One third of the content of this blog is from an essay I wrote. The rest is opinion. The essay got me thinking.
For the sake of transparency, social justice has always been a subject of which I am passionate about – borne out of a set of values I grew up with but also through the experiences of personal struggle despite a modest financial background (privileged by all intents and purposes if we were to compare it to two-thirds of the rest of the world). While I managed to overcome those struggles, the experience led to a recognition and an empathy for the struggle of others – a struggle which might be prevented – and and understanding that the devastating costs to them, their family and society might in fact be unnecessary.
Social Justice & Social Policy 101
Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.Defining “social policy” however is more difficult simply because social policy relates to anything to do with family life – and it could be argued that all policy relates to family life and either positively or negatively affects family life in some way. To attempt to define social policy, we might look at some examples of past and current issues that have been cause for debate politically for New Zealand that would be described as social policy. These include (but are not limited to) Tangata Whenua/Biculturalism and the Treaty of Waitangi, Gender issues, Housing, Human Rights, Child Abuse, Child Poverty, Welfare issues, Health and Mental Health policies, Education policies, Employment policies.
Wellness and Human Rights
Coming from a background in nursing, my understanding of “wellness” has always been an holistic one – incorporating the physical, emotional/psychosocial, cultural, spiritual aspects of a person. Author Humphrey McQueen writes that wellness is affected by education, employment, housing, working conditions and nutrition as well as healthcare. The controversy lies in whether these are a human right (or to what degree they are a human right) and each political ideology has a different take on it.
What Political Ideology Do You Subscribe To?
While there are a wide range of political ideologies, for the purpose of simplicity, I will describe the main political ideologies that these fall under: Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism and the “Third Way”.
Key elements of Liberalism include individualism, freedom, reason, equality, toleration, consent and constitutionalism. Variations of Liberals include classic and modern liberalism. Heywood in “Political Ideologies” writes: “Individualism is the core principle of liberal ideology. It reflects a belief in the supreme importance of the human individual as opposed to any social group or collective body. Human beings are seen, first and foremost, as individuals.” Liberalism believes in and values individual freedom (or liberty) and this is given priority over equality, justice or authority. In terms of “reason” liberals believe that the world has a rational structure and that individuals possess the ability to exercise human reason and critical enquiry and therefore make wise judgments on their own behalf and usually for their own best interests. Liberals believe that people are “born equal” and are “morally equal” and are born to an equal playing field to that of others and success is based on their own achievement and therefore support the idea of meritocracy. Liberals believe in “freedom of speech” and tolerance of all speech is enriching to society. Liberals believe in consent or willing agreement between authority as well as social relationship and while they may believe that Government is vital to stability – they do believe in limited Government.
Key elements of Conservatism include tradition, pragmatism, human imperfection, organicism, hierarchy, authority and property. Variations of Conservatives include paternalistic conservatism, neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. Conservatives value tradition and cleave to ideas that have been “tested through time” and which promotes security and stability. Abstract thoughts and principles are distrusted and faith is placed in experience, history and pragmatism – the belief that action should be a product of practical circumstances and practical goals. Invariably, conservatives believe that human beings are corrupted by selfishness, greed and the thirst for power and therefore Government is needed for the enforcement of strict laws and harsh penalties. They believe that a hierarchy of social position and status is a natural part of organic society, that a person’s “station in life” is a product of luck or “accident of birth” and that those more privileged have a duty to care for the “less fortunate”. This belief in hierarchy is also represented in their view of authority where people are governed from the “top down” and give leadership and guidance to those ranking lower in the hierarchy as they are seen to lack knowledge, experience or education. They also believe families to be the “fabric of society”and that property is vital to security, stability and independence from Government.
