David Brooks’ May 27, 2019, opinion article for the New York Times, The Welfare State Is Broken. Here’s How to Fix It (linked here), elevated a decades old debate I have had occasionally with other well-intentioned people. It began with my father, William Hullihan, a college professor with a Ph.D. in sociology. Over two decades we eventually agreed that public servants of liberal and conservation leanings basically want the same thing – to solve the social problems of their constituents. Their disagreement, and it is not a small one, is over the role government should play in solving them.
The article presents a “mind-shifting book” by British social entrepreneur, Hilary Cottam, entitled Radical Help. In short, the book describes a broken welfare system, and the radical reforms Cottam put in place. She says, “welfare systems are often designed to manage needs, but they are not designed to build capabilities so that families can stand on their own.”
The welfare systems Cottam changed were administration rich and solution poor. She reversed that by putting the recipients of social services in charge of their care – designing plans that would wean them off government support. In other words, instead of an administrative structure that maintained a status quo, Cottam created a dynamic welfare system that changed people’s lives.
Brooks says, “Basically, Cottam’s programs create villages within the welfare state. Her systems are not designed around individual clients, but around relational networks. People tend to have better outcomes when they are held accountable by a network of peers. Three-quarters of the smokers in Wellogram successfully quit, 44 percent lowered their blood pressure, 64 percent started work or went back to school.”
“The old legacy welfare programs were designed for people enmeshed in thick communities but who had suffered a temporary setback. Today many people lack precisely that web of thick relationship. The welfare state of the future has to build the social structures that people need to thrive. This is one way government can build community.”
My side of the debate suggests that giving without guiding can create a dependency on the gifts. When government simply forms and refines the bureaucracies that manage the distribution of assistance it can become blind to the formation of reliance. Of course government must care for those that cannot care for themselves, but it must also recognize when care becomes counterproductive? Care must empower rather than emasculate via dependency. Care must be designed to transform recipients into providers. Care must be a safety net for the able bodied, not a replacement for a productive life.
The debate will continue, but now, thanks to Hilary Cottam, we have a results-proven model for social services that is hard to deny.
Timothy Hullihan is President of the Kevin Clark Hullihan Foundation.