The Charity Idea by Clement Attlee

  • 05/09/2018
The Charity Idea by Clement Attlee
Back in 1920, Clement Attlee wrote "The Social Worker". This is an extract from the book.

It is in many ways prophetic of the Beveridge report, and the reforms of the post-war Labour government. While I think that there is still a place for charity, it is clear that a larger society needs some government intervention to help the most vulnerable members of society.

Attlee comments on the necessity of this kind of change:

"When, however, the whole structure of society was altered by the agrarian revolution that broke up the old life of the countryside, and the industrial revolution which collected huge numbers of people together into particular districts, and divided society rigidly into two main classes, a small landlord and employing class, and a proletariat, the system that was suitable for small, almost self-contained communities was powerless to grapple with the host of new problems raised by a complicated system of industry and the emergence of the Great Society."

As well as a National Health Service, and a Social Security System, the last bastion of the small scale charitable kind of work in Jersey was that of Parish Welfare. Not strictly speaking a charitable organisation, it often functioned very much as if it was one.

While an advantage was that those administering it knew their Parishioners, this became increasingly less likely with the much larger populations of Jersey parishes such as St Helier, St Clement, St Saviour or St Brelade. Quite frankly, the notion that a Conntable could know all their Parishioners, except in the smaller rural Parishes, is no longer valid.

The move to Income Support has received criticism from some quarters, who see too much money being given to financial assistance - 5,763 households in 2017, which is about 12% of all households in Jersey.

But when Income Support was introduced, the more urban Parishes were facing rapidly rising increases in demand for Parish Welfare, which were stressing Parish Welfare and the level of support and caseloads in those Parishes. So part of that increase would have occurred in any case. Income support also gathered the myriad separate support allowances already paid by Social Security under Income Support, so it was always going to be more.

Yet perhaps the chief gripe was that Income Support was aided by a Universal Rate, levied alongside Parish rates, which spread the burden across the Island. Those living in smaller Parishes, thought like Mr Birling, they should just "look after their own".

The JEP did a special report on Parish welfare which highlighted the problems of leaving the aid to the financially distressed in the hands of those who might have their own idiosyncratic views. It gave anecdotal evidence which was not a million miles from the depiction of the Brumley Women's Charity Organisation in J.B. Priestleys An Inspector Calls.

In that play, Mrs Birling is the chairwoman and persuades the committee to turn down the girl's appeal for financial assistance on the grounds that she is pregnant, and she believes that the father of the child should bear the responsibility. It brings into sharp relief how a well-meaning organisation can be dysfunctional because it is based on personal judgements and sometimes personalities rather than on due regulations enshrined in law, which are impartial, and the same for everyone.

While the loss of the more personal touch is sad, it was going anyway, and a much fairer system put in its place. And the time had come for change in welfare. To paraphrase Attlee, the system that was suitable for small, almost self-contained communities was powerless to grapple with increased demands of a much larger population.

The Charity Idea

By Clement Attlee

Before the industrial revolution the goodwill of the ordinary man and woman that is the main factor in social service, expressed itself in acts of charity.

For each particular need that arose our forefathers devised some form of voluntary organisation or relied on the efforts of charitable individuals.

Thus, when it was observed that there were a number of uncared-for, and unwanted infants the Foundling Hospital was started : for the needs of the sick, hospials and provident dispensaries were set up, and for the aged almshouses were built, while unusual distress would be met by the free issue of soup, or by gifts of clothing or blankets.

In a comparatively static society this method of individual provision worked fairly well ; although there were many poor there was not very much destitution, and for the destitute provision had been made by the poor law of Queen Elizabeth's reign. In general the kindness of neighbours and the benevolence of the well-to-do were sufficient to deal with the normal cases of distress, and provide relief according to the not very extended conception of necessary comfort that obtained.

When, however, the whole structure of society was altered by the agrarian revolution that broke up the old life of the countryside, and the industrial revolution which collected huge numbers of people together into particular districts, and divided society rigidly into two main classes, a small landlord and employing class, and a proletariat, the system that was suitable for small, almost self-contained communities was powerless to grapple with the host of new problems raised by a complicated system of industry and the emergence of the Great Society.

