Do social services support or erode society?

Photo: David Sky (creative commons)

As someone involved in both community service organizations and my local neighbourhood, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the relationship between these two realms. I recently came across John McKnight’s discussion of the tensions between community services and capacity building. He states that “[paid] service is not care” as it can only be a “freely given commitment from the heart of one person to another”. McKnight argues that within the context of the United States, the extent to which neighbours care for one another has diminished and that citizens have become increasingly reliant on services. This, in turn, has eroded our overall social and personal well-being. These ideas are very similar to those of Robert Putnam.

This point of view left me feeling uncomfortable. While on one hand, I agree with these notions and see capacity building among citizens and neighbours as vital, I can also see a role for community services. In particular, there are three themes related to my personal context that keep coming to mind. As you will see, the comments in this post end more with questions than answers. I invite you to contribute comments that provide examples of positive experiences with community organizations, that generate discussion, or that help us answer some of the questions I pose below.

First, I appreciate the role that community organizations play in my society. There are times when the needs of my neighbours or myself are beyond what I can meet. If community centres, public health care, schools, libraries, social organizations, and so on were to disappear tomorrow, my community would be worse off. The key question is how to best integrate these organizations into the community and vice versa. How can we imagine these organizations not as service providers, but as supporters of community? How can community members feel ownership over these organizations? How do we avoid building this as a ‘service industry’ and instead find ways to decrease competition for turf and funding between community organizations, while still providing financial support to those who work in these contexts?

Second, I work in a profession that I believe is inherently tied to community and to caring. I see this as complementary and connected to what I do as a community volunteer, as a family member, and in my neighbourhood. As an educator, I provide a service. More importantly, this is part of the role I play in society – one that indeed ‘comes from the heart’. Schools have a long and complicated relationship with communities. However, I see their future as one being increasingly tied to community, not in conflict with it. I wonder how we can further enhance this role? I wonder how communities can feel increasing ownership over schools?

Tied to my role as an educator is striking the balance between being engaged in paid employment and taking the time to support my neighbours and family in other ways. I am a parent, living with another parent and two children. Both my partner and myself are engaged in paid employment outside of the home. There are times when we have each backed off from our employment so that we can be more present with our children and serve different roles within our community and neighbourhood. This approach has been incredibly rewarding. However, at times, it has also been frustrating. We both enjoy our employment immensely, and both of us are engaged in work that we see as being vital to community building. Our places of employment have also contributed to a greater sense of community both for our children and ourselves. I have also been aware that backing off from paid employment has been a luxury – one that not everyone can afford. When working outside of the home, we have also relied on services, including childcare. Our relationship to these services was not one of negative value for our community. In fact, our involvement in community organizations and services has been what has often facilitated a deeper connection to other people in our community.

I would like to suggest that the relationship between neighbourhood-based caring and community-based services not be a dichotomous one. Instead, I would like to continue to focus on a discussion of how we can best strike balance. How can we reframe ‘services’ as part of our broader social organization so that they are deeply integrated into our communities? How can we facilitate services that are mutually supported by and support the building of community? How can these exist in partnership with capacity building in our neighbourhood communities?

5 responses to “Do social services support or erode society?

  1. Its an issue that affects many communities, large and small. Here in Scotland the help and interaction varies depending on the background of the community – eg Irish descent; or commonality of upbringing and employment. I think it comes down to individuals who make their mind up on whether they want to be an active part of the community, or feel that they wish to add positive things. Much of it comes down to uderstanding and communication… do I really want to ‘own’ community facilities? No not really. But it would be nice to know that things are being provided, and that they are being provided in a policy of nil exclusion. Goodness – I remember campaigning 40 years ago for railway trains to be able to be accessed by people in wheelchairs easily. The local station hasn’t changed and the trains are probably the same as well! As a part-time wheelchair user, attitudes haven’t changed much towards disabled people in the 40 years.
    getting the community to begin to understand the hidden issues would be a step forward and herein lies the positive inputs that educational centres can add with long term benefits. I went to a conference and exhibition last year in Birmingham, England – a waste management show which I have an interest in. If I’d worn a Batman mask, I’d have got less derisory stares!

    I think communities and the wider ‘civilised’ society needs to reflect on the way people get treated and included in activity. The USA seems to better. Asia culture appears to be better but thats a generalisation. I’m not an expert. Perhaps deprivation does have some benefits in pulling communities together, and that wealth together with service provision is leading communities to begin to fragment/ get selfish/ lessen care for others?

  2. You raise a lot of great questions. I do agree that neighbors don’t rely on each other as much as they did in the past. We work against that but with the time constraints on everyone, it is true. Community organizations must pick up the slack but unless neighbors are communicating, it’s difficult to know what the slack actually is. I also agree with your premise about schools but unfortunately, see the opposite of that here as anyone who has the means has left the public schools. Now my immediate neighborhood with 15 or so kids is divided amongst 7 or 8 schools. There is not that bond any longer.

  3. social supports arent bad but they ought to have been geared in such a way that they encourage independence among the recipients. I actually subscribe to the fact that charity is not a cure to poverty but encouraging self reliance can save so much of the resources that are channelled to sustain these people on a day to day basis. Empowerment is the key work, if social work will eventually graduate the recipients to self reliance then it will brag of enhancing humanity!

  4. While I can see both sides of the issue, I think to me the best thing that paid social work does is involved with mental health and child abuse. Most of the churches I know of are not set up to deal with these issues in a very effective way. Now on the other hand if we are speaking about getting food to the poor I can use the example of how things work here where I live (Arlington, Va.). We have a private non-profit partially assisted by the County government social services that distributes free food to qualifying people Monday – Friday from 9:30 am – 11:30 am. People that have grocery, convenience, bakeries, and restaurants all donate food that they might otherwise throw away and some even bring flowers, cupcakes, and small gifts for children that are there. Some social workers come and get food for people that are too old or sick to come on their own. Some take a cab but many have “helpers” with cars that bring them once a week to get food. My personal feeling is that there should be more cooperation between churches, civic association, and the governments. In the USA our colleges and high schools have not kept pace in education that helps the graduate to get meaningful work. I live in a community that basically requires an income of $50,000+ to live. What this results in, is an army of people that come in from some areas that may be 100 miles away. In some case you go to certain locations and see 5 cars parked in front of a town house designed to house 1 family with perhaps 2 children. The cars may indicate that as many as 10-14 people are living in that house. Some are related, some are not. This is why some areas of the USA suffer because these people are usually not contributing taxes in the quantity that is required to support public education, roads, and other infrastructure.

  5. I do not agree with McNight at all… [paid] service is not care. I chose to work with the needy and therefore needed a paying field in order to survive myself. Why is it wrong to help and get a paycheck?

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