Making Sense of Social Policy: Why Social Policy Affects Everyone
Social policy is a rather vague term because the word 'social' can have different meanings for different people (Human Services 311, p. 1). Social policies, in and of themselves, affect individuals at different stages in their lives. They also cover quite a broad range of issues -- ranging from children's issues, family and work issues -- such as retirement/pension policies and unemployment (i.e., social benefits), as well as policies regarding the physically disabled. Perhaps this is the reason that many seem so baffled about the term 'social policy' and what it specifically refers to. There really isn't anything confusing, however, about the term. Social policy can really be thought of simply as a study that has to do with the people's welfare. But to clarify, social policy isn't merely about making people happy, but it is more about the systems in the society that will bring about well-being for the individuals.
In Unit 4, "Values and Policy-Making: The What and Who of Social Policy and Its Definition," it states that,
Ordinary issues of social policy concern the routine activities of the state at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels once the distribution of income and power has occurred. The particular activities range from the provision of education, health, and social services to the development and regulation of land use (Human Services 311, p. 1).
Understanding what social policy is exactly is important because it affects every facet of an individual's life day-in-and-day-out and it will most likely come to affect every individual's life in a very specific and important way at some point (e.g., at retirement or in times of unemployment). Human Services 311 (p. 2) also points out the ways in which social policy becomes a political issue at times; for example, when it comes to money for the poor or issues regarding the right to abortion. A middle-class family may think that these two issues -- or social policies -- do not affect them, but human services professionals know that this simply is not true. For example, poverty is one of the main determinants of illness and there are many children in society living in low-income families who do not have the adequate food and housing or access to sound healthcare, which puts them at a risk for major illness. In Canada, the gap between the rich and the poor is growing and this means that Canada's children will in vulnerable situations that can be detrimental to their overall health and well-being. As a society, it cannot be ignored that these facts and the implications of this will be detrimental to the nation as a whole since these children grow up to be adults who then have problems as well -- albeit much more advanced in most cases.
Human Services 311 notes that when we think of social policy we often think that it is the chief government heads who are doing all the decision making in the policy process, but this simply is not true; there are major organizations such as Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) as well as other "lobbying arms of big business" (p. 3) that have a major influence because they recruit politicians who will support their agendas (p. 3). The CCCE works with the government in many different key areas in shaping public policy -- including areas such as fiscal and tax policy, energy and the environment, corporate and public governance, innovation and competetiveness, and human and community development (Canadian Council of Chief Executives 2011). While it may be comforting to know that there is more to social policy-making than governmental big-wigs making all the decisions, it still leaves us with the fact that there are underrepresented groups in Canada and organizations like the CCCE are simply a group of other types of big-wigs using the monetary power to make an impact on policy-makers. With the growth of large companies and their wealth exceeding anything we could have imagined, this means that there will be an even larger gap in the distribution of wealth and income (p. 4) and this is something that needs to be addressed in the human services field. Furthermore, there are groups in Canada that are underrepresented or not represented at all. Pluralism is the idea that interest groups influence the outcome of governmental decisions (p. 4); however, there are definitely some groups that have more power than other groups and this is largely based on socio-economic factors as well. Some may agree that policy-making as outlined in the chapter "Policy-Making and Policy-Makers" that policy-making is a "competition between elites" (Wharf & McKenzie 1998, p. 4). Pluralism does allow for many different groups to be represented in society and offer certain perspectives that may not have otherwise been offered, however, interest groups often over-represent the rich in society. As well, they oftentimes present information that is self-serving and that is based on information that manipulates policy-making. Pluralism must be addressed when considering policy-making -- especially how these groups over-represent the wealthy and leave the poorer groups in society without a voice.
Human Services 311 notes that it is precisely this disparity in wealth and income among individuals that bring on social ills (p. 4). For example, more rich individuals look for scapegoats and tend to blame the country's financial situation on spending too much money in public assistance areas (i.e., the blame game). This kind of 'blame game' can lead to social exclusion. Social exclusion can almost always be brought back to economic issues -- whether we are considering single working mothers or whether we are thinking about minorities such as aboriginals in Canada. Both will have the common factor of low socio-economic status -- in many cases though certainly not all. This is important to note because there are many long-term costs associated with social exclusion. When there are cuts made to social programs because people believe that they are the cause of the government's financial status, there are many long-term costs that will exceed the short-term benefits of cutting programs. For example, when we cut programs such as educational programs, the children who will suffer will be the socially and the economically marginalized children. They will go on to be adults who may have difficulty with self-esteem issues that will prevent them from normal functioning in the world (i.e. jobs, etc.) once they are adults. They will have problems in school and problems at work later on, not to mention problems within their relationships in many cases (we have to consider that economics, social exclusion, and self-esteem issues all play into our inter-personal relationships). In some cases, they may be forced to find some kind of an identity within a gang and may be involved in drugs and/or violence. Of course, gang-related problems such as drugs and violence often leads to incarceration, which then becomes a major social burden that calls for even more social policy decision-making. As we can see, the long-term effects of cutting social policy programs and thinking in short-term ways can lead to more problems in the long run that will have detrimental effects on a society as a whole. This is something that is, unfortunately, so pervasive in the human services field and it is something that even though it is pervasive, it is oftentimes repeated over and over again.
In recent years, Canada has seen a corrosion of social welfare programs, which means that more people than ever are being excluded socially. There has also been an increase in poverty levels in recent years. When these two things are put together, what we have is a scary situation because there are demands being put on sources outside of the government. This means that the programs that the government was once funding and overseeing are now being put in the hands of others and this will definitely put a strain on society. (We can see this example precisely in Unit 6, "Implementing Policy," in the case of Pam who counsels high-risk teenage girls and how she was seeking to bring treatment to more clients). How this affects everyone is that when people are becoming poorer and there is not the safety net for them that is the government, individuals, as mentioned earlier, will turn to crime and other types of social wrongdoing as a consequence. This means that the money that could have and should have been spent on the poor in the first place will end up being spent (and then some) on trying to combat the crime that the poverty provoked in the first place.
The implementation of policies are just as crucial and just as difficult as the initial decision-making process. In Connecting policy to practice in human services, Wharf and McKenzie (1998) note that there are many complexities in the implementation stage. In the example given in chapter five, McKenzie's study of the implementation processes in the decentralization of child welfare…