The Appeal of Pessimism

I was sitting in a lecture last Thursday with the Dean of Penn’s School of Public Policy and Practice, and he was telling us about the US’s dismal record when it comes to child mortality due to abuse. The number of children dying from neglect and abuse has remained constant since the 1970s, despite the application of money, care, time, policy and staff.

These are the sorts of encouraging statistics and lectures one frequently encounters in social work school. The first year has been one of exceeding pessimism. Teachers and Deans are at great pains to describe the exact scope and hopelessness of the situation(s) and ask what exactly you think you can do as a lone practitioner in this big ugly world with its big ugly systems that replicate problems, stigma and power structures, or create new ones, while trying to alleviate suffering.

The Dean went on to explain in Kafkaesque detail, how bureaucracies, like all other malignant life forms, exist only to thrive and grow [not to solve problems efficiently].

{I’ll mention right now that he did wrap up the downbeat lecture on a note of possibility–that it takes coalitions and the right timing to instigate change, that the right policy at the right time can have a significant, positive effect, and he mentioned Social Security as changing the status of the elderly and dragging them out of poverty, and the GI Bill for creating the middle class in the 1950 and 1960s.}

But the reason I’m writing this post is to reflect on the lure, the allure, the temptation to listen to the litany of oft-repeated mistakes (the deadly mix of good intentions, poor policy design, restrictive benefit measures, and assorted gate-keeping and citizen shaming) and think of social ills as totally intractable. To think that having a miserable set of underclasses is part of the natural order, that no matter what we do, x% is going to be addicted, homeless, mentally ill, beaten and abused, illiterate etc.

It’s very tempting, after a couple centuries of good intentions and poor results, to think that nothing can be done. You have to be realistic.

well…

When I get in one of those dark corners of the mind, I give myself a stern talking to. I go back to home base. I question any offering of “norms”. This is the way it is and will remain is not a good enough answer. There wouldn’t be different national rates of, say, child mortality at birth, if there weren’t more or less effective approaches to dealing with pregnancy and child delivery. These national approaches to health, welfare and problem solving are societally and sociologically driven. There are structural forces at work. They have to be evaluated, confronted, mitigated, and ultimately dismantled.

I’m not calling for a revolution, I’m calling for an evidence based approach–nothing new my dear, luckily I’ve become a social worker in the age of empiricism and sound qualitative research methodologies–intelligent incrementalism, and the marriage of bottom up community work and top down policy work. There’s a lot of work to be done, but at least we have a pretty good idea of what has and has not worked to build upon.

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