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A call for systemic prevention
On the 9th May, nef is organising an event at the LSE on ‘The Wisdom of Prevention’. This could not come at a more crucial time, when the Coalition government is destroying the last fragments of a social democratic commitment to social justice.
This social justice rationale - to prevent the worst social and economic effects of free market capitalism through a fair distribution of resources - is being reversed by the government’s priority of preventing something else: dependency.
For the government, the cause of inequality is not economic but social, and family breakdown is a cause rather than exacerbated by economic inequality. Ruth Lister and Fran Bennett point out that linking family breakdown to welfare dependency is a ‘recurrent theme in conservative thinking’, resurrecting the demon of the underclass. They highlight a quote from the conservative Social Justice Policy Group: "As the fabric of society crumbles at the margins what has been left behind is an underclass, where life is characterised by dependency, addiction, debt and family breakdown".
David Cameron endorses the view that dependency, rather than social and economic context, is the generator of social ills. For him, ‘Mass welfare dependency is a waste of the country’s human resources and a huge drain on the taxpayer’ as well as ‘one of the primary causes of low aspirations and social breakdown.’
As Lister and Bennett argue, the term ‘welfare dependency’ is ‘used to frame the problem of poverty as a problem of behaviour and to reconstruct social security as a cause of poverty rather than as part of the policy solution’.
They cite an overview of the British data which concludes that
..not much evidence has been unearthed in support of a welfare class founded on either cultural or psychosocial dependency. It did not feature strongly in the empirical research literature and nor, therefore in the explanations for the growth in claimant numbers. Unemployed and disabled claimants typically retain prior attachments to work, as do many lone parents, and it is other barriers that prevent them from working.
It is crucial not to get caught up in the government’s rhetoric about prevention, and to question its political priorities.
With the economic system in crisis and global political movements pressing for change, the political priority is to challenge the economic order that generates an increasing gap between rich and poor and major environmental damage.
At nef, we are developing a systemic approach to prevention as an alternative principle of policy making to the Coalition’s short term utilitarian rationale. To create an economy that can potentially underpin the long term realisation of a socially just, and environmentally stable world where everyone can flourish. At its heart is the commitment to a fairer and more equal distribution of resources between people, generations and countries. This necessarily involves a revival of democracy, of political debate and decisions about the use and distribution of depleting resources, and the development of a more vibrant political economy to the one we have now.