While industry was on a small scale masters and men were intimately acquainted with each other, and there was little need of intervention from outside ; there was no place for factory inspection, and little possibility of combined action on the part of the workers. In a small society custom and public opinion are enough to regulate the relationships between man and man in the ordinary affairs of life in accordance with elementary ideas of justice.

Here and there, it is true, the powerful and unscrupulous person may dominate a small community, and work his will ; but it is far harder than in large societies where the details are so many and the system so complicated that few people see much outside the narrow round of their own preoccupations.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the conception of society as divided into classes, each with its own particular function, held sway, and charity was regarded as an act of grace on the part of the rich to their poorer neighbours.

The tide of opinion was running strongly in favour of laisser faire, old regulations as to wages and hours of labour, formerly fixed by the justices of the peace, were being swept away, old restrictions on industry were found to be obsolete, owing to the changes in the methods of production, and the geographical distribution of industries, and the country was committed more and more to the forces of unrestrained competition.

The optimistic doctrine that if each individual sought his own good the interests of the community as a whole would be best served was generally accepted, and the only mitigation to the harshness of economic law admitted was the charity of individuals.

If we examine in a little more detail the charitable idea we shall see how essentially it belongs to a certain conception of society. The charitable motive is primarily religious. Christianity lays down that charity in its widest sense is necessary to salvation, and that almsgiving is one of the duties of the Christian, so that throughout the ages of faith one finds a large amount of charitable work done with the principal object of benefiting the soul of the giver, the effect on the welfare of the recipient being a secondary consideration.

Christianity shares this conception of charity with other oriental religions, and in so far as the object is the good of the benefactor rather than that of the beneficiary it is very far from the social service idea, although its effects may, or more probably may not be, socially desirable.

Thus the frequent English charitable donation by will of a sum of money to be laid out in loaves or bread for the poor, sometimes coupled with the obligation to pray for the soul of the testator, must be classed with the casual pence bestowed upon the beggar by someone who can well spare it. In both cases the element of self-sacrifice which is implicit in social service is absent, indeed, this is absent in all charitable gifts that are given out of superfluity of riches, or out of wealth which the donor cannot take away with him, so that the only people to be denied anything are the residuary legatees.

Akin to these are the numerous benefactions which are given in order to quiet the mind from uneasiness at the sight of wretchedness, or to satisfy a queasy conscience that, recognising that all is not well, endeavours to obtain a cheap insurance against disturbing thoughts, or a mild glow of satisfaction at the feeling that some good has been done, and that gratitude has been merited. As an early Victorian children's book puts it, " For Mary truly understood the luxury of doing good."

There is a great difference between this sort of charity and that of those who actually take the trouble to find out what is amiss before trying to devise appropriate remedies, and who themselves perform their own almsgiving.

Charity at its highest is the expression of the love for one's fellows that is at the root of all vital social work; but, at the period with which we are dealing, it had become narrowed down in most cases to mere almsgiving.

The old incentive to charity that we find in the mediaeval church became weaker when at the Reformation the doctrine of salvation by faith caused less stress to be laid on works, and although at the latter end of the eighteenth century it was reinforced by the philanthropic impulse which was so powerful a motive with men like Jonas Hanway and Romilly, the general view of charity was not a high one.

Society as constituted was accepted, and the existence of the poor taken for granted, nay even welcomed as providing an outlet for the benevolence of the rich.

Charity is always apt to be accompanied by a certain complacence and condescension on the part of the benefactor, and by an expectation of gratitude from the recipient which cuts at the root of all true friendliness. The charitable of the time seem to us to-day to be smug and self-satisfied. They delighted in sermons to the poor on convenient virtues, and lacked that sharp self-criticism that is the note of society to-day.

The change from this attitude to social service has been effected not only by the utter failure of charity to cope with the difficult problems of poverty (a failure that does not mean the condemnation of the charitable, for it was inherent in the very nature of the problem), but also by an entirely changed outlook, due to three principal causes the work of the social reformers, the advances in knowledge, and the rise of democratic ideas.

The change from the charity conception mentioned above to that of social service has been effected particularly by the work of the social reformers. Our attitude to social service will be different according to the conception that we have of society.

If we regard it as at present constituted as on the whole just and right, and approve of the present economic structure, social work will seem to us, as it were, a work of supererogation, a praiseworthy attempt to ease the minor injustices inevitable in all systems of society. We shall see a series of more or less disconnected problems not related to any one general question.

On the other hand, we may see as the root of the trouble an entirely wrong system altogether, a mistaken aim, a faulty standard of values, and we shall form in our minds more or less clearly a picture of some different system, a society organised on a new basis altogether, guided by other incentives than those that operate at the present time, and we shall relate all our particular efforts to this point of view.

All social reformers belong to one or other of these schools of thought ; the dividing line may be a narrow one in some cases, but is sufficiently visible.

The movements for reform of the earlier half of the nineteenth century were carried on mainly by those who held the first view, who dealt with particular social evils but did not attack the basis of society as a whole.

Thus the prison reformers, Howard and Mrs. Fry, the factory reformers, Shaftesbury, Oastler and Sadler, all belong to the first class. Shaftesbury was able to carry out his work of agitation for the enforcement of decent conditions in the factories and mines without consciously working for State intervention in industrial matters, and indeed without the realisation that he was sapping the foundations of the laisserfaire attitude of the -State, and starting the building of the great edifice of regulation and inspection which has extended over almost every part of the national life.

On the other hand, Robert Owen, who laid the foundations of so many fruitful movements for the bettering of conditions in factories, of education and co-operative distribution and production, was able to relate all his activities to his " New View of Society," and was essentially revolutionist in his attitude.

As the century proceeds a vast amount of practical reform in every field of activity was brought about through the disconnected efforts of little groups of reformers, most of them intent on the abolition of some particular abuse or the introduction of some advance in social organisation. Some grappled with the evil of pauperism and endeavoured to organise the goodwill of the ordinary man and woman so as to make charity effective, others attacked the evils of the housing conditions in the towns. Others, like Dr. Barnardo, were affected by the sight of some particular evil (as in his case of children sleeping out in the streets), and devoted their whole lives to a particular piece of social work.

As the time goes on we can see a steady tendency at work for social reformers to feel the need of collective rather than individual action. The man or woman who is interested in one particular piece of reform inevitably comes in contact with others who are working in the same field, but with different methods and a different point of view : he begins to realise what a small part of the evil he is able to affect by his work, and is driven to recognise that it is only by the co-operation of individuals with the community generally that the special reforms which he has at heart can be brought about.

He discovers that instead of a particular evil being, as he thought, peculiar to his own district, it is only a part of a wider problem, which as an individual he is powerless to solve, so that he finds himself obliged to turn to the organised community to help him. Thus to-day the social reformer is less apt to rely on his own individual efforts than to endeavour to arouse the nation to act by passing laws to prevent the occurrence of certain abuses or to empower local authorities to take action.

Again, the individual citizen or the social reform society may set to work to prove the practicability of certain reforms, and may then wish to see them adopted generally ; but it is found that precisely where such a reform is most needed it is impossible to get it put into action, owing to the indifference or even hostility of a particular class or locality. The need of some form of compulsion is felt.

A good instance is that of the notification of births, which was first pioneered by individuals, then made permissive so that the districts that were enthusiastic for child welfare could adopt it, and finally made mandatory to force the indifferent to take action. Thus while there is still much work done by voluntary individual enthusiasts, the whole tendency of late has been to translate the ideas of social reformers into legislative and administrative action.

The social reformers of the present day have little fear of State interference, and generally speaking are far more ready than in the past to face big changes.

Robert Owen and his fellow-workers in their day, the Christian Socialists in the 1850's were voices crying in the wilderness. To-day the ideas that prompted their reforming efforts are more and more widely accepted. Most social reformers are ready to accept a very large amount of control by the community over the activities of the individual, and to recognise the need for a greater recognition of the rights and duties of all citizens.

The question to-day is thus rather one of the method and proportion than of complete denial and assertion. Society is far more self-conscious than it was in the past, and the social conscience is at work among men and women of all classes.

The Settlement movement was an early expression of this, and the increased searchings of heart in the Churches as to the relationship between the principles of Christianity and business, and the difficulty of reconciling the two, are becoming more and more evident. The demand of the social reformer to-day is for a new attitude to social problems rather than for specific reforms in any particular department of life.
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