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Opinion

Giving feels good, but nothing will ever change if we only offer help without opportunity

Donations alone won’t fix poverty – we need to also offer a chance, writes Big Issue founder John Bird.

Isn’t it interesting to note that when the state started to create support for poor and needy people, they took the example of Scrooge, post the bad dreams, after he became a determined giver. Yet the state has been accused of being more like the earlier Scrooge, before he made his miraculous conversion to amplified generosity.

That is, it handed out money and support that did not lead to anywhere particular, but provided some relief to people in need. Social security, which keeps most people in some sort of need as they live in a perpetual emergency of balancing a limited budget, is actually not very secure. Or if it is, it doesn’t feel so.

The state itself mostly lives in a state of emergency, just making do, patching up problems, leaving many of them to be addressed at some later date. So in facing poverty and its dominant presence in our lives, it is not surprising that the state fails to engage in long term thinking, because it’s really a big machine churning out an emergency response to social crisis.

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Turning giving into something brilliant because it takes someone somewhere else – a hand up and not a handout – is likely to involve some hard thinking. It would involve rewiring the way that we give, and why we give. We are all trained to give relief and see it as the end of the story. Not the beginning of a new story where the giving provides opportunity and not just hope.

Of course, when Scrooge hands out turkeys and holidays at the end of A Christmas Carol – one of the most historically defining stories ever told – he laid us open to a few hundred years or so of giving, but giving that is not dynamic.

Last week I spoke at a church in Mayfair about the reinvention of giving: turning giving into something that is life changing. That ups people’s chance of getting out of poverty and not simply just lingering in it, slightly better provided for.

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I had a good audience and I think I got my point over that we have to make giving “sticky”: it’s got to lead to better places, not simply keep people in continuing dependence.

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The streets of Mayfair I walked through to my talk reminded me of my days as a boy when I delivered meat to wealthy people in Knightsbridge and parts of Mayfair. A spirit of Christmas decorated the streets and shops. One could not get away from the images that Dickens had conjured up in his Christmas story.

Coincidentally, I had not been to the church I spoke in since pre-Christmas 1963, when I went to a memorial service for the late John F Kennedy. He had been killed just before Christmas got into its stride, and here I was 58 years later to talk about giving. It was an appropriate place for the service because back then the US embassy was just around the corner; though now it’s being converted into a luxury hotel and retail hub.

Kennedy’s family escaped the poverty of the Irish potato famine, made it to the States and through a process of conniving and wheeler-dealing made their way into the aristocracy. They got out of poverty into enormous wealth. If they ever received state aid, it was never a bar to their enhancement. The fact that much of their income was not strictly legal seemed to go with the times. It’s surprising how many people’s exit from poverty was often achieved with an element of wrongdoing. Did not the richest and most famous man on earth, John D Rockefeller, sum it up elegantly: “I will tell you everything about my money except how I made my first million.”

It is difficult to escape Scrooge at this time of year. He has become almost more important than Father Christmas. He looms above us to encourage us to think of those who need help at this festive time.

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The Mayfair I knew as a boy, though, has disappeared. Back then there were little slum streets, butchers and bakers and hardware stores. Cafes for the many workers who maintained the houses and shops. Now it is a promised land for some people who have the means and the desire.

My big message to the congregation of the Mayfair church I spoke at was that unless giving is made dynamic and does actually transform people’s lives, you will still have many people in poverty who – given education and social opportunity – would become the givers and not the receivers. Yes, “let’s turn the receivers into givers” was my simple message.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.

@johnbirdswords

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