I was sitting at a meeting reviewing cases of indicted abusers – I intern at a social services office near my college, in the second poorest county in New York – and one case involved a man who had served a few months’ probation for abuse and then, upon release, committed a horridly violent act against the same victim. “We failed this kid,” an officer at the meeting said of the victim.
I like working in social services because it simultaneously disenchants and inspires me in regards to the mechanisms of helping people. I work in an office that gives legal and practical assistance to domestic violence victims, houses a women’s shelter, and runs a food pantry.
Many of our clients tell us that they don’t know what they would do without us, that we were their last chance, etc. After these cases, there is a sense that our tax dollars are being put to good use, as it were – that the social service is doing what a social service is supposed to do. But some clients aren’t as easily rewarding. Some are demanding and abrasive; their accounts of incidences don’t match police reports and they tell scattered and narcissistic stories, the verity of which crumble when anyone asks them to repeat a statement. We get people in our office who are clearly victims, but we also get the conniving, the liars, and people who file abuse complaints just to be vindictive. Our services are alternately treasured and taken advantage of.
Whatever the makeup of social service is, it is definitely not black and white; working with the logistics of public service enforces the fact that there are no clear cut cases, and that every policy is going to, at some point, meet an exception of the rule. Sometimes these exceptions are people; sometimes they are failed by the system. Sometimes (oftentimes) people seek to suck as many resources out of the public sphere as they are legally allotted. A general sense of entitlement pervades the population, which often means that public resources are given out at a competitive, first-come-first-serve basis.
But does the fact that the system is occasionally cheated discount the help it provides others? This is a question that must be asked in regards to every public service.
Charity is not so simple as shelling out money to the poor – though money helps, the uncomfortable truth is that anyone (of any class) who receives money will often not use it to their long term benefit or to that of society. The other danger of charity is the possibility of using monetary donation to excuse ourselves from any personal discomfort or investment. If we consider money the thing that solves the problem (and, believe me, it does help), we can ignore the ugly logistics of how and when and why to distribute it.
This is why any candidate who proposes “simple” tax plans (Herman Cainn, Rick Perry) ends up looking kind of foolish. Perry recently called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and called for the privatization of the whole thing. While basically everyone says that Social Security is pretty screwed up, much of Perry’s criticism of SS seems to be driven by a fad-like propensity for drastic calls for smaller Federal government, and the implications of such a trend on social services is worrisome.
Ron Paul, on the other hand, does have the advantage of actually sticking to his guns on the issues, it seems – but I can’t believe that his defense of less government in regard to social issues – that “increasing federal funding leaves fewer resources available for the voluntary provision of social services” – is practical at all. Calls for smaller federal government often cite the support of the power of state governments instead, but the basic philosophy seems like it would call for less state governments as well as federal.
Policy change is what is really effective. The problem is that there is no one policy change that will fix everything; social programs need to be constantly restructured to adapt to a changing society. This makes policy changes less flashy and more complicated than large donations or huge influxes of funding, and so they receive less public and political attention than they should. The logistics of helping people can be terribly complicated, and a perfect policy will never be implemented, but public assistance is still a noble, if not a glamorous, necessity for society.