I once walked down a busy urban street with a friend and his father, when my friend tossed a penny to a beggar who was sitting on the pavement.
"Why did you do that?" protested my friend's father, "You shouldn't encourage him to beg. He should go to work, not live like a parasite."
"But dad," said my friend, "the man has no legs!"
"So he should go to the city welfare bureau and they'll look after him. How do you know this man doesn't drink away all your charity?"
I remember both my friend and myself falling silent at what seemed to us a callous attitude on the part of the old man. The wonderful achievements of the modern welfare state suddenly seemed rather bitter. Indeed, the very existence of public welfare institutions has become an excuse for some people for losing their sense of compassion and solidarity.
On the other hand, let us not forget what society looked like before the welfare state. At the early days of the industrial revolution, small children worked like slaves, workers had to endure appalling conditions and the disabled, the poor and the elderly simply starved and perished. Indeed, social legislation and welfare programmes improved our lives immensely and helped to preserve our dignity. Some claim that charity activities may encourage the authorities to neglect their duties of providing social services to all and thus, abandon the positive achievements of the welfare state.
However, we witness today an unprecedented growth in the number of voluntary societies, charity projects, non-governmental organisation and benevolent foundations. This is not happening in poverty stricken countries but in the most progressive societies. Clearly, all these funds and energies are not spent just for the fun of the volunteers. They are obviously catering for some real needs. Had the public programmes fulfilled all our expectations, no charity activities would have been necessary.
There are two main problems with the modern welfare state. The first concerns the quality of human relationships in our society. As shown above, centralised social services cause many people to lose their basic sense of responsibility for their fellow human beings. The needy are obviously hurt by the average person's indifference to their plight. But this reality also hurts all others in our society, turning us all into isolated, selfish creatures, thus weakening our social fabric. Although affluent societies have improved the physical conditions of most people, many individuals suffer from loneliness and alienation that are closely related to many illnesses and rising rates of suicide.
The other problem is the quality of services provided to the needy. Large, bureaucratic institutions tend to swallow significant portions of the welfare budgets, thus reducing the resources available to the actual services. As modern educational, medical and other technologies become more expensive, public budgets are often insufficient for the growing needs.
Moreover, the type of service provided by large systems is often impersonal and mechanistic. In some cases, individuals receive poor service due to rigid regulations and criteria that inhibit the better judgement of social workers, doctors, teachers and other personnel. Individuals who need help often feel that their needs are not served properly and that their dignity is compromised, while many professional workers express frustration over their inability to provide better services.
These are exactly the areas where voluntary organisations can help. Small groups that are closely linked to the community can provide the personal touch that is missing in official institutions, and they tend to operate at lower costs.
The 21st Century society may need to reshape its welfare services. While social legislation and other achievements of the welfare state must not be abandoned, the system may improve through a better integration of public programmes with community initiatives and voluntary activities. Some of the public funds should be channelled to the needy through communal projects and voluntary societies, thus reducing unnecessary bureaucratic expenses. Moreover, members of the community may be able to help their neighbours long before they reach a critical stage, thus reducing the number of cases that the system has to serve.
The authorities' role should be limited to supervising the communal services, allocating funds on a fair and equal basis and providing such social services that require more complex professional and organisational standards.
In short: the state should focus on what it does best, encouraging volunteers to contribute what they do best. Volunteers may be given tax exemptions for their time and work, just like donations for charity are exempted today.
Such policies may encourage more individuals to volunteer, improve the quality of services, relieve the public system from much of the current pressure, make more efficient use of the tax payers' money and improve human relationships and moral values in our society.
Ehud Tokatly, 14/October/2004