Keeping social security social (and agreeing with a Catholic Cardinal)

It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that the Catholic Church ended its opposition to social welfare and social medicine (and in some parts of the world they have still not reconciled themselves to it). But Cardinal Vincent Nichols at least is a keen defender of it, lamenting last week that the administration of our social security system has become ‘punitive’ – and I couldn’t agree with him more. But reversing this trend is not just a matter of restoring certain payments and tinkering with the admin – it calls for cultural renaissance. We need to restore the culture of our social security system as being one of mutual help driven by empathy and solidarity, and resist dehumanising economic accounts of welfare and the disruptive commercialization of services.

When my 16 year old mum told the job interviewer that the reason she wanted to work on the counter at the Social Security office was because she wanted to help people, it is possible that it occasioned a cynical moment deep inside the heart of the woman interviewing her. It was Coventry in 1970 his woman had no doubt seen and heard it all. But she smiled at my mum – all the women interviewing her did – and gave her the job. For my mum – except for long periods of unemployment in the dark 1980s and a recent redundancy – that was the beginning of a life working in one way or another within frontline social security or other public services. She has done that because she wanted to help people and she has done it well and the state and community have been lucky to have her. She gave the right answer – albeit naively – in her interview over forty years ago, but would it still be taken to be right answer today? Is it still concern and love for others that drives and informs our social security system?

My mum’s friend Tom – now just a couple of years from retirement – worked all his life for years in frontline social security in my home town of Nuneaton. His specialism was pensions and related benefits and – like my mum – his motivation and his job satisfaction was to help others. He worked in the community in which he lived and had skills and knowledge developed over decades. The office was recently closed as a result of reorganisation and Tom was reassigned to another office in a city an hour away. Shortly afterwards he was moved away from his specialism to instead spend all day every day staff making phone calls to fathers who aren’t making their child support payments. There is no time to get to know individual cases or understand them properly, time spent on the phone is monitored and meaningless targets distort the work. My own experience of the system both for myself and on behalf of others has been a similar one of targets, needless bureaucracy, private companies with little evident concern for the human person they are tasked with aiding, disengaged individual members of staff, and a thoroughly dehumanised infrastructure.

This contrast entirely with my personal experience of a public service that still seems to retain the values of those who founded it – our health service. I visited my granddad in hospital this week and was struck by the way in which the ward very much had the feeling of a community. What was it that made it so? To some extent it was helped by the cultural homogeneity of all its occupants (and I mean really homogenous – the wife of the man next door to my granddad was born two streets away from where my grandma used to live in Coventry and her 98 year old mother came down to the midlands from Durham in the same economic migration of the 1930s that my grandma’s mother did, and moved to Nuneaton to live three streets away from where my mum lived and I grew up.) and this contrasted with my experience of urban hospitals, which have felt far less domestic and less ‘owned’ by staff and patients as a result. In combination with the fact that all the staff on this ward are genuinely kind, sympathetic and thoughtful, this imprecise but genuine sense of community ownership creates a good service of which we can be proud.

I’ve written all this entirely from personal experience, but I know of course that public policies must be built on hard data. I hope that future government will do this, but I also hope that they will remember the reason why systems of social security exist and are one of the pinnacles of civilisation is that they express our obligations to each other as members of a community. The concern for others that comes from that fellowship, which should inform their mission, should also inform their shape and structure.

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