As we move into 1999 the Halton Social Planning Council and Volunteer Centre shares with our community the highlights from the keynote address given at the Council’s Annual Meeting. It is our hope that the thoughts and insights of our speaker will encourage us to pause and reflect on the future of our communities and of civic society, that you will ponder the paths that we as a society appear to be taking.
Michael Balkwill presented the 1998 Annual meeting address entitled Sustainable Social Development: A Vision for Community Building. Mr. Balkwill is a well-known author and consultant on strategic planning, community development and the building of social capital. He holds a MA in Social Welfare Policy from the School of Social Work, McMaster University. He lectures part-time leading undergraduate courses in community development and social movements.
Why is there less popular support to address poverty, than there is for treating cancer? I have been thinking about this question because many people say that there is declining support for collective acts of caring. However, there appears to be high collective feelings of support for people with cancer but not for people who are poor.
Let me outline a set of feelings and beliefs that I think the average person holds about fighting cancer:
- There is a major social welfare campaign going on all around us and it is the campaign against cancer. We all know someone who has, or has had cancer.
- Curing cancer is an important social goal, and we all know the mantra “cancer can be beaten.” Advances have been made in cancer. Significant ones, and yet cancer death rates are still alarming. We don’t feel the war against cancer is won. We are not ready to surrender.
- In 1993 we spent about $3.3 billion nationally, in the war against cancer. This served 250,000 people so the annual per capita cost is approximately $12,000.
- Fighting cancer means contending with the most complex aspects of biology and of nature. The scientists and physicians are all doing their best. It is a multi-generational task. We have seen progress, and we will see more, although it is very difficult.
- We have not cured cancer yet, because cancer is a complex thing to cure. Many factors cause cancer – genetic predisposition, environmental factors, behaviour, and trigger events, some of which are physical, some of which are emotional, and some of which are psychological in nature.
- What do we need more of in our campaign to cure cancer? Well, we need more research. We need more intervention, service and treatment, accompanied by evaluation, and, most important, we need money, people, time and patience. We need cancer research and treatment to focus on the right things, but we need basic research as well as clinical trials.
- Should we continue the campaign to cure cancer or should we give up? Is it too difficult for the people who are conducting the campaign? Are the people with cancer no longer worth trying to save, or worth our efforts to enrich their lives?
We all know the answer to my questions. We will continue the fight against cancer! Let me make the same speech with one major change, and a couple of alterations that make the story consistent with that change:
- There is a major social welfare campaign going on all around us and it is the campaign against poverty. We all know someone who is poor, or has been poor.
- Ending poverty is an important social goal, and we all know the mantra “poverty can be beaten.” Advances have been made in ending poverty. Significant ones, and yet, poverty rates are still alarming. We don’t feel the campaign against poverty is won. We are not ready to surrender.
- In 1993 we spent about $40 billion nationally, in the war against poverty. This served more than 1 million people so the per capita cost is around $40,000.
- Ending poverty means contending with the most complex aspects of physical and human nature. The researchers and care providers are all doing their best. It is a multi-generational task. We have seen progress, and we will see more, although it is very difficult.
- We have not yet ended poverty because poverty is a complex thing to end. Many factors cause poverty – social history, economic relations, environmental factors, behaviour, and trigger events, some of which are physical and some of which are emotional or psychological in nature.
- What do we need more of in our campaign to cure poverty? Well, we need more research. We need more intervention, service and treatment, accompanied by evaluation, and, most importantly, money, people, time and patience. We need poverty research and services to focus on the right things, but we need basic research as well as services.
- Should we continue the campaign to end poverty or should we give up? Is it too difficult for the people who are conducting the campaign? Are poor people no longer worth trying to save, or worth our efforts to enrich their lives?
The answer to these questions is not so clear!
Our different reactions to these two stories may reflect a change in a broad social contract that Canadians sustained over fifty years from the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The collective experience of the Depression and the commitment of a peace dividend to compensate the Canadian people for the sacrifices of World War II laid the foundations for the social welfare state in Canada. It was born of a social justice agenda created by social movements in the early part of this century, and retriggered and rearticulated by the civil rights movement, and subsequent movements (especially the women’s movement) of the fifties and sixties.
Over the last ten to fifteen years, the belief in the market as the engine of wealth creation has shaped government social policy and public opinion, and undermined the social justice contract that the people generally subscribed to. This fracturing of the social contract for social justice has led to the erosion of hope, and reduced belief that poverty can or should be diminished. Universal programs promoting the social welfare of the poor have been cut. Focused, specialized programs, such as curing cancer sustain public support, because they are not seen through a prism of social justice, although activism around funding for breast cancer research and treatment is evidence that this may be changing.
Social welfare cannot be promoted in the absence of a widely held social contract for social justice. If we want to rebuild social welfare programs that support the poor, we need to look first to rebuilding our shared commitment to social justice.
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