Time For A Welfare Revolution
When the welfare state was invented, it’s architect William Beveridge, was confident that poverty statistics would no longer be needed. And indeed Seebohm Rowntree – the chocolate magnate, who studied poverty and contributed to Beveridge’s work – concluded in 1950 that poverty had been largely erased. The British welfare state, which was emulated across the world, had changed lives and the course of a nation.
But today, poverty is back and it is growing. Welfare cuts and a cruel, unnecessary politics of austerity have inflicted terrible pain and damage on communities across Britain. Far from abandoning poverty statistics, we have had to re-invent them to keep up with reality. In 2016 the Rowntree Foundation introduced a new category that could encapsulate the depth of suffering: destitution.
Poverty has deepened as a result of austerity. It has also morphed in shape – the result of more complex forces that have become tangled with and exacerbated by austerity.
We are living through a time of revolution – technology is changing our work, our communities and our family life, at a speed none of us can navigate alone and in ways that our inherited welfare systems are struggling to address. Any incoming leader of the Left must recognise that this is about money, and also about deeper challenges. Investment is a must - but investment in what?
Structural changes in our societies and our economies have created new challenges – from ageing to loneliness, chronic health conditions to migration and, perhaps the biggest challenge of all: climate change. It’s near impossible for our dedicated welfare professionals to cope and promising more money, nurses or carers is critical, but will not be enough.
The challenges we face are different in nature and they demand a different response. We need new forms of organisation that are designed to include us as opposed to managing us. We need new ways of working that can address the gaps between us and we need a mindset that understands that change is continual and collective, not an individual misfortune.
Ten years ago, working with communities across Britain, I started an experiment. I asked people what they needed to flourish. In the Job Centre, I asked people what they dreamt of, not about their qualifications. I asked families who were struggling on low pay and in debt, young people, old people and those working within our welfare systems the same questions: what do we need to build today?
The models we developed together and since used by thousands of people started from a simple, common, emerging thread – the need to nourish the human bonds between us, to know each other once again and to share in a common story.
These models, which I describe in my book Radical Help, pre-figure 21st century welfare. They start where we are and instead of offering to fix things or manage us, they offer us support to grow our capability. They include as many people as possible – the more relationships we have, the stronger we are. We believe that participating in the welfare state is not something to be rationed, but something to be celebrated as a form of connection. These new solutions cost less, although that is not their purpose and the data shows they change lives.
As Britain emerged from the ravages of war and the economic crisis of the 1930s, William Beveridge declared it was ‘a time for revolutions, not for patching’. We need to make the same declaration. We must re-invent the original and brilliant vision for now. This needs money and commitment. And something else too: a realisation that we need new models and approaches.
Everywhere in Britain, these new forms of social support are growing. Emergent models have energy and build on possibility. They are drawing on a deep heritage of the Left which engages with the micro-structures of power and believes that solutions are found within the horizontal bonds of community. But the new is starved of funds and at the margin of dominant systems.
In 1945 the founders of our welfare system did not spend on inherited 19th century systems. They thought again. A new leader of the Left must do the same today. To invest in outdated inherited models will not bring about lasting change and worse it will suffocate the green shoots of the new. Embrace the relational, with heart and soul, and money.
By Hilary Cottam, author of Radical Help: How We can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State.