John Bird: 'We are living in an age of giving, but also in an age of taking'

From the Politeia Christmas Address, by the founder of The Big Issue, delivered at the think-tank's headquarters in central London
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Each Christmas, great efforts are made to raise funds for homeless people who would otherwise lie abandoned in their doorways or their hostels. When I was homeless for periods in the Sixties, there was no provision for people like me. Christmas was a bad time. Thankfully those days are past. Now, homeless people can have a dignified Christmas. In Christmas shelters seasonal goodwill flourishes and valuable health checks are made, giving the homeless the chance to sort out various problems.

So Christmas is now a time when homeless people can almost feel whole and human. They are made to feel wanted. Until they are put out into the often icy winds of the first days of January, food, comfort and company are lavished upon them. The generosity of the public ensures that homeless people in shelters have, for once, a real sense of their own well-being.

Then they have to return, like the rest of us, to the ordinary world. But unlike us, they face a stop-gap life for the rest of the year. Back in their hostels and doorways, they manage to "get by". So the high point of Christmas only serves to illuminate the low point of the rest of the year.

Christmas seems to me to drive home the fruitlessness of our efforts to use our social security system to turn poor people into full citizens, contributing to society - socially engineering them into stability. Christmas help seems to me a desperate act. "We can't get them straight, so let's at least give them a good Christmas."

Mr Blair declared in his government's early years that we live in an age of "giving". My response is, that if we live in an age of giving then we must also be living in an age of "taking". Taking is one sure-fire way of ensuring that the recipient ends up on the list of the socially failing. Taking often leads people to underperform.

I say we have to cut off the supply of the needy as much as we help the needy. And for all the rhetoric that surrounds governmental action, it panders to an increasingly expensive status quo. A status quo that soon no one will be able to afford.