Sunday, May 02, 2010

Governments struggle to get it right on social issues

You learn things over the course of a journalism career.
A lot of it just flies right out of your head a month or two later. But some sticks. I wouldn’t say it gives you wisdom, exactly, but you do start developing a sense for how certain stories tend to turn out.
Observing government has been particularly informative. We all know history repeats itself, but it repeats itself really quickly when it comes to government. With a new cast of characters every three or four years, there are always newcomers to stumble into the same mistakes as their predecessors. Pretty soon, you start to recognize the signs.
First, a moment of appreciation for all the good things that our regional, provincial and federal governments do. Trying to represent the interests of all of us is one heck of an undertaking, and on many fronts governments get it right.
The roads are paved. The lights are on. The taxes are collected and the debts are paid. Sure, we grumble, but much of what governments do on our behalf works out perfectly fine.
Unfortunately, there’s one area that trips up virtually all of them. Governments routinely get it wrong around social issues.
I know, I know - who am I to define something as “wrong” just because I don’t agree with the tack taken? But what I’m talking about is a measurable kind of wrong, one that hurts the economy, the citizenry and the culture in the long term.
That almost 30 per cent of B.C. children are developmentally behind by the time they start kindergarten, for instance, will cost the province 20 per cent in lost GDP growth by the time this generation of five-year-olds reaches retirement age. We talk about improving that vulnerability rate, but the cuts to community services going on right now are taking us in the opposite direction.
Social decay happens in increments, and over a very long time. A government that cuts social supports will in most cases not be around when the chickens come home to roost, so they have little to fear in making such cuts.
I’ve seen every shade of politician cut social spending. Perhaps it’s because it seems like such an “easy” place to find short-term savings, with little risk of political repercussion. In some cases I think it’s because a political party genuinely believes that tough love is the answer, although you’d think the huge growth in homelessness over the last couple of decades might at least give small pause to the validity of that belief.
Looking at the issue through a political lens, you can see why a politician might conclude that the place to cut is around social support.
When social care is working, it’s all about an absence of problems. Get it right, and families don’t break up. Teenage girls don’t get pregnant.
Adolescent boys don’t fall into youth gangs. Old people live out their final years without event. People don’t commit crimes. Little children grow up healthy and happy, the bad life that they might have been headed for never gaining a foothold.
Happy news in terms of healthy communities. But how is a politician supposed to take credit for nothing happening as a selling point in his or her re-election? You can see why things like bridges and arenas and Olympics events are so appealing to elected officials - they’re tangible proof of something accomplished during their time in office.
Cutting social support also seems to be an easy sell to voters, many of whom are only too happy to back a Darwinian approach if it means they get to pay less tax. They fail to recognize that yesterday’s shattered family is tomorrow’s public expense, for reasons ranging from chronic illness and poor health to low productivity, more violence and crime, intergenerational poverty and increased disability.
It certainly doesn’t help that there’s such a long gap between when social cuts are made and when problems start manifesting. A journalist might make note of such things as the years unfold, but the average person isn’t necessarily going to connect the dots.
Even when they do, who are they supposed to hold accountable? It was a Social Credit government that kick-started the crisis of mass homelessness we’re now experiencing by closing B.C.’s big mental institutions in the mid-1980s, but they were nowhere in sight when things started to derail.
By the time the real costs from the current cuts hit home, this government will probably be long gone, too. Too bad the bill for their short-sighted mistakes will linger on.

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