Monday, February 25, 2013

Where Responsibility Lies

There’s a tension that lies beneath the surface in social work that is rarely discussed explicitly. But this selfsame tension has exploded in the political realm where it shapes a fundamental debate dividing left from right. It was certainly a pulsing, ever present theme of last Fall’s US presidential election. But even there, the issue wasn’t ever truly engaged in a way that wasn’t rhetorically divisive and thoroughly partisan.

I’m talking about the question of Responsibility, as in, who or what is responsible for Outcomes in our individual lives. And of course, our dominant political tribes come at this from opposite directions. Those on the conservative right state that success in life is the onus of the individual. And those on the liberal left (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I declare that I’m in this camp) say that social inequities and forces have so much to do with determining outcomes that they can overwhelm individual choice, determination and talent. The right says that government should stay out of things, and leave individuals to fully exercise their freedoms and thereby create their own success or failure. Those of us on the left proclaim the necessity of broad political and social activism, to counter inequities, to break oppressive patterns and to even the playing fields.

But this fundamental debate is carried out in a very polarizing way, each side refusing to acknowledge or consider the merits of the other. While the reality is that there is truth in both points of view. Neither perspective gives us the whole story. But the debate about Entitlements is carried on from these philosophical poles. Those in the lower socio-economic strata are portrayed as dependant leeches by one side, unwilling to work and weighing down the rest of us with their taking. The other side too often treats the same group as victims, but focuses much of its attention on the economically and politically powerful, who are assigned the role of victimizers.

On the left, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge any positive aspect of competitive capitalism, or any problem with entitlements. While on the right, there's an unwillingness to accept the flaws of an economic system that extends the bulk of its rewards to a slim minority, or to acknowledge the appropriateness of correcting the imbalances that keep so many mired in poverty, with all of its devastating side effects.

One source of the difficulty is the collapsing of “blame” with “responsibility”. The concept of “Not Blaming the Victim” has become an accepted ethical standard, but to the point where there is reluctance to even suggest that a victim bears responsibility for their recovery and ultimate health. But how can it be otherwise?

How can a person NOT be responsible for their health? How can a person NOT be responsible for supporting themselves, or at least contributing to the society that supports them? Responsibility is not blame. But in our zeal not to blame we often overlook or downplay the most important tool that any of us possesses, that being the responsibility to self and to others, to care for ourselves and to shape our own lives, to the extent that we are able. The right may err in overselling the potential to overcome all obstacles with work and determination. It’s a pseudo mythology that seeks to defend gross inequities as morally neutral, and it’s wrong. But the left may err even more seriously with its mythology of victimization that holds that oppressive conditions and social forces are insurmountable.

Isn't it true that achievement and progress in life are dependant on both the circumstances in which we find ourselves (or which we can find) and on our choices, our values, and our will – in short, our character?

It concerns me that so many of the young people I work with go on welfare, and that they remain there year after year, often with very little pressure or motivation to find work, or to prepare themselves to be able to work. Many of them are self-motivated, and struggle to find work, or training, or to complete their schooling. But many are not. And even those who are motivated struggle to find work, or employment training, or educational programs that actually take them somewhere. Many youth get onto disability, yet know that they are capable of work, and would like to have an occupation and make a contribution. But they have so few supports, or avenues that will lead to employment that they give up trying, and merely languish.

It concerns me is that, as a society, we’ve moved to improve living conditions, to improve schools and medical care, to increase access to treatment and legal services and equal opportunity – not enough, mind you. But we neglect and overlook the greatest and most effective generator of change, that being the motivation and determination of those who desire the change.

Probably the most negative and destructive indicator of this is how we are willing to divert so many resources into policing and incarceration, but allow our schools and training programs to deteriorate. The rightest creed of small government and individualism actively promotes this kind of neglect, though it reflects backward thinking: it’s so much more costly to allow individuals to fail, and then have to incarcerate them, then it is to educate and train them, and ensure that they can live decently.

But we leftists have it wrong too. We focus so much attention on what our clients don’t have, in the way of resources, support, housing, funding, physical and mental health care, etc., and on trying to acquire those things for them. And we focus far too little on what they already have, that being themselves, and their characters, and on building up those things. We're good at demanding that the rest of society come up with resources and solutions for those who are wanting. But we're not nearly so good at requesting, expecting, demanding action from those who have only themselves. It's understandable: we tend to think of those who have only themselves as poor, as impoverished, as having nothing. But isn't that a gross flaw in our thinking, to so demean the self?