Socialism developed “as a reaction against the emergence of industrial capitalism” writes Heywood. Key elements of socialism are community, fraternity, social equality, need, social class and common ownership. Variations of Socialism include Marxism, Communism and Social-Democracy. The core value of Socialism is the importance of Community – or the social interaction and membership of social groups and collective bodies. The idea that “no man is an Island” also points to the belief that behaviour can be a product of nurture (social factors) rather than nature (innate qualities). Socialists favour co-operation to competition and collectivism over individualism working towards the outcome of building community as opposed to creating further isolation and conflict. What is also central to a Socialist’s point of view is social equality. Unlike the Liberals, Socialists believe that it is not enough that people are considered morally equal – but that socially, there should be equal outcomes and not just equal opportunities. To achieve this, Socialists believe that material benefits should be distributed based on need rather than merit or work. While modern Socialists have moved away from the notion of common ownership, “the Socialist’s goal is either the eradication of economic and social inequalities or their substantial reduction.”
In the 1990’s, in response to decades in opposition, the British Labour Party came up with a strategy now recognized as the “Third Way.” While upholding the core values of Social-Democracy in terms of social justice, equality and individual freedom, according to Anthony Giddens (academic on the Third Way) it was decided that they had to “find a new balance between individual and collective responsibilities…somewhere between the extremes of ‘uncaring’ individualism on the right and ‘costly’ collectivism on the left.” New Zealand’s version of “Third Way”was the Clark-led Labour Government.
Child Poverty and Social Policy
To explore social policy fully, we could reasonably take any issue relevant to family “wellness”, but let’s take a look at the issue of child poverty and the role of welfare in New Zealand as an example. Why? Because children are arguably the most vulnerable within our society:
- They do not choose the environment to which they are born and raised
- They do not have a voice unless it is given to them
- They are (for the most part) powerless
- They are dependent upon the adults in their lives and the influence of society
And also I happen to value them.
A Socialist’s View on Child Poverty
In 2011, Bryan Bruce made a documentary series on Child Poverty in New Zealand called “Inside Child Poverty” where he revealed the experiences of 1 in 5 children in New Zealand living below the poverty line In his response to what could be described as a “Third Way” Budget in an election year (2014) delivered by John Key and Bill English from the National Government, Bruce wrote on his Facebook page about the intervention he wanted to see from the Government in response to child poverty. He writes that the Government had moved from a position of denial of child poverty in 2011 to now a reluctant acknowledgment and that the Budget included some spending towards reducing child poverty such as free healthcare for children under the age of 13 (whereas heathcare was not free for children under 6 in 2011), and that there was now a move towards warrants of fitness for homes to address the number of children hospitalized with respiratory illnesses; but he implores his readership to vote according to those parties who would put in place policies that would intervene to prevent or improve child poverty in New Zealand. Specifically he mentions warrants of fitness for all rental properties, increasing paid parental leave to one year, the introduction of free 24/7 medical care for everyone under 18, state ownership of the entire electricity system to be run as a public utility and not-for-profit, a living wage rather than a minimum wage, the removal of GST from food and an introduction on luxury tax, creating state loans to build affordable housing, and taking part in a cross party talks after the election to end child poverty. Bruce’s social policy would closely align with a Socialist’s point of view.
In reference to the budget (where $5 million was directed towards spending on families), Michael Timmons from the “The Daily Blog” writes “The true nature of this government has been on show in recent weeks. We have seen consistent evidence of a government ruling for the economic elite with little or no regard for the broader population. The actions of this government speak to an arrogance and commensurate sense of entitlement. This is shared with our own economic elite and replicated across the western world through the tentacles of neo-liberalism – a failed economic experiment that holds on desperately through the continued corruption of political life and the imposed consent of the masses while entrenching inequality.” Timmins writes that he believes New Zealanders live in a hegemonic society. He says, “For decades we had a social welfare system – although not perfect – that provided a safety net driven by compassion for our fellow members of society. The language of the neo-liberals, however, removed any references to “compassion” or “fairness”, while instead using the mantra of “dependence”, leading to social exclusion and blame of those in need of assistance.” He goes on to describe (in his words) the ignorance of privilege by neo-liberals and the outcomes of their social policies: “…the blame directed at the poorest is used to mask policies aimed at providing for the wealthy. More cynically, this strategy of blame creates a wedge between the working poor and those receiving assistance. Beneficiaries are blamed for the lack of money for the working poor when in truth it has been siphoned off to the wealthy. This is evident in the concentration of wealth in the top 10% as we tilt towards an oligarchy. Collateral damage in this deliberate exclusion? The children: now with 285,000 in poverty. In New Zealand.”
