Social Work and the Welfare State

As a social worker on the Hill, I have had a front row seat during battles over the welfare state. Usually, the main combatants are Republican conservatives who continue their relentless quest to reduce government’s involvement in providing for indigent Americans and Democratic progressives who believe government must be involved to ensure an adequate safety net. Conservatives want relief for the poor and disabled left to private charity. They believe citizens should not be taxed to provide welfare and other social services and should be allowed to willfully give a portion of their earnings and resources to private caregiving entities. They view the welfare state as an unlawful transfer of wealth—taking from those who worked hard to be successful and giving to people who lack the motivation and drive to do for themselves. They believe providing unemployment insurance to laid-off workers reduces their incentive to go out and find another job. They believe individual effort—personal responsibility—should be the driving force of a healthy economy.

Progressives on the other hand believe society is strongest when people work together to achieve common purposes. Jared Bernstein characterizes this debate as YOYO vs. WITT—“you’re on your own” vs. “we’re in this together”. Somehow, I believe there is more to that phrase in the Constitution’s preamble—promote the general welfare—than just providing security and an orderly society. I believe the founders had to believe in a “we’re in this together” philosophy because they knew cooperation was needed as much as competition to ensure progress. You only need to look at Congress today to understand how dysfunctional competition is without compromise.

After centuries of leaving poverty to private charity, we got the English Poor Laws. The economic crash of 1929 and the Great Depression forced the federal government to intervene in order to keep many Americans from starving. Since then we have been in this endless battle to define the parameters of the welfare state. Conservatives have been working nonstop to rollback New Deal policies. They would like to see the privatization of Social Security and the elimination of unions and other collective bargaining efforts. Progressives have been hard at work protecting safety net programs—preventing the block granting of social welfare programs, fighting against cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. All the while the economy is spiraling out of control in the favor of the wealthiest Americans. The top 0.1 percent of American families now own as much as the bottom 90 percent.

 

Inequality-Chart

Economic inequality is the mother of the modern day welfare state. Even conservatives are beginning to understand this. Arthur Brooks, president of the free enterprise promoting think tank the American Enterprise Institute, recently declared that it was time for conservatives to make peace with the welfare state—a startling comment from a hard line conservative. My guess is that he understands it is the price that must be paid for such a high level of economic inequality. In a society where income is distributed more equally, there would be a larger middle class which existed in the middle of the last century. There would be more people working because we would have more consumers with more disposable income. We would have less people needing food stamps and less people would be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit.

So, where should social workers stand on the welfare state? We should of course fight to ensure there is an adequate social safety net, but at the same time we should be looking for ways to reduce the number of people who depend on a social safety net which requires a more fair and equitable society—concepts that are foreign to conservatives. Those of us—social workers—who take seriously the profession’s commitment to social justice are the best hope for the poor and middle class. However, if we are not able to present a compelling vision about how we become a more just society then we will spend all of our energy trying to protect a burgeoning social welfare safety net.

Democrats lost big time in the midterm elections not because of the low voter turnout. They should not expect better results in 2016 because the composition of the electorate will be more in their favor. Democrats lost because they failed to present ideas to the American people about how progressive policies would make their lives and their children’s lives better. Had they been able to articulate a path to a more just and equitable society, voter turnout would not have been a problem.

What the Wealthy Have to Offer to the Study of Poverty

615 rich poor Gina Sanders shutterstock

I have often expressed my intellectual, personal and ethical discomfort with the extensive ‘subjectification’, more trendily termed “participation’, of poor people in research. Although with the lofty and well-intentioned goal of ‘understanding the poor’ or ‘understanding poverty’ does current research achieve its stated goals in order to elevate the plight of the exploited and excluded? It appeared my thoughts resonated with many people. However, I offered no alternative, so here goes.

Let’s interview the wealthy. Yes, let’s find them in their communities, offer them up something they desire, like to shake the hand of Bill, Hillary or an invite to Davos, if they aren’t already shuttling in on their private jet, and ask them pages of questions about why they do the things they do and ask them how they could do them with less harm to the world.

Poverty is not ‘created’ by the poor. And though the poor shall be with us always as the Bible says somewhere within its covers, the degree to which that poverty is experienced is easily controlled by social policies that have nothing to do with an interview with a divorced single mother of 2. Just like the rich, the poor want good childcare, good schools, a decent primary care health service that is accessible and suits their needs, and good infrastructure like roads and a pipe that brings clean water inside their doors. These are good places to start. Micro-planning at the community level with some really cool ‘innovative’ program that is designed with ‘local participation’ by all ‘stakeholders’ is a nice hippy dippy way to feel good while not really changing the lives of the billions that hover near, and wallow in, destitution.

In full disclosure, I too have created and supported such local, community-based initiatives, Maama Omwaana in Njeru, Uganda, at the invite of a Ugandan community to which my child belongs. I struggled with my role as ‘expert’ that seemed to have been granted as much for my learned ways as for my foreign status. I did not want to practice what Bill Easterly described in the title of his book as ‘The Tyranny of Experts’ and tried hard to make myself increasingly unnecessary until I was. That the local initiative grew to national action, with the support of the White Ribbon Alliance, has provided some salve to my wounded and conflicted professional identity as community organizer and public health professional.

