Inner City Diary
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The myth of "social welfare"
March 9, 2003
People talk about our “social welfare” system like it's a good thing. Like it actually works as advertised. But what I see in the neighborhood betrays the truth.

I'm not even sure why we call it “social welfare.” There's nothing particularly “social” about the system and I'm less and less convinced that the system is equipped to promote the “welfare” of people. In my neighbourhood, “social welfare” has been reduced to “a worker and a cheque,” or another salary and another program.

The system is more oriented to its own protection than the good of society. Too oriented to process over against results.

After all the programs, workers and funding, are our streets safer? Are kids staying in school and adults getting healthier? Are there less people addicted to drinking, drugging and gambling?

I called Child and Family Services after receiving neighbourhood complaints about a particular household. I figured the system is mandated to deal with kids that are ‘at risk.’

Worker: “I’m sorry, but confidentiality constraints prevent me from discussing past or potential interventions.” 

Me: ”I don’t care what you can or can’t tell me. I care about what’s happening on the street. Those kids are ‘at risk.’ If you leave them in that house, you’re not doing your job.”

Worker: “How do you know they’re at risk?”

Me: “The parents are regularly so incapacitated that I can’t imagine them being able to care for kids. There are lots of disturbances and fights in and around the house. Talk to the cops. And some of the older siblings are real involved with gangs. Surely they’re ‘at risk’.”

Worker: “If there’s a sober caregiver over the age of 12 in the house, they’re not technically ‘at risk.’ The fact that their older siblings are gang-involved also doesn’t automatically mean they’re ‘at risk’.”

Me: “I can’t believe that! You should talk to staff at their school. Those kids are often not at school, and when they’re there, they cause tons of trouble for teachers and students, from verbal disruptions to physical abuse. Surely that proves they’re ‘at risk’.”

Worker: “The fact that they get in trouble doesn’t automatically mean they’re ‘at risk’.”

Me: “What about all the times they’re out causing trouble in the neighbourhood, beating up people, vandalizing things, wandering in packs after midnight, totally unsupervised! Surely that means they’re ‘at risk.’”

Worker: “Actually, if there’s someone over 12 in the group, they’re not technically unsupervised, and they’re not technically ‘at risk’.”

Our argument over agency rules and definitions of ‘at risk’ children continued. Repeatedly claiming confidentiality constraints, the worker gave no assurance they would act. Months later, neighbours tell me nothing has changed. Those kids will likely be ‘at risk’ until they’re ‘of age’ and get locked up for some major crime. Maybe one of the kids will die in the streets while the agency insists that they’re not technically ‘at risk.’”

In another case, I called welfare about a person we were ready to evict due to drug and alcohol problems.

Me: “If you can use your powers to force an employable person into employment programs, why don’t you use the same leverage to force an addicted person into treatment programs, or a troubled parent into parenting programs?”

Worker: “I’m sorry, sir. That’s not our mandate. We are there to help people until they are able to get into employment. We’re not mandated to intervene in their addiction or parenting problems.”

Me: “I see why you changed the name from ‘welfare’ to ‘assistance.’ It seems you just deliver ‘assistance’ in the form of cheques. If you were at all concerned about the ‘welfare’ of your client, you would use whatever leverage you have to get them help.”

Worker: “I’m sorry, sir. I know what you’re saying, but I’m not equipped to do what you’re asking.”

Our “social welfare” system is a myth.

There are people in our neighbourhood that have 8 – 10 workers assigned to different fragments of their “case.” But I’m not sure any will actually work for the ‘welfare’ of the client or society.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate social workers! But I’m getting mad at a system that seems to preclude good ‘social’ work.

I talked to a class of social work students last week that are intelligent and highly motivated to help people. I’ve talked to awesome welfare and CFS workers. Some have put their jobs at risk doing good for their clients. If they get in trouble, I’ll be really ticked off!

The ‘social welfare’ system is so whacked that those who actually work for the ‘social welfare’ of people risk reprimands for their efforts. The system is broken. Please fix it!
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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