Reimagining social welfare: Lessons from Geneva’s transformation

Jan 11, 2018 by

by Jonathan Tame and Luke Tame, Jubilee Centre:

Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.  

Zechariah 7:9–10

 For consider too the conditions on which God places benefits in the hands of the rich: so that they may have both the opportunity and ability to help their poor neighbours. 

John Calvin


Britain’s social welfare system is facing a long-term crisis in sustainability, particularly due to the size of the government’s unfunded pension liabilities. On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation we look to Geneva as a case study in an approach to social welfare shaped by Christian principles. We examine how Calvin and the city-state set up an integrated system for welfare provision through the General Hospital, and poverty prevention by strengthening families and education. Five main themes are drawn out, which provide some historical distance to our own challenges regarding social welfare. The paper then considers how marriage and extended families could be strengthened, and local churches and Christian organisations can become welfare advocates in their communities.

Introduction: social welfare in crisis

William Beveridge’s 1942 report launched the modern British welfare state,[1] which was implemented by the post-war Labour government. It established universal provision of education, free healthcare, and an insurance-based system of social welfare providing benefits to people who were sick, unemployed, retired or widowed. Beveridge was the architect of the welfare state but the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, helped provide the moral vision for it, through his book published the same year, Christianity and the Social Order.

Although the welfare state has achieved much, it has struggled to cope with changing economic and social conditions, and is under severe strain. The persistence of the ‘poverty trap’ in which millions of unemployed people are no better off working compared to living on benefits, the phenomenal growth of food banks,[2] low levels of out-of-work benefits and rising numbers of people sleeping rough[3] are symptoms of a system that is failing to provide the safety net against poverty it was created to ensure. Added to these practical problems is a deeper crisis in legitimacy, as what started out as a contributory system, in which the amount you pay in affects the amount you are able to draw in benefits, quickly became one that redistributes wealth based on means-testing – with profound changes to the relationship between taxpayers and those in receipt of benefits.[4]

The welfare system in Britain is one of the most centralised amongst high income countries, which makes it susceptible to politically-motivated reorganisation by each new government. However, when the system is looked at from the timescale of a generation rather than a parliament, one factor towers over the other challenges mentioned above: the ballooning cost of future welfare provision for an ageing population. Since 2012 the government has published the size of its unfunded welfare liabilities (obligations to future payments which have no source of funding apart from general tax and national insurance revenues). According to the TaxPayers’ Alliance, in 2014–15, unfunded liabilities for pensions alone came to £5,249 billion[5] – nearly three times the UK national income.

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