Saturday, December 7, 2013

Elite discourse on social welfare: Why we should expect Policymakers to take a lesson in Poverty 101

One of the threads that runs through elite discourse on social welfare is an anxiety about the laziness of the poor.

Much of the focus of such discourse is on equating social welfare policies with laziness, with the implicit suggestion that somehow policies of social welfare that provide for the very basic capacities of life such as access to health care and a minimal standard of living would prompt the poor to become lazy, to become dependent on the limited taxpayer resources and on the state.

Also, carrying an almost moral thread, this line of thinking suggests that social welfare programs should not breed immoral behaviour among the poor, manifest in laziness, lack of work ethic, alcoholism, unsafe sex etc. The cautionary tale therefore regales us with a moral warning about the potential moral hazards of social welfare.

Yet, most of our research on the culture-centered approach to health communication with communities living at the very margins suggests that such elite discourse is as such out of touch with the lived reality of daily struggles for everyday living among the poor.

Through our ethnographic work in communities living in poverty across global spaces (from the US to India to Nepal to Bangladesh to Singapore), culture-centered researchers demonstrate that the poor often struggle to meet the very basic standards of everyday living in spite of working hard and long hours. In the US for instance, workers working in the fast food industry work long hours and multiple shifts just to get by and yet remain insolvent in meeting their basic needs.

The irony in the lives of the poor often is the mismatch between the hard work, the long hours of work, and the intense labour and the corresponding outcomes of in-access, poverty, and lack of resources.

What this picture then suggests is that most elites making pronouncements about poverty and setting policy frameworks about poverty are out of touch with the lived reality of poverty. In the parlance of the social sciences, these elites don't really have empirically-based foundations for understanding poverty and yet are put in charge of setting poverty-related policies. As a result, our culture-centered projects suggest the need for listening to the voices of the poor as an entry point to social justice.

As a starting point, experts making poverty-related policies and developing welfare solutions must be expected to begin with a Poverty 101 lesson. At the very least, these elites ought to be expected to spend time with the poor, spend time talking to the poor, and sit at the same platforms where the poor are present as co-participants.

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