The importance of giving the poor some choice
Date Released: Thu, 5 September 2013 08:59 +0200
Our elites may disagree on much. But they seem united on one issue — a belief that the poor must be told what to do.
Jonny Steinberg has caused a stir on these pages by pointing out what some of us have been stressing for a while — that, whatever our economic path, millions of citizens will not find work in the formal economy for decades and that social grants are therefore needed to ensure them an income.
Inevitably, this has provoked the standard arguments against grants everywhere: they create dependency and discourage people from working. The evidence for this claim is scanty. Research here shows that grants are used productively by most and are stimulating local economies. Not only are they essential to keeping order, they help the economy too. This opposition expresses a deeply held prejudice: grants take money from hard-working, middle-class citizens and give it to "those people" who misuse it and want to sponge off respectable people.
But Steinberg also provoked another type of criticism — from Human Sciences Research Council academic Ivan Turok, who does want the state to do things for the poor. Turok complained that grants give the poor a "handout rather than a hand up". They don’t treat the root causes of poverty "including the lack of economic dynamism and low skills in poor communities". They also "ignore the consequences of unemployment for self-esteem, daily routine, ill health, family breakdown and ingrained social problems".
Instead, we need "community-based, government-funded employment programmes" that can involve the poor in "useful activities and services, including food gardens…". Churches, clubs and other local institutions can help to plan and deliver projects, "strengthening community capacity".
Turok does not want to leave the poor to their own devices. He wants to turn them into better people because they are just not good enough — they lack "economic dynamism", have "low skills" and their communities’ capacity is poor. They therefore suffer from "social problems" and need improving projects to turn them into people like us.
If we look beneath the surface, there is plenty of economic dynamism, many skills and much "community capacity" among the poor — they wouldn’t survive if there wasn’t. But, because they don’t operate out of air-conditioned offices, their economic activity is seen as a problem rather than an asset.
Research that looks at what people do with their grants shows they know far more about what works than the designers of government employment schemes or the architects of the many other programmes policymakers come up with.
And so this argument also expresses a prejudice — that "they" are not like us and so we must try to turn them into us. There is little difference between this attitude and that of the genteel Victorians who looked down on the poor and wanted them sent to workhouses to improve themselves.
Why dwell on Turok’s response? Because it is the dominant view in much of the debate. It says what commentators, politicians and academics, all of whom would hotly deny any prejudice against the poor, often say. And it shows how deeply the elite across the political divide cannot abide the idea of poor people deciding for themselves.
These prejudices also explain, ironically, why the grants programme is just about the only antipoverty measure that works — it is the only one that relies on the decisions of the poor rather than on policymakers who believe they know what poor people need.
Similar biases explain why "social cohesion" is the flavour of the year among those who decide what the poor need. Promoting "cohesion" in a society plagued by violence sounds great — until we learn that the idea was born of a worry that immigrants in western countries, because they were different, had brought habits that would disturb those societies. So it, too, expressed a worry that meant some people needed to be turned into other people. It’s not hard to see "social cohesion" becoming a vehicle here for schemes to turn poor people from an "embarrassment" into middle-class folks like us.
Again, this would stamp out energy and dynamism, not encourage it. It might also cause trouble: people are far more likely to rise up in anger when what works for them is taken away than because they want something that others have.
Social grants are a success because, instead of trying to change the poor, they give poor people a lever that allows them to choose. If we also offered people making a living in townships and shack settlements the means to better do what they do instead of trying to turn them into people like us, we would do more to stimulate growth than most of our present attempts.
None of which is possible as long as we will consider any option for the poor, except those that allow them to choose.
By Steven Friedman
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
Article Source: Business Day