McTernan on Politics

Attacking the culture of dependency has become part of the
established discourse about the welfare state. In his book
Respect1 sociologist Richard Sennett points out
that many politicians who want to free the beneficiaries of welfare
services from the burden of dependency also promote the ideal of
the family as the model for private life.

Yet the family is itself a network of dependence whether of
children on their parents or older relatives on the younger
generation. Teasing out this paradox, he concludes that what should
tie us together in our public and private lives is a sense of the
interdependence of living in human society.

One of the strengths of his meditation on what he calls “the
formation of character in an age of inequality” is his reflection
on his upbringing in Cabrini Green, a Chicago housing project. A
musical talent as a cellist and his mother’s becoming a social
worker took him on a journey of opportunity that was denied most of
those with whom he grew up.

Sennett tells of returning in the 1970s to Cabrini, by then
notorious for poverty, crime and educational under-achievement. He
was one of a group of former residents meant to tell their stories
of success to teenagers to inspire them. Sennett was unable to make
a connection with the young people who found it easier to relate to
stories of more modest self-improvement rather than his journey
from housing project to Harvard. From his experience he develops a
powerful insight which is widely applicable to how we provide
welfare services: “The [housing] project denied people control over
their own lives. They were rendered spectators to their own needs,
mere consumers of care provided to them.”

How often that is true today in the UK. In reality, successful
outcomes for the individual depend on them being involved in the
delivery of the services aimed at them. Patients self-managing
diseases, pupils completing homework, young people rebuilding lives
– all are “co-producing” services, not merely receiving them
passively. Yet even when we acknowledge by trying to organise
health, education or social services in a consumer-facing way our
best intentions can be frustrated.

Politicians demand performance measures that are crude activity
targets and rarely relate to the service user. The effect is to
draw attention away from the critical relationship between client
and service – we end up looking upwards to the “centre” and looking
down on those who most need our services. And we fail to achieve
the outcomes in terms of well-being to which we all – including our
political leaders – aspire.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

1 R Sennett, Respect: The Formation of
Character in an Age of Inequality
, