Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'Why Social Services or the Safety Net Simply Can't Work Right Now.'

The title of the blog might make it seem as though I am pessimistic about the role that social services or the safety net can play in American society.

I'm not.

I'm simply pointing out that it is going to take time. Why? Because there first needs to take place a paradigm shift in the social cultural and political attitude of Americans towards people who are living at or near the poverty threshold.

America did once have a more fluid and egalitarian economy -- following the end of World War II up until roughly the 'Reagan Era' in the 1980s. Reagan's eight year conservative reign oversaw a political shift away from an egalitarian model of economics (we are all in this together) to  a more Darwinian  'winner take all' one.

As a result of that, which subsequently also led directly to the outsourcing of American jobs to cheap or slave labor markets, and the crushing of labor unions, there are more Americans living in poverty now than any time since the Great Depression.

At that time, however, it brought about a political leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, given his personal patrician background, became an unlikely but very effective executive advocate for those living in poverty.

In fact, the social programs or safety net we currently have in place could largely be attributed to his administration. His most effective and enduring programs were those that provided people with public works employment and free or affordable higher education.  At that time, it was also recognized that labor unions played a positive role in not allowing the working class to become second- or third-class economic citizens.

Historians looking closely at the social reforms of these times also point out that these economic changes were not made out of benevolence but from a real fear of social rebellion and revolt. That's what masses of abused, hungry people do -- they revolt.

The social services we have now are enough to stave off revolt, but not enough to foster a shift in Americans' attitudes toward people living in poverty. That's going to take time.

Why am I not pessimistic about this change taking place? Because in my lifetime I've witnessed and experienced major shifts -- out of necessity, one might argue -- in America's attitudes toward people of color, women and gays.   Those changes didn't happen overnight. 

To end poverty the same type of attitude change has to take place toward people living at or near poverty in our society. It seems to me that our society has three directions it can go in in this matter: increase wages in the country in order to provide a viable living wage (doesn't seem likely) or accept the fact that we do have a two-tier economic system and that social services are going to have to become a larger and more accepted  part of American life.  The latter path will necessitate not only a major paradigm shift in American attitudes toward people living at poverty levels,  but in our core belief (or delusion) that we are a society that provides equal opportunity and fosters economic self-reliance.  And, of course, the third course is that if you are unable to provide a level playing field, and refuse to acknowledge the necessity of adequate social services, than we will end up fostering social unrest and revolt and suppressing it in the name of law and order. (Way  more costly financially and socially than providing a living wage or adequate social services.)

Most people living at or near poverty in America are not there because of some character defect or unwillingness to work hard. They are there because there has been a systemic change in the American economy in the last four decades.

If the economy is unable or unwilling to provide a living wage to its working citizens then it will inevitably have to face increased numbers of its population receiving some form of financial assistance from the government, or otherwise abuse or neglect  them and face revolt. It's really as simple as that.

If we are going to become a society that embraces economic fairness by taking taking care of its citizens more through social services then directly through the economy, then we are going to have to face a major change in our attitude toward those living at the lowest notch of the economic totem. And that's going to take time.  

For starters, however, please read the following petition and consider signing it an passing it on to others. 
             Help Improve Social Services to Reduce Homelessness

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