Two recent articles in the Guardian. The first is about food-banks. This is an unusually well-written article, on this subject and for the Guardian. It isn’t layered with lots of hand-wringing. It is open about its sources, (chiefly a report by a Food Bank in South London), and doesn’t make claims which it doesn’t support with its sources. It paints a no doubt accurate picture; many people who use Food Banks do so because they are reliant on state benefits and the benefit payments have been delayed or stopped. This can happen for a variety of reasons; incompetence from the Job Centre staff, legal but perhaps harsh penalties, and, of course, claimants themselves not claiming in time.
The second article is about mental health services for young people. The Children’s Commissioner (a government post intended to speak up for young people) has found that a lot of young people who are referred to mental health services receive no help at all. Others do, but only after lengthy waiting periods. As with the Social Security payments people who miss appointments find themselves going to the back of the queue.
Both of these articles are based on research which at least sounds like it was conducted rigorously. They both discuss real human suffering – and in doing so perform a valid social function. The Guardian is doing the job of the media in ensuring that these reports receive widespread attention – and it thus helps to make possible a debate which could influence policy; democracy in action perhaps.
But. Both these reports (the Wandsworth Food Bank report and the Children’s Commisioner report on youth mental health services) and the narrative that follows from them are the same. It says “here is human suffering. why isn’t the state doing more to help them. the state must ‘provide’ more”.
Is the state ‘mean’ for not providing (from taxation or debt) unlimited resources? In reality it is a practical question of budgets. At any one time resources are not infinite. Hence measures like sending people who miss appointments to the back of the queue, finding excuses to cut payments, long waiting lists and so on – all, in effect, forms of rationing. If services are provided free at the point of delivery there will be inevitably more or less infinite demand. The only way to control this situation is to limit the supply through rationing – that is systems which only provide the benefits to people who fulfill certain criteria. Just as building more roads does not solve congestion, because more people start using the new roads, so providing more public services will not soak up demand; demand will increase as more people realize that they can obtain some perceived benefit at no cost. Services provided free at the point of delivery will always need to be rationed. From this point of view reports such as those covered in these Guardian articles are best understood as lobby papers by certain industry groups; service providers will always be happy to see more pressure put on government to provide, from somewhere (taxation or borrowing) yet more resources. Provision of ‘public services’ of the kind discussed in these reports is a profitable business. The contracts to do so are typically awarded to corporate, capitalist, enterprises.
Both these articles have a common thread. In neither article are the obvious questions asked. How did people become so poor that they need food parcels (like people in a famine stricken country)? Where are their families? Don’t they have anyone who can lend them £20.00 to get through the week? Why are young people, apparently, so distressed in such large numbers? What happened to the informal (non-state) networks which used to help young people – the extended family, the Church, youth groups, informal help from a teacher? The exception to this point is that in the article on young people being distressed a quote is included from a ‘mental health champion’, Natasha Devon, who was sacked by the government. Ms Devon talked about some of the causes of young people feeling distressed like this: “It was things like poverty, and it was also the prospect of being unemployed, student debt, academic and exam pressure.” Nonetheless the report from the Children’s Commissioner is more on message; service provision is patchy. More money should be spent. Heavens, says the Children’s Commisioner: “In many parts of the country young people’s mental health support seems to be rationed”.
The problems are real. People are so poor they have no money for food. Young people are it seems distressed in large numbers. But the only solutions on offer here are more palliatives. The liberal agenda here accepts any structural factors in society which are causal for these problems. They simply argue for more money to be spent on mopping up operations. In turn the provision of these palliative services entrenches the structural problems that lie behind them. This is in the end an industry which feeds off social breakdown but has nothing to say about the root causes of social breakdown.
The theme here is a professionalization of support. Provision of support as a professional service from the government elbows out more informal mechanisms of support. One reason a teacher these days might be wary of offering support to a young person is obvious. The NSPCC and other ‘professionals’ have sown the seeds of distrust and contaminated all informal relationships. They are acting as a Union – trying to eliminate non Unionised workers. In this case the non Unionised workers are families, teachers and informal support networks. It isn’t of course just the NSPCC and ‘Safeguarding’. The professionalization of support is far wider than that.
As a sketch. The causes of poverty are a capitalist economy. Workers are treated as a resource – traded in a market like sheep or coal and steel – and inevitably some of the time are laid off. Unemployment is part of capitalism. Making being unemployed a horrible experience is a good way of keeping wages down. The breakdown of the family and Churches and other informal forms of community support is too complex a question to address even in passing; but perhaps the materialism which goes hand in hand with capitalism has something to do with it. Why are young people distressed? Natasha Devon, reported in the second Guardian article, is at least looking at causes not proposing more spending on palliative services after the effect. This is probably why she was sacked.
If we want to end poverty we need to remove the causes of poverty. If we seriously want to end young people en masse feeling distressed we need to stop making them distressed. The solution to social problems is in fact generally free. It is about stopping doing something which is destructive rather than profiting out of ‘supporting’ the victims of those destructive effects. The palliative care which forms this ‘support’ is ineffective. That is one reason why the demand for it spirals. What is really happening is that profit-maximising behaviours (ROI on free capital) are at the root of social distress. And then these same profit-maximising forces seek to capitalise on the distress they cause by providing services to ‘help’ their victims. The liberals who call for less ‘rationing’ are working hand in glove with these same corporates and financiers. In talking about the avoidable causes of distress Natasha Devon seems to be a welcome voice; albeit one crying in the wilderness.