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Social Services and the Role of Professionals
Nourishing Ideas > Philia in the Community > Social Services and the Role of Professionals

Historically, many people - among them, people with disabilities - have faced formidable barriers to participation in civil society. Relegated to the margins of the economy, they are too often left to the mercy of the welfare system and government care agencies. That system has a solid foundation in human rights and compassion, but it is not without its problems. At present we see two primary weaknesses:

  1. First, funding for welfare and social services is threatened. Governments complain that globalization has made it tougher to pull money out of the economy for redistribution. Changing demographics are putting added pressure on resources, especially as baby boomers near retirement. Debt servicing constrains spending, while governments are increasingly forced to spend more on new costs such as environmental protection. Resources for social services are perceived to be scarce.
  2. Second, advocates have come to realize that the welfare state actually prevents some people from enjoying the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship. Indeed, despite its good intentions, the social service system inadvertently works to marginalize them even further. This is because we have a "needs-based" service system that focuses on the needs and problems of marginalized people - on overcoming their personal "deficiencies" - rather than on their capabilities and the contributions they can make. This has led to an over-reliance on managerial intervention and paid relationships, creating a class of social service "clients" rather than citizens.

When marginalized people are unable to contribute to society, everyone loses. The community loses economic and social benefits, while excluded people drift into poverty, isolation, loneliness and increased dependence on the social service system. But when everyone is welcomed into communities and given all the rights and responsibilities of full citizens, everyone wins. Communities are strengthened, neighbourhoods enlivened and social institutions revitalized, while individuals regain a sense of belonging, meaning and power.

Our society is on the verge of significant change. The foundations of the welfare state appear to be eroding. If the welfare state crumbles, what will take its place? How will the changes affect society? Will people on the margins fall even further through the cracks, or do these changes present an opportunity to build something better?

Philia is looking for answers to these questions. We believe that one answer lies in challenging communities to welcome and encourage the contributions of people who have traditionally been marginalized. As Sam Sullivan argues in his article Needs and Good Intentions, "social services, although important, will never help us achieve true citizenship and enable us to develop relationships based on dignity and that are sustainable. Until we can be truly contributing to the well-being of our fellow citizens and until we construct our communities in ways that welcome and value such contributions we will never achieve our fullest humanity."

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Related Items
For further reflections on this theme read Needs and Good Intentions and Opinion, both by Sam Sullivan.
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