and the holy war against sin replaced by political struggle.