Monday 9 December 2013

What's wrong with the special shop for poor people?

Five a day: Fruit and vegetables at the shop, which does not sell tobacco or alcohol are heavily discounted
I remember hearing the visionary co-production pioneer Edgar Cahn talk about the defence of his National Legal Services Programme, the service that helped organisations to sue the government to enforce their rights.

He had urged the programme over the years to ask the people they were helping to give something back, but they never quite got round to doing so. Then suddenly, in 1994, there was a Republican landslide, determined to reduce the federal budget deficit, and a young maverick called Newt Gingrich was in the House of Representatives, looking for ways of saving money.

The Republicans had never much liked the Legal Services Programme anyway, so the scene was set for the inevitable congressional hearings before it was shut down.

Only the California Rural Legal Assistance Programme agreed to his giving back plan, and the programme was duly cut by a third and hamstrung in other ways. 

The hearings were held in Congress. But out of the three million people a year which the programme had helped for 33 years – that’s about 100 million households – not one client turned up at the hearings to defend it. 

A year or so later, Cahn’s own law school was also under threat. This was the District of Columbia School of Law, which was modelled on a teaching hospital. Students follow the proposals that Cahn put forward. They go out into the community and give legal help, but they don’t just give it. They ask for something back through one of the time banks in a Baptist church or in local housing complexes. 

It was a difficult campaign to win, given that Washington already had six law schools and a massive budget deficit. Even the Washington Post was calling for it to be closed. But hearings organised by the District of Columbia Council didn’t go the same way as the ones in Congress. 

Those who had been helped, and paid back, came out in droves to support the law school and it stayed open. Giving something back for the help they had received had made people defend the law school. Perhaps because it was more equal. It wasn’t charity any more.

Cahn describes this as the power of ‘reciprocity’. It provides an accelerating energy for organisations and businesses. Without those ties of obligation, and that sense of a relationship, the energy dips and dissipates; with it, the energy carries on. 

When there are these reciprocal links between people, the organisations seem to get a kind of stickiness about them: they generate a power to keep people involved.  More about this in my book The Human Element.

I thought of that when the Daily Mail reported yesterday the emergence of a new kind of community shop which has just opened in Barnsley.  It is just for people on benefits, and only 500 can join.  It sells food rejected by the big supermarkets because of minor packaging mistakes, and which would otherwise go in the anaerobic digester, and it sells it at 70 per cent less than the supermarkets.

The shop has come in for criticism in some circles, as you might expect for a special shop for poor people.  I don't share their concern, except in one respect: there is no reciprocity.

That is why it seems uncomfortable.  Without giving back, perhaps by working in the shop as co-owners, perhaps in some other way, the shop would provide some dignity and standing for those using it.  It would build energy and become a community; without that, the energy will dissipate.

Without any reciprocal involvement it is just charity, and charity - as Mary Douglas put it - tends to wound.  If you just accept charity and give nothing back, it undermines your dignity and  sense of self.  In short, there may be an opportunity missed here.

The Barnsley community shop is a template for another 20 branches due to open around the country.  It is a good idea, enlightened and important, but it is missing something that could make it transformative.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


1. Food banks that give away food are being charitable. These shops, however, will be selling food - that would otherwise have to be destroyed – to people on benefits. There is no charity involved.

2. People’s benefit payments are not charity either. Nor are they somehow ‘our’ money. People pay for possible benefit entitlement over their lives through their taxes and National Insurance. Nobody in receipt of benefits should be expected to make some sort of additional ‘pay back’.

My personal view is that changes to benefits over the last few decades do actually involve reciprocity but negative reciprocity. We lost income-related benefits. Others became time-limited or had various restrictions imposed. Theft is an extreme case of negative reciprocity.