Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Unseen Among Us

California's newly elected governor Jerry Brown has proposed a budget that outlines serious cuts on social services.  It is a conservative proposal, yet one that in many ways Californians deserve.  Michael O'Hare describes the approach thusly:
Brown is saying, and pretty clearly, “this is the government you seem to be willing to pay for.  You’ve been getting a lot of stuff for ‘free’, by borrowing and cooking the books, but we’re out of tricks and that table is no longer taking bets. If you want some of the stuff that’s going away, you will have to agree to give up some things you’ve been buying on your own.”
As voters have indeed refused to pay for these services, I see no real option other than to give them what they request.  What I worry however, is that many of the social service cuts will neither directly impact, nor even be noticed by the majority of voting, taxpaying Californians.  So when they see the budget returning to balance, much of the wreckage will have gone unnoticed.

Just one case: there is a program at my school site that provides high school education to teen mothers. They spend 5 periods a day in special classes, and one period a day in the daycare rooms, where they – along with other mothers and staff – see to the needs of 10-20 infants. I recently spoke with the program director and she expressed great concern that the cuts they were already receiving would continue, having severe effects on the quality of services they were able to provide.

I’m willing to bet most people have no idea that programs like these exist. I’m OK with that. One of the nice things about civilization is that every citizen doesn’t need to micromanage every aspect of public life. We have a set of core beliefs, and then elect representatives who will hopefully be advocates for our general worldview. We can then entrust them to listen to interest groups and policy specialists. So for instance, I don’t know a lot about how to organize a fire department, but I trust my elected official will take a deliberate approach to policy suggestions from those who make fire response their business.

I’ve spent considerable time working in various areas of social service, a largely publicly funded sector that always seems to be strapped for cash. I have spoken with conservatives who had been mostly unaware of the services being provided, and yet when I tell them of my experiences and the importance of the work, they seemed to become more sympathetic, and acknowledged that there was a real moral need which demanded funding.

The liberal worldview assumes that social problems are going to require social services. One does not need to be aware of every single program out there, but that a sufficiently liberal representative will make it his or her priority to address these needs via state spending. Even if one does not live in a ghetto, half-way house, or mental health center, the idea is that these problems exist, and require a level of equal access to services that only the state can provide, either directly or by purchasing private contracts. Interestingly, to the degree to which the media is liberal, it portrays stories of these parts of society which are in need. Because those in the stories are generally only receiving help because of public funding, a sort of feedback loop is created in which liberalism provides answers to problems, then is reported on by liberal media to a liberal audience.

The conservative worldview does not assume a need for social services. It largely views these problems as needing to be met by individuals, families or church organizations. Yet these groups are generally not up to the task, and certainly not capable of providing equal access. One town might have a strong church outreach program that meets a certain level of need, yet another town might not, and thus a serious need goes unmet. This was basically the situation before the progressive era, where a smattering of charity organizations did their best to take on as many social services as they could. Society has changed considerably in size and complexity in the last 100 years. Trying to imagine what a return to an era of such limited state involvement would look like is a difficult counter-factual to conceive of. (This irony may exist: has the rise of the government social service sector actually lessened the burden on religious organizations, in turn taking them “off the hook”, and driving their entire spiritual outlook away from their traditional emphasis on serving the poor and needy? In this case, cuts on government program funding would leave not only a literal vacuum in the rendering of service, but a spiritual one as well.) If even the current level of neglect towards the needy is any indication, the resulting abandonment would seem to be horrifically unjust and immoral. The teenage mothers I visited, for instance, would essentially be put out to fend for themselves, and any chance of a diploma would be basically lost.

So when the conservative does not assume a need for social services exists, is unaware of the need because he does not encounter the need in his daily life, and does not encounter the liberal reporting that communicates such need, what will be his response to the need? One is tempted to ask the proverbial question: does tree in the forest makes a sound, if no one is there to hear it? One of the ways the social need comes to broader social consciousness is directly through the providers of services, as well as those involved in crafting policy responses and communicating needs to public officials. But when services are no longer being offered, there are that many fewer providers, and the need itself becomes lost. The teen mothers will have gone home, sans diploma and invisible to wider society. The suffering still exists, yet increases, and does so with even greater silence.

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