L E N A D O M I N E L L I
I came to social work as a community worker and trade union activist fully engaged in debates about the role and purpose of social work in eliminating poverty and social injustice in society. Were social workers simply ‘soft’ cops who controlled people by offering them help? Or, were they social educators and activists who followed Paulo Freire’s principles of enabling people to understand their lives, positions in society and opportunities available to them as the basis for taking self-directed action to empower and fulfil themselves? My life experiences as a gendered and racialized woman broadened my knowledge of the world and its complexities so that I now approach reality as socially constructed and holistic, which makes answering such questions a process of continual evolution.
The Beveridge Report (1942) argued for social services to be a universal service, a proposal that the UK Treasury rejected on the grounds of ‘insufficient funds’, a refrain echoed down the years by various Ministers when asked to resource social services to any significant degree. The current UK government is simply heir to this legacy dressed in neoliberal garb.
I have chosen Eminem’s song, Stan, because …
… Its lyrics eloquently highlight the need for universal social services available to all at the point of need without stigma and without charge. Had such a framework been available, a suicide causing three deaths would have been avoided and Stan, his girlfriend and baby not died.
The lyrics to Stan are available on: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/eminem/stan.html
The CD’s lyrics inspired me to use its words in a lecture on modern social work. Its potent message provided powerful evidence for universal social services and demonstrated that art can be used to substantiate social work theory and enrich its practice. The classroom’s gasp over the senseless loss of life when listening to the song gave way to animated discussion about what narratives might have had a less draconian ending.
Their replies included: supporting Stan when dealing with the effects of having an abusive father; teaching Stan’s girlfriend to stand up for herself; offering Stan mental health support; providing cognitive behavioural therapy to understand his need to control others and set the agenda in all his social relationships (including women, children and Eminen); enhancing Stan’s self-esteem; enrolling Stan in a substance misuse programme and an anger management course; eliminating poverty and the hopelessness it can engender; and finding Stan worthwhile employment and a sense of fulfilment and belonging in society.
When asked whether their suggestions amounted to social work, several identified the provision of unstigmatised services for all, and argued that had these existed, it might have meant that there would have been someone with whom Stan could share his angst and be assisted in reaching more socially acceptable outcomes. When asked why Stan would have chosen a social worker rather than a friend, several students suggested that social workers are friendly professionals, but keep their discussions confidential, while an ordinary friend might divulge information, even if only accidently. Others thought that Stan might have preferred a stranger as represented by a social worker because he would not have to interact with him/her every day as would have occurred with a friend.
The students’ sensitive considerations stayed with me, although I moved on to other topics. So, Stan immediately came to mind as an Object for this project. I continue to hold the view that social services, as a publicly-funded, unstigmatised universal service available to all at the point of need, can prevent much human suffering and pain. Thus, social work academics, students and policymakers should be revisiting Beveridge’s suggestion, and convince the public that social care should be a freely available universal service. Our profession need not be restricted simply to providing residual services focused primarily on child protection and safeguarding adults, as current neoliberal policymakers would have us believe. Social work academics, practitioners, and students can lobby for a shift in this policy.
Social work is a global profession that covers many service user groups, different settings, diverse practice theories and methods. It is committed to human well-being, alleviating individual and group distress, misery and disadvantage, and facilitating social change that will help to bring that about. The international definition of social work clarifies the social justice and human rights basis of the profession (www.iassw-aiets.org and www.ifsw.org). To this, I add environmental justice as a key element for realising social justice.
Universal, collective provision of services enjoyed by individuals from ‘cradle to grave’ stands in stark opposition to neoliberal tenets of market-oriented, bureaucratic provisions. These leave low-income families like Stan’s on the margins, unable to access ‘affordable’ commercial services throughout the life cycle as welfare state services become privatised. Residualised services, restrictive eligibility requirements and heavy user fees imposed under austerity programmes unpick national social solidarity, intergenerational expectations and human rights, They also legitimate means-tested provisions and exclude those in need from seeking and getting help, as happened to Stan.
From a societal point of view, this is an extremely serious issue because it means society loses the talents of those on the margins whose energies are consumed in barely surviving rather than thriving. They cannot aspire to buy their own homes to avoid state surveillance over the size of their accommodation, pay for their children to attend excellent schools and buy high quality elder care.
There are gross inequalities in wealth and income. Globally, 62 individuals control more wealth than 50 per cent of the world’s entire population. In the UK, the 5 richest families hold more wealth than the poorest 20 per cent or 12.6 million of its inhabitants. Very wealthy people can draw on assets other than their homes to pay for education, health and social care bills that can privilege their chlidren.
If social services were the unstigmatised universal services envisaged by Beveridge and in Articles 22 to 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the state would not be able to claim that it has discharged its ‘duty to care’ for its citizens through stigmatised residual services, and Stan might have enjoyed a happy, healthy old age. Social workers do respond to the individual hardship caused by structural inequalities reflected in the funding of social care, but they can also lobby for changes in social policy and the tax regime that enable such inequalities to flourish.
A story about Eminem’s Stan is available on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stan_(song)
The Beveridge Report, Social Insurance and Allied Services, is available from HMSO, London.
Drawing by Lena Dominelli and David Whiteley.