In liberal democratic societies, decades of welfare cuts and austerity policies have exacerbated poverty. This has coincided with a growth in charity initiatives, such as food banks and pop-up facilities for the homeless. These initiatives try to plug the gap left by the state, but often lack the resources and capacity to do so adequately. Some have interpreted these changes as an effort by governments to save money by transferring responsibility for addressing poverty to civil society. Our research reveals that there is more to the story: charity is promoted for what it symbolises, not just for its capacity to reduce public expenditure.
We examined the changing relationship between the welfare state and charity in Australia. Our analysis shows that much of the poverty that charity responds to is in fact the result of welfare retrenchment. The rate of unemployment benefits has not risen in real terms since 1996, and today’s recipients’ live well below the poverty line. Investment in social housing has also fallen, contributing to declining housing affordability and rising homelessness.
People experiencing poverty are thus increasingly turning to charity to survive. The number of people accessing foodbanks increased by 22% between 2018 and 2019 alone. Charities providing government-subsided ‘emergency relief’ payments report that half of all recipients accessed this support three or more times in a 6-month period. These data thus suggest that welfare recipients are relying on charity to supplement their inadequate incomes.
Importantly, the growing role charity does not translate into reduced public spending. Although Australian governments have cut welfare programmes, they are at the same time directing significant amounts of public resources to supporting charitable responses to poverty. Government funding to charities providing ‘social services’ as their main activity increased by 62% between 2014 and 2017 alone (see Figure 1). In the State of Queensland, the State Government went so far as to set up a dedicated fund (titled ‘Dignity First’) to provide grants to charities offering ‘innovative’ responses to homelessness, such as the provision of mobile laundry and shower facilities, diverting money away from evidenced-based housing programmes.
Figure 1. Trends in government revenue, by year and charity’s main activity. Notes: Data from the Australian Charities and Non-for-profits Commission (ACNC) Annual Information Statement Data, 2014/2017. All figures adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index and expressed in expressed in Australian dollars adjusted to 2017 prices.
Drawing on these statistics and our own policy analyses, we challenge the perception that charity is merely a crutch for welfare cutbacks. Instead, we argue that charity is seen by government as a worthy pursuit in its own right. This is perhaps surprising, as research has shown charity is a relatively ineffective approach to addressing poverty. Yet, it is less surprising when looked at in relation to changing political ideals regarding citizenship and the good society. This perspective reveals that charity has symbolic value for governments and others invested in promoting new citizenship ideals. In our research, we argue that the promotion of charity is about realising the ideals of ‘ethical citizenship’.
The term ‘ethical citizenship’ was coined by sociologist Nikolas Rose to describe the new citizenship ideals emerging in contemporary liberal democracies. Rose argues that the 20th century’s emphasis on citizens’ right to social protection is giving way to a new focus on citizens’ ethical duty to look after themselves and their communities. Today, the ‘good citizen’ is imagined as someone who mobilises their community to provide bottom-up responses to social problems, rather than waiting for government to do it for them. Originally associated with the Third Way politics of Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the UK, ethical citizenship has also influenced Australian politics. This is exemplified by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s claim that true Australians are people who endeavour to ‘make a contribution rather than take one’.
There is perhaps no better example of ‘making a contribution’ than engaging in charity. Indeed, found that charity is held up as an emblem of ethical citizenship in Australian political rhetoric. For example, in 2016, the founders of homelessness charity Orange Sky Laundry were bestowed the prestigious Young Australians of the Year Award, which is aimed at ‘profiling leading citizens who are role models for us all’. Following the award, the Premier of Queensland—the state where Orange Sky originated—described its founders as going ‘above and beyond to make a difference, reminding us all of what it truly means to be a Queenslander‘. Other politicians praised them for their ‘generosity’ and for ‘building community on every corner of every street’.
The shifting balance between traditional welfare and charitable responses to poverty is thus bound up with efforts to cultivate ethical citizenship. Far from merely reducing public spending, welfare cuts create a need for charity at the same time as governments provide charity with increasing financial and symbolic support. The problem with this approach is that it treats the growth of charity as an end in itself, with little concern for whether it actually alleviates poverty. For instance, the New South Wales Government justified providing financial support to Orange Sky because it helped them ‘deliver their vision of expanding nationally as quickly as possible’.
While it assumed that that the good will of the ‘ethical citizens’ providing charity will translate into good outcomes for charity recipients, little attention is paid to the actual need, experiences and outcomes of people who use charity due to poverty. Receiving charity is often a shameful experience, and one that people in poverty will avoid unless they are desperate.
There is also a question about what the cultivation of ethical citizenship means for the citizenship status of people who rely on charity—those who, in Morrison’s words, ‘take’ rather than ‘make’ a contribution. People in poverty typically lack the means or capacity to practice charity themselves, and there are limited opportunities for them to reciprocate the generosity they receive from others. If recognition as a good citizen requires the fulfilment of the ethical duty to ‘contribute’, people in poverty are at risk of being positioned as less than full citizens.
This is not to say that we see no place for charity in addressing poverty. We acknowledge that citizens’ desire to help others is a positive thing, and something we should indeed try to harness. However, we advocate for forms of charity that prioritise meeting the self-defined needs of their recipients, and for public praise and accolades to be dispensed only when charity contributes to eliminating poverty. Moreover, charity should always be coupled with robust welfare states committed to guaranteeing the social rights of all their citizens. Only then can charity become more than a ‘band-aid’ solution.
About the authors
Cameron Parsell is Professor at the University of Queensland.
Andrew Clarke is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland.
Francisco Perales is Associate Professor at the University of Queensland.