Today’s socially challenging times
Reconciling economic priorities with social values is one of the most difficult things that most of us have to face in our lifetime. It is so easy to focus on just one side of this equation and express strongly held views on whether the distribution of economic wealth is being done fairly or not.
As economic prospects in most developed countries get bleaker, the risks of creating grievous social injustices increase. Those who subscribe simplistically to the school of thought that social measures should never play second fiddle to economic realities are living in a fantasy world. Similarly, those who dismiss the multitude of broken people in our society as parasites are equally mistaken and perpetuate the widening gap between those who have and those who have not.
The role of any government that claims to have a social conscience is to distribute wealth fairly so that everyone has a chance of living a decent life. This is easier said than done. Hard earned wealth needs to be spread out on as many worthwhile social causes as possible. The never ending debate on the ideal subordination of social values is unlikely to lead to any wide consensus on what our social priorities should be. Social welfare, health and education are broad issues and deciding who needs help in these areas and to what extent such help may be given are challenging tasks for any government.
Many argue that the reconciliation of economic priorities with social values is often made more difficult by the way the state machine works. It is a fact that for every euro collected from the taxpayer that is intended to support our welfare system, a good part of it is spent in administration and waste. This contrasts with the better organised voluntary philanthropic organisations that make sure that they satisfy their benefactors’ expectations by keeping their administrative costs to a minimum.
This consideration should lead to a strategy where welfare benefits are increasingly channelled to the ultimate beneficiaries through non-government, voluntary organisations. Proper audits will, of course, be needed to ensure that taxpayers’ money is well spent and that every euro paid to these organisations is accounted for.
The role of the government should be more focused in preventing the need of social support in future by adopting forward looking policies that empower people to help themselves. It is a sad fact that electoral priorities often get in the way of such a logical approach. Similarly, sloppy management standards in the public service erode the value for money that can be achieved in the provision of various public services that could make people less dependent on social welfare.
Two examples of this are the inertia in undertaking real major reforms in the way that society treats older people is now resulting in an increasing number of pensioners that are likely to face hard times in future. The absence of a coherent active aging policy is sufficient evidence of the prejudice that exists against older people in our society. It seems that the only real innovation that we are prepared to consider for older people is to encourage them to go to university to pass their time.
A similar sad situation is being experienced in our educational sector. We continue to occupy the last place in the league of educational achievement despite significant expenditure on this sector in the last two decades. Today’s uneducated young people are tomorrow damaged people who struggle to find meaning in their lives. We now have to live with a chronic problem of thousands of workers who are unemployable and probably not suitable for training in the kind of jobs that are or could be made available by the new economy. We certainly cannot afford to lose a generation of youngster because they have no qualifications.
A more radical approach is needed to make social solidarity stronger at a time when economic performance is under stress. The French President, for instance, has indicated that he will revise the 35 hour week system in France if he is re-elected because “the country can no longer afford it”. Such decisions are bound to be unpopular but they reflect a much needed sense of leadership and realism that is so badly needed in tough times like this. The Church too should use its influence to promote social fairness. Many like me find the Church of Mother Theresa much more convincing than the IOR – the Church bank based in Rome.