A Liberal’s View on Child Poverty
In stark contrast, blogger and liberal Lindsay Mitchell writing on Welfare Reform writes “two thirds of the child poverty problem relates to DPB reliance and she estimates that 60,000 children belong in welfare families born to teenagers. She criticizes reports from Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) focusing on human rights rather than individual responsibility. She writes, “Poor, uneducated girls have less to lose when choosing or failing to avoid premature parenthood. A benefit will pay equal to or more than working full time at the minimum wage. Yet the major recommendation advanced by CPAG is to increase benefits. Given the above set of circumstances, it isn’t difficult to anticipate what raising benefits may do. Increase the number of children on benefits.” Mitchell does not conclude the article with recommendations for focusing on prevention of teenage pregnancies, but to point out the responsibility for a child in poverty lying with the mothers themselves and a welfare system that does not discourage teen pregnancy.
A Conservative’s View on Child Poverty
Bob McCoskrie leader of the Conservative Not-for-Profit Organization “Family First” writes “In New Zealand, the married two-parent family is increasingly sidelined while the divorce rate skyrockets. More children are growing up without their dads and more solo mums are struggling to make ends meet. There is rising drug and alcohol abuse and violence in the community. Young girls are being forced into prostitution and some are having abortions behind their parents’ back. Standards in the media and advertising are getting worse and political correctness is strangling free speech. All while people demand more rights without taking responsibility.” Their social policies centre around upholding traditional views of marriage and family and that the breakdown of these insitutions results in issues such as child poverty. Whilst not a political party, the organization promotes traditional values and believes that Government should leave childcare choices (and favourably support the option of spending more time with children), sex education and the right to decide how they discipline their children to parents. On the one hand they would like to see a right of appeal towards CYFS intervention, on the other hand they are calling for tougher and harsher penalties in terms of child abuse. In other words a reduced role of Government in terms of what they believe to be the role and responsibility of the parent and a return to traditional “tried and tested norms” in terms of marriage and family.
Conservative National MP Paula Bennett (Minister of Social Development) in commenting about welfare changes made to Government said that the legislation “changed the passive approach of welfare to a more work-focused system” – in other words, the focus on practical solutions that promote responsibility. A tougher, tighter system where benefits were passed to a youth centre rather than directly to the parent and women on the “widow’s benefit” or “women alone” benefit would also face tougher work tests. While the Opposition might describe this as punitive (I certainly do), this is an example of the Conservative social policy of duty to help but not to assist that person to achieve equal status or equal outcomes but to be assisted to take responsibility for their own circumstances, with tougher approaches to welfare in order to motivate those people to remain on a benefit for as short a time as possible.
Back to Social Justice
I find it hard to believe that any liberal who believes wholeheartedly in meritocracy and a limited Government could have understood real suffering and the odds that can be stacked against a child – otherwise, wouldn’t they have more empathy for those that do? It surely is a lack of understanding of the impact of a child’s environment. Those in helping professions will understand the impact physical, sexual or psychological abuse has on a child whether it is experienced or witnessed. They will understand the impact of broken attachment between a primary caregiver and a child. They will understand the impact of addictions (eg. alcoholism, gambling, drug addictions). They will understand the effects of poverty on a child. They will understand the effects and genetic influences of mental illness on a child. Research clearly shows these children are more likely to have learning difficulties, poor concentration in school and therefore poor educational outcomes which has a follow-on effect if we are to look at skills, abilities, job opportunities and financial reward. These children are more likely to experience addictions themselves or to experience mental illness or to choose an abusive relationship as an adult. These children are more likely to get in trouble with the law, to be imprisoned. These children are more likely to commit suicide. In terms of cause – the experiences of this child becomes hard-wired into his/her brain. Once those brain pathways are formed, they are extremely difficult to shift without major intervention.
