Do we live in hard times? The Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens, asked such questions in his wonderful books. Roll forward 150 years and it is more than possible you, or a neighbour, or someone you know, are touched by Dickensian dilemmas right now.

What does the word Dickensian even mean? Googling provides a definition: “When you talk about poverty or extreme social inequality, subjects that Dickens famously examined in his novels . . . bleak scenes of hardship – homeless families, hungry children, squalid living spaces, or unsafe working conditions”.

So here goes for the Dickens test on austerity Britain . . .

Workhouses figure a lot in Dickens’ world. You know, those bleak, hellish Bastilles of extreme poverty where poor people were dumped to die. Our local one can be found on the Huntington Road, thankfully converted into flats. It all came under the hated Poor Law, a horrible social tool to bully and further impoverish anyone not capable of competing in the Victorian jobs market.

That was then? Perhaps not. 3,300 people in York accessed food banks in order not to go hungry over the last year. Such temporary-fix “welfare” was known as “outdoor relief” in Dickens’ day. In addition, reports mushroom of vulnerable disabled and terminally ill people declared fit for work after tests excluded them from access to benefits. 17,070 disability claimants have died while waiting for decisions on personal independence payment (PIP) claims since 2013.

As for Universal Credit, it seems designed to fuel poverty not alleviate it, casting millions of families into chronic debt through payday loans and overdrafts, not to mention the lurking threat of homelessness and destitution.

What of public health? Victorian cities were notoriously unhealthy places due to the smog from coal and wood fuels (the forerunners of our current carbon emissions crisis). These conditions stunted the growth of whole generations of children.

Lo and behold, the same problem occurs in a different form today. Mike Penrose, the executive director of UNICEF, commenting on a study with the Royal College of Paediatrics, said UK children were caught in a public health emergency. The impacts of air pollution include damaging effects on teenage mental health and “huge” reductions in general intelligence among children growing up in polluted areas, as well as a record number of asthma deaths.

Mr Penrose said: “The impact of toxic air is undeniable. The UK is home to more children suffering from respiratory conditions than anywhere else in Europe. Every 20 minutes a child experiencing an asthma attack is admitted to hospital.” Dickens would have recognised this crisis: he loved to point out the beneficial, sustaining influence of the green, natural world for human happiness. Especially for the young, our best hope for the future.

Other health issues, too, would not have seemed unfamiliar to the great writer. Despite the continued existence of the NHS after a decade of underfunding and stealth-privatisation from the government, doctors are reporting a worrying new trend.

Recent research reveals a sharp rise in hospital visits for diseases that were common during the Victorian era, such as scarlet fever, whooping cough and gout. All this despite those illnesses being virtually eradicated in the 1950s. Even the national disgrace of rickets is back. Why are we going backward? How? Ask the government who have cut public welfare spending so needlessly and heartlessly.

We could also ask Charles Dickens himself. Though a deeply flawed man, he understood the need for compassion for all our fellow citizens, and that goodwill, not greed for personal financial advantage, should drive a society’s individual and collective behaviour. Indeed, that how we treat the so-called “poor” defines us all.

Dickens once wrote: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another”. He also urged us, “Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.” We live in an age of such self-destructive and pervasive cynicism his idealism may seem quaint. But I say, let’s get Dickensian in the best sense of the word.