Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Fear is Expensive

I am sometimes shocked at the amount of money we spend on fear. Take the income assistance system. I was staring at the Ministry of Housing and Social Development building the other day (that’s our complicated name for “welfare building” here in BC), and I suddenly realized that this 5 story building containing hundreds and hundreds of well-educated professionals had a singular purpose:

Was it to assess people, or emotionally support people? No, though I suppose some referrals were being made inside.

Was it perhaps to financially assist people? You would think so, but really, the cheque printing machine handles this role quite nicely. One could argue that issuing of cheques by workers is providing assistance, but when you realize that assistance is processed and issued in flow-chart fashion, the role of “issuer” vanishes.

How about training? Lifeskills for clients? Child care advocacy? Parenting courses? Nope… all those are contracted out to non-profit agencies – poorly funded non-profit agencies.

Well, what about providing a human face to assistance? Someone to talk to, someone to make sense of the red tape? Some clients do better when they can relate to a social worker in person, right?

But no, this building was not serving this purpose, I realized. Individual workers for clients had long since disappeared with government downsizing in the 90’s. Increasingly, clients are sent to websites to register, and cheques are sent direct deposit. The information age has taken its toll on the social worker/client relationship. I suppose eventually, you’ll just add the “social assistance app” to your Facebook page and your landlord and grocer will automatically get added as friends and paid by the government.

This entire building was full of mistrust. Almost everybody in it was checking a story, photocopying ID and proof of employment documents, processing forms that proved or disproved a residency, or some other inane fear-based tail chasing. The really unlucky workers were busy gathering evidence of fraud and preparing to destroy the lives of the really bad clients with criminal charges.

Think about how much cheaper it would be if clients were given the benefit of the doubt. All MHSD employees would be supplied a keyboard. The client would come in and say “I need $600.” The worker would type it in, and the cheque would spit out.

Of course, life can’t be THAT simple, can it? People would rip them off, wouldn’t they? Drug users would take out thousands of dollars every few minutes to supply their habit (unless street drugs were decriminalized and prescribed by your doctor… but I digress). You naturally can’t trust that most people will only ask for what they need, can you? Nah, it’s better to be on the safe side, and regulate things. Ditto on the tax system for the more “respectable” working class—they need to be checked up on too. After all, we need to employ all those poor saps who have $30,000 student loans with civil servant positions in Revenue Canada . And hey, you can wear jeans on Friday, so don’t complain about how education should be free, ok?

Wow, that actually feels better when I write it down. I am sometimes surprised at how far left my rantings will take me. I am almost suggesting some sort of anarcho-non-welfare-ism here… simply crazy. Anyhow, I should undo some of what I’ve said, because MHSD is not evil, nor are the people who work there. In fact, I have seen some great improvements lately. Outreach workers are starting to apply more flexibility to social assistance, to factor in addictions and mental health issues. Individual workers are again being assigned to clients who are struggling, and some of these people are truly helpful and concerned about their work. I have even had the pleasure of being shadowed by an MHSD policy developer who took a keen interest in how policy was affecting things on the ground—call him “Welfare Buddha” if you like—super nice guy. There is no question that there are other people out there are thinking the same thing as me: downsize the regulation, upsize the human connection.

Fear is not worth the money spent on it, that’s for sure. Fear is worth, perhaps 17 and a half cents. Mistrust is equally worthless. I’m not saying that we can tear down these huge institutions tomorrow, but we can at least see how damaging they are to the ones we are trying to “help.”