The solutions that brought the US and the EU to ‘manageable’ levels of poverty (and the sarcasm is dripping from this statement as the degree of poverty in the USA and UK is far from acceptable) are a good start: government-funded healthcare, investment in a good education system that starts early and ends with a useful qualification, other necessary infrastructure such as roads, individual and industrial waste management and clean water, and a decent wage. I would argue that the money spent on a dysentery vaccine could go much farther if united with the various initiatives to get people clean water, which would make a dysentery vaccine null and void.

It is a sad, sad story that clean water is widely, readily and profitably provided by Coca Cola, whether in fancy flavors of Fanta, or in containers with the classic red/black product logo known in every cranny of the universe, or the ‘purified’ H2O in their everywhere-present Dasani bottles. Why Coke has a choke hold on clean water is a much better question than asking some poor woman about where she wants her well or giving her some ‘innovative yet simple’ gadget to filter the crap she and her daughter(s) must go miles to fetch. (And of course there is the micro-loan to make it a micro-enterprise for her to sell said gadget to her friends). It is also a sad commentary on our own efforts at managing waste that we dump such waste unto those who can’t afford to say no, whether at home or abroad.

The emphasis on individual or local community based solutions to national and international problems created by the same rich people who want to shine their ugly metal by donating some of the funds they earned through rampant capitalism and tax-dodging (through off-shore shenanigans and eponymous grant-giving enterprises), will always be broadly ineffective.

I am not suggesting that every country can be the idealized model of Sweden and the rest of the fabulous nanny states that are Scandinavia. However, basic needs can be met without serving pre-schoolers breakfast on white tablecloths with proper cutlery. Denmark may be forward-thinking and smartly self-serving in providing not only free tertiary education, but a stipend to make sure one can eat and house themselves without graduating into poverty (more poverty than the guy in the hut because his negative cash flow is likely to be much lower than the newly minted college grad of the UK or USA), but they need not be alone. The price of a college education need not equal the downpayment on, or full price of, a house (depending on whether it’s Birmingham or San Francisco).

There is a widely-translated document called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which Eleanor Roosevelt led the charging in writing that was adopted by many countries in Paris in 1948, and many more countries since then. If instead of asking poor people questions about their lives (they’re happy even though they’re poor!), and offering them up all manner of ‘innovative’ ‘solutions;(because I suppose what worked for us wont work for them), we started by providing people with the most basic of rights to which the UDHR said that we all deserve, then the question of poverty would be less pressing. If countries would ‘clawback’ their countries resources which has been ravished from the bowels of Angola, Nigeria, the ‘stans’, the Congo etc ad nauseum and provide these basic rights to decent housing, food, hygiene, education and a living wage, then we could stop poking and prodding poor people as if they are a species newly discovered.

The Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601 began an approach towards poor people in which places like the United States has not far evolved. That which the Otto von Bismarck initiated in Germany in the late nineteenth century is still not provided in the USA in the early 21st century. It doesn’t take a genius or some Ivy-housed researcher to understand the basic starting point on which all human endeavour should be founded. Neither does it take randomized controlled trials to know that clean water and a way to get rid of human waste would solve a whole lot of global health problems.

The issue is about who do we think have the answers. I propose and would strongly argue that the people who create and maintain systems of inequality, exploitation, discrimination and exclusion are the people who have the answers to the problems created by these conditions. Instead, let’s ask the Forbes 400 how they feel about their wealth or perhaps some of the 1,645 billionaires that Forbes* says controls $6.4 trillion dollars could spend an hour or two on a questionnaire.

Let’s ask them how they feel when they pay wages they know remove the dignity of life from their workers, or how it feels to have pulled the lever of internet IPOs and won the Silicon Valley jackpot. Give them the tools to learn how to share that which they took, by luck or design, and how to learn to take less and give more. Maybe all they need is a drive through neighborhoods they only know from the nightly news or the front page headlines of the New York Times, The Guardian, Times of India etc.

If the people who settle themselves so wonderfully in the money/power fest utilized Davos to truly discuss collaborations to bring pipes to South Asia the way they found a way to get minerals out of the Congo, perhaps all that poking at poor people will abate and we can live in a more just and humane world. Instead we are stuck with their eponymous foundations that live on forever as their glorious legacy while their offspring drown in their wealth for generations.

But, I suppose since that is about as likely to happen as ice in the Caribbean, then we can all fall back on our prestigious documents that prove our intellect as we dither about on planes, trains and fancy automobiles changing the world one village and one family at a time. If we settle for that then we deserve broken backs as we fall.

*Kerry A. Dolan & Luisa Kroll, Forbes, Inside the 2014 Forbes Billionaires List: Facts and Figures. Retrieved on September 18, 2014 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/luisakroll/2014/03/03/inside-the-2014-forbes-billionaires-list-facts-and-figures/

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