What is the difference between one child who overcomes adversity and fights for a better life and the child that sinks under the weight of what is working against him/her, becoming another statistic? Studies tell us, two very small (seemingly inconsequential) things:
- one positive person in that child’s life – this could be a teacher, a coach or a family member that is a positive person in his/her life that builds self-esteem and offers a sense of safety (the kind of security where he/she can relax and feel good about being him/herself)
- that child’s personality – how sensitive he/she is
Neither of those factors nor the conditions of that child’s life is something that a child has power over.
Why Should The Outcome of a Child’s Life Be Determined by the Environment That Child Is Born/Raised?
- It is my view that every child is equal and that if one child is disadvantaged by his/her environment during his/her development then opportunities should be offered to put that right as early as possible (but as late as adulthood)
- It is my view that the (current) Government’s way of giving with one hand and punishing with the other is most certainly punitive – very much acting like the “Critical Parent”: “I will give you this morsel as a token towards your significant need, but you should feel utterly ashamed for having that need.”
But What About Responsibility?
Anyone who has worked in a helping profession will know that pure socialist ideologies do not work. There is a point at which the helping relationship becomes an empowering partnership that does not foster dependence but assists the growth of that person’s confidence and strength. This is an essential component for change. On the one hand, there is the recognition that this person (likely) has a background of issues working against them and their ability to change. On the other hand, there is also the recognition that at some point this person has to take responsibility as an adult and be willing and committed to change. There is tension between these two truths and it is a difficult balance with which those in the helping profession wrestle with.
I’m not an alcoholic, but I like the philosophy by which Alcoholics Anonymous is built. These are some of the principles (as I understand them):
- We’re no better than you are – we have all suffered the same issues as you and we’ve all made the same mistakes – there is no shame here, we are of equal value
- Sure, acknowledge the pain and hurt that’s in your life, you have to deal with that – better to talk about it and express it that way than run from it with all that drink and hurt the people around you – but also take responsibility for your actions and your mistakes you’ve made because you’ve carried that hurt inside for so long and chosen to deal with it this way. It’s up to you to do something about it now you’re an adult.
- Change is hard so we do it together in the context of community and help one another through it
The Value of Community
I believe that we as humans are social creatures. We are born into families for a reason. We’re not made to live in isolation. We’re not made to overcome adversity on our own. When isolation occurs for whatever reason, that person’s resilience is diminished. The outcome of the breakdown in families and communities is isolation and social adversity.
In my view child poverty – both globally and nationally for New Zealand – is an outrage. It is a reflection of our own greed and self-interest. It is immoral. The idea of “every man for himself!” creates a society that is so utterly selfish and depraved. But I think we can change that if we choose to care, and we choose to learn what it might be like to walk in another person’s shoes. It is my view that we must respond to child poverty and other social issues as a community and that we look to solutions that build and strengthen our communities rather than isolate us further into individualism.
To the member in our community who is struggling with adversity, we could choose to say:
- We’ve had our own struggles too
- If I experienced what you’d experienced, chances are I’d be just the same
- You’re a valuable part of our community and we care about your kids and your family too, so how about we help you with what you’re experiencing and work this out together?
If you haven’t seen the documentary “Inside Child Poverty” I can’t find a link but here’s a documentary called “Mind the Gap” and below that a link where you can read Bruce’s comments on Child Poverty:
~ Kristina Paterson
National Association of Social Workers (2014). Social Justice. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.naswdc.org/pressroom/features/issue/peace.asp. [Last Accessed 23/05/2014].