In the past couple of months, I have been talking to people in a fascinating world that most of us are at best vaguely aware of: the world of benevolent charities, who give financial help to eligible individuals in need. Many of these charities are now using our Minimum Income Standard to help them decide whom to assist, and I wanted to find out more about their work, and what role our research plays.
Hundreds of these bodies, large and small, exist to help specified groups of people facing hardship, often drawing on endowments dating back a century or more. Their beneficiaries range from church widows in Cambridgeshire to people from virtually every profession – from dancers to sailors to civil engineers – who have fallen on hard times, whether because of illness, redundancy or their family situation. Some of these charities have wonderful names such as the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, or the Society for the Assistance for Ladies in Reduced Circumstances (renamed, less colourfully, the Smallwood Trust this year). But are they anything more than an outdated relic of Victorian charity?
In fact, these organisations play an important role in helping their beneficiaries cope in what can sadly, as in Victorian times, be a cruel and uncertain world. A former merchant seaman living in a depressed port town is living from hand to mouth on benefits, and can’t find money to replace a broken fridge. A teaching assistant bringing up a family on low pay has fallen into serious rent arrears as a result of waiting to be paid Universal Credit. A young self-employed architect is struggling to pay the bills regularly, with an irregular income and high housing costs. In an era characterised by a decline in secure employment and the rise of food banks, charities are working hard to meet the needs of people who fall through the gaping holes in the social safety net.
Their strength has always been that, rather than trying to replicate state-provided social security, with its strict rules for entitlement (and recently an often hostile attitude to those daring to ask for help), such charities can look at each individual’s needs and provide the assistance required. Yet a downside of this is that they have sometimes made highly judgemental assessments of people’s resources and lifestyles. I heard of one case where a charity was only willing to pay half the cost of replacing someone’s fridge because they smoked. Over the years, benevolent societies have accumulated all sorts of complex rules and practices for giving out money, often with rationales lost in the mists of time.
In conjunction with the Association of Charitable Organisations, I’ve carried out a survey of charities’ use of MIS, and interviewed officers in ten who use it. You can read my full findings in this report. Almost every one of the charity workers I talked to saw themselves as “modernisers” who had adopted MIS because they wanted to make their giving less arbitrary: to make eligibility criteria more transparent, and to replace value judgements about people’s pattern of expenditure with an externally validated basis for ensuring that they have enough income overall. Some of the best-endowed charities are able to operate a full system of “topping up” to MIS; others use it as a gateway to a more modest fixed grant, or to special-purpose gifts. Means-testing is rarely rigid, but typically is combined with discretion to take individual circumstances into account. Charities commonly combine their financial assistance with the provision of services to help people back on their feet.
Charitable benevolence can, of course, never replace a decent public system of social security. While it’s great that well over £100m is being spent each year by organisations committed to getting people to a decent living standard, this is less than a thousandth of the public social security bill. The fact that some organisations are using our work to try to identify more systematically who is left in need by what they recognise as an inadequate public system is not exactly a cause for celebration. A significant symptom of this is that a number of charities who in the past had focused largely on pensioners are shifting their attention to working age people, whose safety net has waned while pensioners’ income guarantees have waxed. MIS accurately points to that change in relative needs.
A difficult feature of charitable support, which several of my interviewees mentioned, is that however systematic any one charity is in prioritising help to the most needy, there are vast inequalities in what people from different professions can expect from their benevolent societies. Charities’ differing endowments mean that where one may give a small grant or a few hundred pounds a year to someone on a low income, another could give a few thousand, and many other people in similar circumstances will get nothing, most often because awareness of these funds is often weak.
Yet for all their limitations, benevolent charities are a godsend to those they help. Hearing these charities’ officers speak thoughtfully and sensitively about how they approach the tough job of means testing brought a breath of fresh air to someone used to analysing what feels like a cold-hearted benefit system. These officers are focused on how they can do the most good – sometimes by providing hard cash at a time when it is most needed; sometimes by identifying the services and advice that can best help people repair their lives. They could certainly teach those who work in the public benefits system (and the politicians who guide it) a thing or two about what it means to have a spirit of supporting people, rather than blaming them for their own poverty.
With this supportive attitude, charities see MIS not just as a systematic way of carrying out a means test, but also as a concept that aligns well with their objectives. A standard that is not just about survival, but also about having the choices and opportunities needed to participate in society, corresponds to their goal of helping their client groups to thrive. It is applications such as these that makes our research worthwhile.