Welfare in Britain has had a long and tumultuous journey; from parishes and poorhouses to a pension for over 70s (when the average life expectancy was 48!), the social care system has taken many forms. Over the years the service has grown to include housing, Jobseeker’s Allowance, disability allowance, child benefits and other various pockets of social welfare depending on local councils and their own allocation of funds.
Yet Britain’s social services have never enjoyed the spotlight as much as they do now, and with sensationalized articles telling us how badly our benefits system is being abused with alarming regularity, it’s no wonder.
Articles on people cheating the system are splashed across headlines and transformed into public opinion with increasing frequency. The single mother with more children than she can afford; the lay-about with no job; the drug-addict spending their monthly allowance on a single high; the immigrant using their benefits cheques to build a villa in their home country, are but a few well-recognised stereotypes of the people using and abusing the UK social welfare system – and the reason why cuts to this sector should be justified.
So is the system being abused and are lazy poor people really the problem? And most importantly, what does Islam have to say on the issue of social welfare?
Poverty: cause or symptom?
In the 2015-2016 fiscal year £1.9 billion was lost to fraudulent benefit claims; tax evasion by the rich on the other hand cost the government £5.2 billion. Tax avoidance cost us another £1.7 billion, and if you add to that tax lost to the shadow economy (such as off-shore accounts) it brings the total to a whopping £88.3 billion lost by the British government due to the top 10%.
That’s nearly 50 times more money than due to dodgy benefits claims.
Meanwhile in the United States, a 2015 report by the Institute for Policy Studies revealed “that America’s 20 wealthiest people now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.”
But this conversation is about more than just a growing gap between the rich and poor. As one Guardian columnist put it: “I have never heard poor people complain about “income inequality”; poor people complain about being screwed out of housing, or about working more hours for less pay or about having to choose between medicine and food.”
The idea that we don’t have enough money to fund our schools or healthcare systems is ludicrous, and putting the blame on a group of people inherently unable to fight back makes them the perfect scapegoat. It redirects public anger and, with it, public funding.
But should we be surprised at this manipulation of public sentiment?
John Bird, founder of the Big Issue Magazine, wrote in 2012, “Poverty is the backbone of contemporary capitalism,” a sentiment echoed throughout much of the literature on wealth inequality.
The capitalist model ultimately sees society as consumers and producers, such that this rift between rich and poor is always only set to increase. Producers make their products cheap to appeal to consumers, who buy them and make them rich.
A different status quo
In the 7th century, there was a system under which so few people needed benefits that the national treasury had no one to give money to. People paid 2.5% of their income towards taxation and were advised to make use of their assets or risk having them repossessed by the state (i.e. no homeless people seeking shelter in doorways of empty luxury tower blocks).
Everyone had a basic right to shelter, food and clothing – not in a symbolic, “the UN obligates we endorse this” sense but as an actual responsibility of the state. So, though it was not private villas and paradise for everyone across the board, a system was in place to ensure people’s basic needs were being met.
This system was, of course, Islam in Arabia under the caliph Umar ibn Abdul-Aziz.
However, this benefits system did not exist in isolation. A portion of the burden was shouldered by the aggregate of the members of society who recognised their individual duties to the society as a whole. While the individual had a duty to work, the state had a duty to provide opportunities to work. If a person was unable to work due to age, sickness or disability then the duty to provide fell upon those that the law deemed responsible for their provision (father, brother, uncle) – and if the responsible individuals were financially unable to support them, then the state treasury would step in.
“And in their wealth there is a right acknowledged. For the beggar and the destitute.” [Al-Ma’arij: 24-25]
This system recognized the importance of basic needs to the extent where, if the state failed to provide the right to food, then one had the right to take whatever he needed to support himself, as summarized in the statement of the Prophet ﷺ:
“There is no amputation in time of famine.” (Narrated by Abu Umamah)
More broadly speaking, there are certain commodities that cannot be privately owned, such as water, fuel and pasture lands. The Islamic economic system bans hoarding of wealth and has policies which prevent certain monopolies in order to actively encourage circulation and distribution of wealth.
Tax evasion also holds serious consequences, as the Prophet ﷺ warned:
“Whoever is made wealthy by Allah and does not pay the Zakat of his wealth, then on the Day of Resurrection his wealth will be made like a bald-headed poisonous male snake with two black spots over the eyes. The snake will encircle his neck and bite his cheeks and say, ‘I am your wealth, I am your treasure.’ ” (Sahih Al-Bukhari)
Caring for the less fortunate and donating wealth to charity is also lauded as a positive thing with immeasurable benefits in the eternal life, without fearing a loss of one’s own wealth by doing so.
“Any community, whosoever they are, if a person among them became hungry; they will be removed from the protection of Allah the Blessed, the Supreme.”
These few regulations barely scratch the surface of the depth of the economic system Islam advocates.
Yet it is already clear that, unlike capitalism, Islam views people as not just workhorses or consumers who should be responsible for their own success or downfall (NB: privilege is real, folks) but members of a society who should be looking out for their collective well-being.
Most importantly, we cannot forget the divine origin of Islam: how can we argue that any system designed for and kept afloat by a small, obscenely wealthy elite is better than one made by our Creator ﷻ?
It is becoming increasingly clear that no matter which government is in power – be it Tory or Labour – the issue of increasing poverty and inequality of wealth is not one that can be solved by either increased spending or budget cuts.
No matter which silver-tongued politician/too-tanned buffoon/down-to-earth rebel is head of the government, you cannot escape the truth of the system; the rules of the game are set. And as long as we play by these rules, the outcome is inevitable.
Many Muslims, in an attempt to embody the compassion of Rasulullah ﷺ, take on numerous social justice causes, including caring for the homeless and destitute. Yet we should remember that not only does Islam obligate us to be vocal about oppression we see others experiencing, but we should also address its root causes and pursue the holistic solutions our deen provides us.