Former British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher's "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" rationalization
for slashing welfare programs has come to dominate Canadian social
Unfortunately, this "tough love" attitude has not eliminated
poverty. Economic recovery has proven to be elusive, wages continues
to fall and unemployment remains in the double digits.
The poor are still very much with us, but their welfare is now
the project of private charities, rather than a public priority.
University of Western Ontario professor Patrick
to the reality that without a comprehensive, coordinated welfare
system, low-income people must enter a myriad power relations with
publicly funded agencies, non-profit organizations, private charities
and church groups in order to have their needs met. And not all
service provider/service receiver relations are constructed equally.
Burman is the author of Poverty's Bonds: Power
and Agency in the Social Relations of Welfare. The book is based on a study he conducted
into the attitudes of service providers and receivers to each other.
He found that the narrow goals of each service providing agency,
whether public or private, encourages a narrow view of the poor,
and a narrow view of the role service workers can play in the larger
project to eliminate poverty.
Burman's observations are based on the work of French philosopher
Michel Foucault: "Foucault thought that social policy was a
mechanism of the state for making use of and channelling power through
all parts of the society. Power did not simply descend from a leader
or elite but ascended from freely constructed subjects which had
internalized means of self-discipline," he explains.
Burman identifies five "configuring modes" of relations
between service providers and receivers. They range from relations
in which the balance of power is tipped in the provider's favour
to more equitable relationships. He did not identify any modes in
which the service receiver is seen to hold the balance of power.
The first mode (A) is what Burman refers to as the "moralistic
giving of charity." The advantage to service receivers in this
configuration is they receive basic, immediate necessities, usually
a hot meal and, in some cases, clothing. The advantage to the volunteers
and officials at a church charity is a sense of moral satisfaction.
The disadvantage is that in many cases, the service receiver is
receiving goods with strings attached; for example, they may be
required to listen to a proselytising speech prior to receiving
Burman found that religious charity workers can become indignant
when their missionary subjects do not respond with the proper deference:
"This configuring mode presents the provider as clothed in
moral righteousness and respectability, standing at the gate of
societal goods (and of heaven in a sense), sharing both love and
judgement to all who approach. The low-income person is altercast
as a self-revealing dependent, who is seen, in a biblical sense,
as a sheep that has strayed from the conventional path." Indeed,
one food bank official, a fundamentalist Christian, spoke in Thatcherite
terms when asked about his attitudes toward people in need: "They
have become lazy in looking for jobs; they have become lazy in really
picking up their bootstraps and helping themselves to do it."
The "bureaucratic subsidizing" configuration (B) describes
the interaction between people and workers at agencies which administer
entitlement programs such as unemployment insurance or municipal
welfare. It may be reasonable to expect that entitlement monies
be dispensed to those in need automatically, but in reality, both
applicants for assistance and agency officials must first satisfy
the needs of the system.
Applicants must prove need, a bureaucratic form of begging, often
through intrusive leading interviews or questionnaires. Appeals
are secretive, designed to hide the mechanisms of decision-making
from public view. Agency officials interviewed for Burman's study
had a tendency to hint or in some cases state that their own views
on the system differed from the official line. Because these programs
have come under scrutiny, officials find themselves in the position
of secular gatekeepers.
People in need can find physical shelter and psychological support
at youth shelters, soup kitchens, hostels or missions. The workers
in this "needs responding" (C) mode are open to learning
from those in need. He sees a lesser tendency to "trade"
assistance for compliance on the part of the people who come to
them for assistance.
However, there is a danger of overemphasis on lifestyle as the
origin of problems. "The emphasis on empathy causes an impaired
vision of power differentials, which are maintained in this mode
but euphemized and softened."
Burman credits the "community development" (D) and "anti-poverty
activating" (E) modes of relations as approaches that view
poverty as a societally or economically constructed situation, while
the previous modes saw poverty as almost a character flaw (a view
Burman sums up as "pauperism").
The problem with the almost communitarian, "we're all in
this together" view of community development is that it often
stops before advocating political action. After including excerpts
of a liberal inner city cleric who favours liberation theology
over hierarchical church institutions, Burman comments: "We
can perhaps see now the hoped-for reward for the provider in the
romantic view of community — it is the finding of goodness
in a corrupted world."
The most political configuration is model E, the anti-poverty mode.
Here, both service providers and recipients are equals in a campaign
to confront the active construction of a caste of disadvantaged
people in Canada:
(B)y the state's refusal to back full employment and its self-limitation
of its redistributive role and by the system's failure to provide
enough in social wages to provide a decent living, it is ensuring
that people will continue to rely on the cadre of service providers
in the social services system. It is priming the pump of the poverty
It is evident that Burman favours this model of social interaction
over the preceding configuration, but as with all the modes, he
gives the last word to the people who are ostensibly being "helped":
When Sandra got a flier from Joseph's anti-poverty organization,
she ran into friends who had been there. They told her, 'Don't go.
It's not worth it. They make you get up and degrade yourself....'
The organization, it was felt, made people 'talk about their personal
life.' Even if the purpose was political and progressive, the humiliation
effect might end up being the same.