Sunday, 4 July 2010

Cash, food vouchers, or soup kitchens?

A good post yesterday from DK:
Shuggy is up in arms about Our New Coalition Overlords' proposal to pay benefits in the form of food vouchers.
The obvious solution to poverty, which is simply to give the poor more money, is unacceptable to our new 'progressive' coalition overlords. They understand that money gives people choices and in the case of the poor, this would never do because they would just make the 'wrong' choices.
Yeah, sure. And yet no.

The government has no money of its own: it only has what it takes from its people through tax.

As such, the government cannot simply "give the poor more money" without first taking it from other people; the people that they take it from then become poorer.
If there is a social contract, it is that those of us who work agree to be taxed to ensure that those who have no work are not lying about, starving in the streets. This is a cost of living in a society, and it also answers the demands of basic humanity.

But the money does not belong to the poor to do what they want with it, it is not provided to give them "choices": it is there for a specific purpose—to ensure that they can stay alive. If they want "choices" then they must go out and earn their own cash.

In other words, the government aren't proposing taking "choices" away from people because they are poor; they are proposing to do so because the money does not belong to those in receipt of it—it is not theirs to do as they will with.

Imagine if a friend of yours asked to borrow £50 off you because he was starving; it's £50 that you cannot really afford (and you're pretty sure that you won't get it back any time soon), but you give it to help him in extremis.

You'd be pretty annoyed if, a few hours later, you found him buying rounds for his mates in the pub, would you not?
Quite. But DK is not supportive of the voucher scheme: he reckons that cash is preferable, as long as it's at the subsistence level:
If, for instance, a family on benefits chooses to go without food so that they can afford the bus fare to send their child to the best school that they can, then that is a choice that I applaud. And, unless the bus driver takes food vouchers, then such instruments will, indeed, take away choice. It will even take away the choice of a dole claimant to travel to a job interview—and that is hardly desirable, is it?

Given that, I must also allow people the freedom to make choices that I would not condone too.

But, as a general rule, if the poor have enough money to have "choices" then we are giving them too much of other people's money; where is the morality in removing "choices" from a group of people who have earned them, so that you can give "choices" to another (who have not)?
This seems like a reasonable balance of principles and pragmatism, but soup kitchens and hostels have always seemed to me to be the best way to ensure people aren't left to starve.

There would be no need for intrusive means testing, as only the genuinely needy would avail themselves of such basic facilities.

Unlike food vouchers, the services provided by the hostels and soup kitchens could not be resold.

There would be no benefit trap, as work would always pay - even the laziest scrounger would have the incentive to work, if only for booze and cigarettes.

Ideally the soup kitchens and hostels would be funded by private charity, but even if funded by taxation, it would be a massive improvement on the status quo.

There would be the risk that by spending other people's money on third parties, value-for-money would suffer, but with such a basic mandate, there's not much scope for profligacy.

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