Social Policy

Ralf Dahrendorf

  • Understanding Social Policy by Michael Hill
    Blackwell, 280 pp, £12.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 631 18170 9
  • Poverty and Inequality in Common Market Countries edited by Vic George and Roger Lawson
    Routledge, 253 pp, £9.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0424 9
  • Planning for Welfare: Social Policy and the Expenditure Process edited by Timothy Booth
    Blackwell, 208 pp, £12.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 631 19560 2
  • The City and Social Theory by Michael Peter Smith
    Blackwell, 315 pp, £12.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 631 12151 X
  • The Good City: A Study of Urban Development and Policy in Britain by David Donnison
    Heinemann, 221 pp, £4.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 435 85217 5
  • The Economics of Prosperity: Social Priorities in the Eighties by David Blake and Paul Ormerod
    Grant Mclntyre, 230 pp, £3.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 86216 013 8

Must social policy be boring? After all, economic policy still keeps people awake while the phoney war between neo-Keynesians and monetarists lasts. Political policy (sit venia verba) continues to excite the adherents and opponents of adversary politics. Educational policy naturally interests the new educational class which dominates the journals and the universities. Defence policy provides a nice dividing line between those who believe that our survival depends on a new generation of Polaris rockets and those who are slightly embarrassed when asked where they propose to get the money from which they want to spend on doing good. But social policy?

It is probably unfair to cite Michael Hill’s Understanding Social Policy as an example of why the subject is so likely to produce a yawn. But he manages throughout to reduce subjects of considerable interest to many individuals to a flat, uninteresting, not to say bureaucratic level. His book has other weaknesses: refusing to give the precise number of MPs, or the level of supplementary benefits because they change every now and again, shows a strange relation to facts. On balance, Hill’s book may well be quite a good introduction for social workers to systems of social security, personal social services, the health service, education, employment services and housing: but oh, is it one-dimensional and uninspiring, even where it quotes the unorthodox (‘for Etzioni the compliance of professionals rests upon “normative” commitments’).

Some reasons for this reaction to the study of social policy are easily explained. The views of those engaged in this study are pathetically predictable. Hill even makes a confession, believing that he must ‘make his own position very clear’. That position is simple. There still is as much poverty and inequality as ever. Social equality is desirable. One most look for non-revolutionary ways of bringing it about. These involve more public expenditure. Such public expenditure must be channelled through giant, but benevolent organisations. It must be channelled more effectively to those really in need. Labour is bad at doing this, but the Tories are much worse. Perhaps one day there will be a truly benevolent (Labour) government which will do what needs to be done.

Social policy is more often than not bureaucracy plus good will. It is a nice combination. Indeed, if one thinks of the people whose supplementary benefits barely get them above the poverty line, or those who could not survive if they were not brought their food by kindly helpers, one can hardly object. It is too easy to dismiss a reasonably competent textbook like Hill’s if one is not directly involved. And yet: is bureaucracy plus benevolence really all there is to the great ideals of social policy?

On the need for social policy, there can be no doubt. The market society with its Darwinian ethic is not by itself humane. There are groups, or at any rate individuals, who need the compassion of the rest to survive, and to live a decent life. Who are they? Vic George and Roger Lawson provide much valuable material on Poverty and Inequality in Common Market Countries, though their book is misleading in some respects and all too predictable in others. However hard they try, they cannot persuade one reader at least that poverty and inequality are one and the same thing. To be sure, there still is inequality in Common Market countries, and perhaps, in purely quantitative terms, little less than there was thirty years ago. The essays on the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy and West Germany permit the conclusion that in all these countries the top 10 per cent earn about 30 per cent of all income earned, whereas the bottom 30 per cent earn a mere 10 per cent. What changes there have been have affected, above all, the middle-income groups which are doing a little better today than before the post-war economic miracle. But is it really right to assume as a matter of course that this is an undesirable – indeed, an unbearable – state of affairs? Are there not important differences between the qualitative inequalities of the lord and his serfs and the quantitative inequalities of a professional and a working class? Has not the generalisation of citizenship made a difference? And has not Fred Hirsch – not mentioned a single time in this book on inequality! – made points about the impossibility of equality which it is impossible to ignore?

Poverty, on the other hand, is – or so one should think – an absolute measure which cannot be dismissed with reference to positional competition à la Hirsch. The absoluteness of the measure is itself the subject of the articles in the book by George and Lawson. While the editors may claim that ‘welfare capitalism’ produces systematically a class of poor people, their authors are much less certain about the definition, and their numbers vary between little more than 1 per cent (West Germany) and almost 24 per cent (Ireland). The most thoughtful discussion of poverty is found in the piece on Italy by David Moss and Ernesta Rogers. In the end, all one can conclude with any degree of assurance from this book is that there are still many poor people in Europe – a ‘Fourth World’, as they are called in France, which requires attention.

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