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    Our Social Problems
    Are they caused by poverty or dependency?
    by Major Cambell Roberts
    from The Jobs Letter No.69 /28 November 1997


    Major CAMPBELL ROBERTS, the National Director of the Salvation Army's Social Services, believes that a major question in the relationship between government and the community is whether we define social problems as caused by dependency, or caused by poverty.

    In an address to Wellington's Capital City Forum last month, Major Roberts calls for a stronger partnership between government and the community sector. But he warns this will not be achieved while we both see the cause of the problem from totally different starting points.
    In this special feature, The Jobs Letter gives some highlights from Major Roberts' address.

    A recent television programme identified NZ's social statistics (see box below) as a timebomb. The programme I think illustrated well the debate between two views. One view that debates in individualistic terms, defining the problem as the individual dependency on the welfare system. The other view in a more collective way states that the processes of the last few years have created structural problems that are leading to poverty.

    Is the reason for this desperate state of affairs, the widespread personal failure of individual New Zealanders and their families to move from benefit dependency? Or have the policies of the last few years marginalised and disenfranchised a group of New Zealanders from the opportunity to participate?

    Government, the Business Roundtable and others take up the old argument that emphasise personal failure and a welfare system that has encouraged and contributed to this personal failure. It is an argument that says any support is too much. The solution proposed is a re-motivation of the individual; the rediscovery of family suggests a sort of personal conversion type approach. The people who propound this view are the same group who have benefited and done well out of the reform process. The last few years have seen dependency on the welfare system, as an evil to be targeted. The Welfare to Wellbeing Strategy of the Department of Social Welfare typifies the approach. Political parties representing the more affluent of the community have also propounded these policies.

    I would question however the rigour of the data on which this policy is built. It would seem to me that this approach is often not based on research that clearly shows a link between dependency and the social problems we face, but rather is an adherence to the currently popular doctrines of individualism and economic rationalism. Philosophies that are the flavour of the time throughout the western world.

    It would be naive not to accept that any welfare system leads to some dependency. That is seen every day in every welfare agency. Similarly it is obvious that the nature of the human condition is that we are sometimes responsible for the failures that occur to us. Building however your whole social policy and system as though the personal failure of individuals alone is the cause of the problem is naive in the extreme.

    If the community sector is right and poverty caused by structural maladjustments in the economic and social structure is the cause of the social timebomb then the solutions required are more than actions to motivate individuals but collective actions to put in place policies and structures that addresses the imbalance.

    If dependency on the state welfare system is the major problem then there may be a case for less government and the encouragement of individuals to more effort through the assistance of self help community organisations. If however unemployment, poor income distribution mechanisms, housing shortages, inability to access health and education are the real problems then the relationship between government and the community is vastly different. Social planning, visioning, service delivery and debate on the legal, institutional and economic arrangements that will bring about full participation in the New Zealand society are key components in the relationship.

    Community organisations represented at the Beyond Dependency Conference identified unemployment, low paid jobs, income inequalities as matter needing work. Their concerns were raised in a statement of questions to the conference:
    -- What rigorous research has been provided to the conference that supports the contention that welfare dependency is the major social problem in New Zealand?
    -- Does New Zealand have the capacity to create enough quality jobs?
    -- If not, are we talking about subsidising jobs?
    -- Will these jobs lift people out of poverty?
    -- Should we discuss programme solutions before we understand the problem?
    -- Are we blaming the individual for a structural problem?

    Many voluntary organisations are now providing services at a vastly reduced cost for clients who formerly would have been departmental clients. Government funding to our organisations now represents some 24-40% of the cost of these services, and we have to subsidise these services from our own fund-raising and voluntary effort leaving less time, money and other resources for our advocacy work, our preventative programmes, our community development work, our trying our new and innovative ideas some of the very things that our sector, at its most effective, is best at.

    The New Zealand Department of Social Welfare in its briefing to the incoming government at the end of last year concluded that voluntary and community organisations play a significant role, that role has been expanding and the sector is likely to become more important as a provider of social services.

    But this sector is more than just the services provided - voluntary and community organisations are as much about participation as provision, as much about citizenship as service. As one New Zealand social researcher has observed, the voluntary and community sector provides a `place' in which individual concerns turn into collective action - the connective tissue of democratic society.

    The DSW described the sector as "playing a significant role in the delivery of social services for the department, and for Government as a whole," and "that role has been expanding as Government finds new ways to achieve its outputs and outcomes, including purchases of service contracts from not-for-profit." The Department needs `buy-in' from the not-for-profit sector to the strategy directions expressed in Welfare to Well-being, the social services strategy: the Income Support Strategy, the Crime Prevention Strategy and the development of Iwi and Cultural Social Services. We are committed to developing viable and effective partnerships, but not (to put it bluntly) if we are continually treated like that - only useful when we can fit into somebody else's predetermined plans.

    We need consultation, discussion and trust not just `buy-in'. The government and its agencies decided welfare dependency was the issue without consultation with the community sector, then are becoming somewhat impatient when we fail to respond or their plans are frustrated. The Poverty/Dependency debate needs more resolution before much progress can be made.

    see also Minimum Standards For Employment Programmes
    see also Alarming Trends

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