| 13.1°C Dublin

Jody Corcoran: Charity must be transparent so those in real need receive in a sceptical age


Benevolence should be thoughtful and prudent, as it is more important to 'do' good than to 'feel' good.

On Thursday December 15, the economist Constantin Gurdgiev tweeted that 121 women were jailed last year for not paying a fine on conviction for failing to have a television licence.

A woman I know, who struggles to exist within a twilight world between work and welfare, was so panicked by that tweet that she went directly to the post office and paid €160 for a licence. She is left with €27 for Christmas. That is a fact.

Business! cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.

Set in Victorian times, the spirit of Jacob Marley in the classic Charles Dickens' novella of love, tax and redemption, A Christmas Carol, is sure to warm all of our hearts again this Christmas.

Yes, it is good to give, to dwell in that moment for a while, to feel content within ourselves, really, which is all it is; in itself, it is so much better than not to give at all. But if personal happiness is the sole motivation, then neither can that alone be good enough anymore.

In The Virtue of Selfishness, the Objectivist philosopher, Ayn Rand, writes of morality, approvingly, to the effect that many do not consider to give to charity a virtue at all, let alone a moral duty.

"Man's mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive he must act and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action," she once wrote.

But the foundational argument of Objectivism cannot be sound.

In these desperate times, I find myself to be more in tune with the sociologist Beatrice Webb, who once said that charity is, or should be, the exercise of "a thoughtful benevolence".

Not benevolence alone but a thoughtful benevolence – a reasoned, prudent, discriminating, even sceptical benevolence – a benevolence that is acutely aware of the often unintended consequences of goodwill, that knows it to be more important to do good than to feel good; that is morally and spiritually satisfying for the giver, and morally as well as materially beneficial to the receiver.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, a professor of history, says it is this kind of charity that promotes welfare in the proper sense of that word – the well-being of citizens.

Shortly before the ascension of Queen Victoria, a royal commission, which deplored "the mischievous ambiguity of the word 'poor'", proposed a major reform of the Poor Law. The name was a misnomer, the commission said; it was a pauper law, not a poor law. Most of the poor – which is to say, virtually all of the working classes – were indeed poor, but they were not paupers.

Two measurements are used by the Central Statistics Office to measure poverty in Ireland.

In 2009, the most up to date figures available, there were 233,192 people, or 5.5 per cent, in 'consistent poverty' and 579,819 people, or 14.1 per cent, 'at risk of poverty'.

At risk means an income of €230 a week for an adult; consistent means unable to afford new clothes, meat or fish, or being unable to heat your home.

After the Celtic Tiger crash more than 18 per cent of children – our Tiny Tims, if you like – were at risk of, and almost 9 per cent were actually in, consistent poverty.

It is a shameful statistic.

Two regressive budgets later, which have included a cut to child benefit, several thousands more, including many, many children, will be tipped into a form of poverty, whether 'consistent' or 'at risk'.

Lately – belatedly, perhaps – when I refer others to this analysis the response is usually one of passing concern followed by an air of general indifference.

Some cite anecdotal evidence, from wherever that may come, that the poor, or those at risk of poverty, can afford to drink and smoke, after all, that they have Sky Sports in their homes, apparently, that they have a car on the road.

The more aware also say that the Department of Social Protection spends a massive sum, more than €20bn a year, which accounts for around 40 per cent of total Exchequer spend.

This second point is made in a tone of resentment; the argument is reasonably valid – up to a point – but it remains oblivious to what we might call the majesty of The Principle of Humanity.

Here is the argument though: to apply the free market philosophy of a libertarian economist, Milton Friedman, if the €20bn budget were divided among, say, 400,000 on the Live Register they would each receive €50,000 a year.

The public sector class, in numbers, pay and administration, are clearly a huge part of the problem, such costs that the IMF again argued last week were out of touch with the remainder of society.

It is also clear that what is referred to as the "welfare" state is in urgent need of reform, such reform that I do not even pretend to understand, let alone where to begin, other than to say that only those in real need should be intended to receive.

This much is also true: at the height of the boom there were still more than 100,000 people on some form of social welfare, for any number of reasons, many of which have to do with the principle of humanity.

To use another buzzword, by all means "crack down" on fraud, but also concentrate on the causes of fraud, some of which are deep-rooted, others merely skin deep.

I know of another woman, her circumstances too complicated to go into right now, other than to say she has never worked a day in her life. She is 34.

The bottom line is this: if she were to take a job, she would lose the roof over her head and the heads of her children. She is in what is called the "welfare trap". That is also a fact.

When Social Protection Minister Joan Burton recently referred to school leavers who claim welfare as a "lifestyle choice" she was almost set upon; but again, she had a point.

"The best way to lower the social welfare bill is to create jobs," Sinn Fein said in response. In The Principle of Charity, let us be charitable this Christmas: that is to state the bleedin' obvious.

Joan Burton has faced into a huge task. In her reform agenda, she would do well to introduce – another buzzword – "transparency" to take account of the deeper philosophical issues at play in this debate.

If we are to create a fair society, then Joan Burton must show people how other people have to live. In this sceptical age, that is the sort of society we have come to; that is what bitter experience has forced us to become. We need to see the evidence to know that it is true.

Nor should they stop there: open up the family courts too, and the immigration courts and let the people see what passes for a fair society here.

And just what is going on down in the Commercial Court? The forgiveness of debt is essential for the country, yes, but also for its citizens many of whom are without hope.

In that context, we must also come back for our builders and businessmen. They are dying by suicide every day and nobody knows how to talk about it; and our children are taking their own lives too. Online. For everybody to see.

When John Bruton, in a church, recently spoke about the absence of forgiveness, he was almost set upon but he, also, had a point: the bankers may eventually be forgiven only when they forgive us our trespasses as well; so not yet, not even in this spirit of Christmas.

Ireland is the second most generous nation in the world, behind Australia, according to data published this month, which shows how people give in three ways: donated money to a charity; volunteered time to an organisation; or help to a stranger. Ireland was the top-ranked country in Europe. We achieved the highest score on each of the measures – donating money (79 per cent), volunteering time (34 per cent) and helping a stranger (66 per cent).

In this sceptical age, charities must also be more transparent and aware that those in real need are those who should be intended to receive.

The Irish Times reported last week that the chief executives of 40 per cent of 32 charities, which took part in a survey, are paid more than €100,000 a year. Perhaps not unrelated, two-thirds of charities have reported a drop in income in 2011, with more than a third reporting a 15 per cent fall.

It is more likely, however, that the reported fall-off has to do with the recession – almost everybody is struggling.

This Christmas I will think of a woman who telephoned Women's Aid National Helpline last year:

"I never had access to money in my marriage and my husband always used keep a check on all the spending in the house when he was living here. He would even turn off the lights when he left the room – never mind that myself or one of the kids was still in there. I finally had the courage to separate to escape all of the control and he hasn't paid maintenance since then. It has been really hard to manage.

"Christmas is such a scary prospect with the girls still expecting Santa.

"Now my husband has promised them the sun, moon and stars and they are so excited but he has told me that there will be nothing for them if he can't come back and have Christmas 'as a family'.

"He will tell them that it is mammy's fault that Santa won't come. My stomach is in knots and I can't sleep; I feel so manipulated and now I have to face my children having no Christmas unless he gets his way."

As it happens, I know another woman who is in a circumstance which is broadly similar to that. I will be thinking of her too.

Merry Christmas. And God bless us, everyone.

Sunday Independent