I met my first Westerner in Mumbai. She was sobbing uncontrollably. Aunt Sonja, a white Canadian married to my uncle Alex, was visiting India for the first time. From the moment she left the airport, packs of street urchins hounded her, begging. Aunt Sonja was a devout Christian. She was heartbroken when she saw children begging for bread or a few rupees; she was repulsed by the culture of endemic beggary. I did not know how to comfort her. I was five years old. I had not heard the two magic words: welfare state.
Years later, I was preaching in London at a conference of one of India’s oldest churches, which traces its origin to St Thomas the Apostle. The adults attending the conference were immigrants from Kerala—India’s first state to boast of one hundred per cent literacy. My congregation was bursting with consultants, GPs, paramedics, nurses, engineers, entrepreneurs and computer professionals—a highly educated bunch. I was not surprised. Keralites are known to be achievers.
I was the youth speaker. I was asked to address the second generation. The kids were Brits—born, bred,buttered and jammed in the UK. I was preaching to a sea of young brown faces speaking in a Babel of British accents. Some of them were even saying “innit” and “yoof!” Then, after my first session at the coffee break, I heard the two magic words: welfare state. The parents of these “yoof” mobbed me and began pleading with me. ‘Achan, (Father) in your talks, please tell our children to work hard and study hard and get a good education. We came to this country with nothing except a good education. Now we are prospering. Our children don’t understand hard work and the value of education.’
I was intrigued. Really? ‘What’s the problem? Racism?’ I asked the parents rather naively. In good Indian fashion, they nodded their heads from left to right. ‘No, no, no, no, Achan! No racism! Welfare state!’ they chorused in reply. ‘Our children say they don’t need to study because the government will take care of them. We feel so ashamed. We are not beggars. We can’t imagine our children living off benefits.’ The memory of Aunt Sonja like a Pied Piper with begging children trailing behind her in Mumbai suddenly dovetailed with the picture of begging adults stretching out their hands to the welfare state in Britain. I returned to my pulpit and gave the yoof a real blast from the Bible.
St Paul’s slams the freeloaders in the church at Thessalonica. ‘If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.’ I quoted from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased translation of the Bible known as The Message. ‘Don’t permit them to freeload on the rest…. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. And now we’re getting reports that a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings are taking advantage of you. This must not be tolerated. We command them to get to work immediately—no excuses, no arguments—and earn their own keep…. Point out such a person and refuse to subsidise his freeloading. Maybe then he’ll think twice.’
So why are leftwing politicians and bishops bullying the hardworking masses into subsidising freeloaders? I’m not talking about the “deserving poor.” (I will use that politically incorrect term). I’m not referring to pensioners who have paid into the national piggybank or the terminally ill or the disabled. I’m talking about Onslow from Keeping up Appearances. Why should I sponsor his slouching in front of the idiot box, swigging beer, crunching crisps and betting on horses? Onslow’s able bodied. He’s no fool. He reads an Open University physics textbook in bed. So why doesn’t he get off his fat backside and get a job? It’s unfair, innit?
Earlier this month, the Guardian went into moaning mode when the Treasury announced that households with a third baby would no longer be able to claim child tax credits. The analysis predicted that the cuts could push a quarter of a million children into poverty. If a couple wants to have a brood of children, let them multiply and fill the earth. But why should singles or couples who choose not to have children subsidise the multipliers? The shining knights of the Guardian in social justice armour keep dodging three fundamental questions.
First, how do they define poverty? Holidaying in Bognor Regis rather than Benidorm? No Sky TV? Second, how do they arrive at their conclusion that children in Britain are suddenly going to look like children in Somalia? The wailing and gnashing of teeth by lefty politicians and bishops is a regular feature every time the welfare state announces a cutback on the dole. Third, who created this poverty? How did they create this poverty? This is the most embarrassing question for lefties because deep down they know that this is a poverty created by the Left’s morality-free and responsibility-free ideology. If a teenage girl gets pregnant before she is married and ends up with four children from four absentee fathers—who have all abdicated their responsibility for fatherhood to the welfare state—are the children not far more likely to be poor?
It is terrible to see what we have done to these single mothers who are struggling to bring up and keep their children from being taken away. But not once did the recent BBC Panorama programme on the benefits cap ask how did they get into this lifestyle in the first place; where were the fathers of their children; why were they not providing support; why did these women think they had a right to have and bring up their children by freeloading on the taxpayer; why have successive governments encouraged this “structural poverty” of non-economically viable family forms; and why has not the Church ever condemned the State for encouraging and perpetuating this cruelty that has left these women and their children so very vulnerable?
I wonder how my Aunt Sonja would respond. I’ll tell you how I respond. I am heartbroken with compassion and sickened with revulsion the more I watch the welfare state deplete the souls and destroy the lives of thousands of young people in this country. Aunt Sonja died of cancer a few years ago. She never returned to India. Here’s my tribute to her and my epitaph to the dying and no longer economically sustainable welfare state (with apologies to Psalm 23).
The welfare state is my shepherd; I shall always be in want.
It makes me lie down in pastures of entitlement.
It leads me besides the stagnant waters of perpetual handouts.
It depletes my soul.
It leads me in paths of dependency for the sake of patronising leftists.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of state intervention,
I will fear no conservative preaching thrift and the work ethic, for Big Government is with me; its redistribution of wealth comforts me.
You prepare a flat screen plasma TV for me in the presence of my hardworking neighbours; you anoint my imagination with cable networks; my cup runneth over with benefits.
Surely social workers and Labour politicians will follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in my four-bedroom taxpayer-funded house forever.
(Image: Hamed Parham)