Social crisis, social change Remember when... It wasnâ€™t so long ago that people gave you funny looks if you banged on about inequality and economic insecurity in Australia. How quickly things can change in a matter of months! Economic insecurity has emerged as the dominant theme in the political, social and economic arenas. Significantly, these three arenas have merged into one in a manner that has not been seen in recent history. This is a critical time for the social and community sector both here and around the world. In short, the following has occurred: 1 Australia has experienced the beginnings of an extremely significant economic downturn. The question of whether we have officially entered a recession has become largely academic. 2 The Federal Government has acted swiftly to ameliorate some of the worst effects of the downturn, primarily employing Keynesian methods of pump-priming the economy to encourage greater consumer spending on the one hand and job-creation through infrastructure spending on the other. 3 The Prime Minister has indicated quite explicitly that these are the twin objectives of the stimulus packages thus far. 4 While disadvantaged Australians are not the main target of these packages so far it is to be acknowledged that there have been some significant gains in this area, notably the investment in 20,000 new units of social housing as well as some of the cash assistance and, potentially some of the job creation initiatives. 5 Further assistance is urgently required for people outside the labour market, especially by means of increasing income support for people on pensions and benefits, a radical overhaul of the current Centrelink breaching regime, and better targeting of education and training opportunities. 6 We have recently witnessed a doubling of the Emergency Relief funding. This has been warmly welcomed whilst it is also to be monitored critically in that charitable assistance should never be accepted as a default method of income support. 7 The Federal Government has established institutional channels by which it can receive advice from the social and community sector on the shape of future measures. Key examples of this are the Community Response Taskforce as well as the Australian Social Inclusion Board. 8 Quite apart from the above, but now implicitly connected, is the release of the Governmentâ€™s Homelessness White Paper, which includes an unprecedented commitment to halving overall homelessness and offering supported accommodation to all rough sleepers who need it by 2020.
The search for meaning In the midst of the above it is imperative that the social and community sector continue to be at the forefront of advocacy campaigns in solidarity with people who are pushed to the margins. The time is very much ripe for this since there is an enhanced public awareness of the structural causes of the economic insecurity we are witnessing as well as the fact that those affected are no longer invisible (as was the case to some degree during the time of economic growth). There is also, however, a more existential aspect of the current insecurity. People right across the community are searching for the meaning of life in society. There is a greater tendency towards accentuating the common good rather than individual need or greed. The experience of alienation has as its flipside the desire for meaningful inclusion and participation. The social and community sector is uniquely placed in relation to this. The dangers... In the midst of the social contradictions inherent in the Economic Crisis there are a number of real dangers for the social and community sector workforce: 1 2 3 4 5
The increased pressures placed on services and, therefore, on workers and volunteers. The implicit expectation that workers and volunteers should do more with less. Declining income streams (especially where there is a heavy dependence on donations) can translate into job losses or other forms of cost-cutting. The pressure on service providers could result in a shift away from advocacy activities. Workers and volunteers in the sector will themselves be subjected to some of the impacts of the Economic Crisis as far as their own household finances are concerned.
The interconnectedness of things... One of the great lessons of the economic crisis is the overt nature of the interconnectedness of things. This is something that those of us who have chosen to analyse the world â€œfrom belowâ€? have long known. This is despite the myths perpetrated by those who impose a world-view from above; those who have long peddled the view that individuals are largely to blame for their own exclusion and, conversely, that the accumulation of great wealth is primarily a fair result of individual effort. We are close to the ground. In the midst of prosperity we constantly saw the Australian face of poverty and exclusion. We continue to see this face. We are touched personally by stories of marginalisation. Thereâ€™s nothing particularly ingenious about our ability to join the dots, to see the bigger picture as we encounter the many personal stories. We are well trained in the art of questioning how things are connected; of refusing to accept the status quo when we know that everything is open to change; of going deeper than the appearance of things.
Liberation or instrumentality? We should never be surprised by the booms and crises that characterise the current economic system. But a time of crisis is also a time of change. The change is just as certain as the crisis. The nature of the change, however, is up for grabs. Change can be wrought by in order to help consolidate the priorities that have led to so much exclusion and disempowerment. The challenge for our sector will be to refuse the overtures of instrumentality; the attempts to co-opt us in order to work towards preserving an unjust status quo. To give an example that is pertinent to this discussion, let us refuse the unconscionable division between the “the unemployed” (code for “those who are to blame”) and “those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own”. A system that continues to engage in a form of new paternalism with punitive drivers will never be socially just or socially inclusive. The alternative to the “instrumental” approach is the movement for liberation. All progressive social changes have been won through the hard work of those who believed that another kind of society is possible. This approach can be neither paternalistic nor coercive. It is best summed up in the powerful words of Lilla Watson and the group of Aboriginal activists she was part of in Brisbane in the 1970s: “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” The time of crisis places on us an obligation to ensure that the stories from below are not unspoken or untold; that the people we stand in solidarity with are not silenced; that we are not silenced. Australia stands near the bottom of the list of relative social expenditures in comparison with countries in the European Union. Of the 27 EU countries assessed over 2004-06 all but one (Greece) invested a higher proportion of GDP in social expenditure than Australia. The EU25 average (23.4%) was almost twice that of Australia. (Source: OECD Social Expenditure) It is time for us to put our money where our mouth is. To conceptualise the time of crisis as a time for creative social change is to make the best use of all that is favourable to social justice. During the period of prosperity we saw the dismantling of social protections along with the attempted destruction of the strong sense of the collective. Now is the time to reassert our interconnectedness; that strong sense of unity in a common cause; to see ourselves as part of a progressive movement for social change. In the words of the poem, “Unity” by Pablo Neruda: “I am surrounded by just one thing, a single movement.”