• Eugene McGarrell

The Social Policy Revolution will not be on Netflix


In most “western” countries like Australia we believe people should work to earn a living. It’s a core value that supports our capitalist system which in turn has led to an abundance of food, housing, medicine and technology to make our lives “richer”. According to Steven Pinker humanity has never been better off. Most of us are living longer, never hungry, have adequate shelter and contribute purposefully during the day. Our economic systems around the world are delivering great outcomes despite the gloomy picture depicted by the news media.


But is that good enough? Is it good enough for most of us to be safe, secure and wealthy? Are we happy to turn a blind eye to the people living in poverty? Are we happy to walk past the growing numbers of people living on the streets begging for money as we casually stroll into our air-conditioned offices with a small flat white in one hand and the latest smart phone in the other?


Why don’t they just get a job like the rest of us? Why don’t they just stop drinking and doing drugs? Why don’t THEY….? And therein lies the problem. We see people living on the streets as “THEM” and not “US”. This is a problem they created, not us. Why should we help them when we are not responsible for their predicament?


But we are responsible for their situation. We are all consciously or unconsciously reaping the fruits of this system that puts clothes on our backs but creates no safety net for people vulnerable to homelessness.


Hugh Mackay the author of Australia Re-imagined points to the lack of community to the rising rates of suicide and poverty. He talks of the rising rates of social fragmentation caused by factors such as shrinking households, technology, social media, rising house prices, reducing birth rates and rising rates of divorce. This theme resonates with the research collated by Johan Hari in his book Lost Connections. The breaking down of social connections within community is leading to poor social and health outcomes for people who are marginalised.


History shows us what happens when groups of people lose their voice, are marginalised from the economic wealth enjoyed by most and find themselves with nothing to lose. An indication that the system isn’t working for some is the growing numbers of people living on the streets, couch surfing, living in cars and running away from neglect and abuse with no one to turn to.


We (humans) are born to belong. We are social animals and when we are cut off from the “tribe” we become anxious, depressed and at risk of poverty and death. We have all experienced being cut off in one way or another. From being unfriended on social media, becoming estranged from a group of close friends through to being displaced following an environmental or man-made disaster. We know how it feels when people turn their back on us. It hurts, and those of us who have a resilient network of family and friends survive through the hurt.


There are many who do not.


Experiencing poverty in a rich country is the ultimate estrangement. Living hand to mouth, in the same clothes for months and years, with no shelter and no sense of belonging hurts. And not only does it hurt, we are judged by others not in poverty. For some reason those of us not in poverty feel able to make decisions about how to support those in poverty. We also believe we should determine how people in poverty should spend any “hand-out” from government or charity. We stigmatise people in poverty, we stigmatise the supports we give to people in poverty and we shower shame on people in poverty.


The author of “Utopia for Realists” Rutger Bregman proposes a simple solution for helping people in poverty. You end poverty by putting money in the pocket of those in poverty. For me he proposes interesting and convincing (if not new social policies) such as GP Social Prescribing and a Universal Wage.


I think there is a need to change the politics of social policy. Capitalism may be good news for the economy. Socialist policies creating a safety net for all may well help to manage our collective consciousness that we are taking care of people in vulnerable situations.


But there needs to be a third way. A third way that continues to help grow the economy but ensures no one lives below the poverty line. Neo-liberalism promised that a strong economy would lead to a trickle-down benefit for all.


An experiment in a town in the UK called Frome showed how social connection can reduce negative health and social outcomes including hard outcomes such as presentations to the emergency department.


The case connecting social fragmentation with poor outcomes is strong. But to repair this fragmentation we need a coming together of the business, government and not for profit sectors with community to repair the damage. We need the rigour of research to support this venture and we need local, state and Federal Governments to invest in the infrastructure to support this strategy.


A good example of this work is in Canada where the Tamarack Institute is based. David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times to showcase how Canada is winning the war on poverty. According to his report Canada has reduced the poverty rates by 20% in 15 years.


Yes it takes time, yes it means working alongside community over decades, yes it means working across agency boundaries. And yes, there are no silver bullets. It takes commitment, partnerships, coordination, shared aspirations and hard work. But it can be done. It just needs bi-partisan leadership, sector partnerships and authentic engagement with community.


There are many of us working in this field who are frustrated at the continuing avoidance of the obvious. I think it’s time we joined forces to start a social revolution and end poverty in Australia.


Want to start the conversation? Message me. Let's see what will emerge.

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