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Amazing Grace
Poverty's Bonds


poverty's bonds:
power and agency in the social relations of welfare

By Patrick Burman
Thompson Educational Publishing Inc.
$19.95; 197 pages

Review by Suzette C. Chan
For First Reading

  Poverty's Bonds, first edition book cover


Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" rationalization for slashing welfare programs has come to dominate Canadian social policy.

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 Burman points 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 a meal.

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 industry.

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.


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