As I write this, I have in mind a housing subsidy that has recently become available to some of the homeless in Toronto. It provides a supplement that can be applied to rent, making better quality housing available. It’s a very important thing. But, it’s provided for 5 years. And there’s nothing built into the subsidy for anything to happen to ensure that when those years have lapsed, the recipient no longer needs the subsidy. Why then is the subsidy automatically provided for five years? This type of funding doesn’t do much toward actually building and supporting a recipient’s capacity. It merely fits into the current paradigm of providing a slightly better and longer lasting band-aid to a problem that demands much deeper solutions.

I hope that left and right can come closer together in discussing these issues. Whether the right moves toward the middle ground or not – and it doesn’t seem likely that open-mindedness and reason hold sway there these days, we on the left can move. We can acknowledge that endless entitlements don’t work. We can work more actively at unleashing and supporting the will, the character and the sense of responsibility of those we work with. These tools are too vast and potent to waste.


  1. Wow. You've hit the nail on the head again.

    Freshman year at Harvard I took a course with Daniel Patrick Moynihan called Social Science and Social Policy that somewhat addressed this topic. The professor said something that often comes back to me--that the one thing the government is very good at doing is sending checks. He was at the time fresh from having worked in the Nixon administration on trying to implement a negative income tax. (And there you have one of the four things I learned in college that I can remember!)

    When I was growing up, I loved to read novels, particularly 19th century--Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Jane Austen. I believed that if you learned enough about someone, you'd understand what made that person tick. I majored in English, took anthropology courses, a couple of religion courses, a psychology course, and thought I'd be able to figure it all out. Needless to say, human motivation is less clear to me, as I get older and more battle-scarred.

    In looking at my siblings and myself--born with material and cultural advantages, including, most importantly, never having to worry about food and shelter, with parents who loved us--and seeing how we dealt (and still deal) with our lives; and in raising my three children, I can see that certain types of support may provide more harm than good. But I am not smart enough to be able to formulate an absolute rule! How do you motivate people to act in their best interests?

    Why do some people who are born with all advantages self-destruct? Why do some people born with no advantages succeed? How do you encourage self-reliance while providing enough of a safety net to allow people to focus on more than where their next calories are coming from? What is the role of government in all of this?

    1. Thank you so much for weighing in, Lucie. This was a hard one to write. This is an emotionally knotty issue for me. I confront it with clients all the time.
      I think you hit the nail, too. It has so much to do with Human Nature, and why we act as we do. And that unfathomable mystery of why Human Nature is expressed so differently from one to another.
      I've made bad misjudgements in the past, in applying criticism and pressure at the wrong time. And at other times, I've had clients experience huge breakthroughs from the same pressures.
      I tend to be more careful and gentle than when I was younger. But I've learned that pressure, like pain and disappointment and error, can be such a powerful teacher. And, in fact, a necessary teacher.

  2. I feel that this doubt, the doubt between the should we help people or should we leave them alone, is causing some major gaps...Many aspects of our Canadian society are socialized, & many are not...I see people falling through these gaps...The gap of doubt that says that maybe after 5 years of subsidized rent, this new bonus, that maybe those people will find a better source of income...It's the doubt, this are you helping him or am I helping him that ends up in nobody helping him...We have to commit...You cannot socialize things then expect free enterprise to flourish...The truth is, is we need to get some hard core statistics...Some really specific information...Let's be honest, there are no jobs out there, the jobs out there are often manual work type things, & even professionals are not earning a fraction of what they could earn in the States...Living costs are high, heating & clothing needs high, travel/commuting is costly...The Arts are a joke here, moneywise...So there is a problem...Perhaps even if we actually committed to one path, the money flow issue would still be scarce...perhaps it is not a question of political leaning pathways, but just that there is not enough to go around here...

    1. You're right, Sari. So many questions, and so few solid, for sure answers.
      I've long felt that the biggest crime we as a society perpetrate on ourselves is the underfunding of education, education of all kinds, including stuff like how to balance a check book, how to meditate, how to find happiness, why voting is important, what is love, anyway?, living off the grid, how to fire bogus politicians, how not to be brainwashed by commercials and gurus, etc.
      Sure wish I had more of those solid answers!

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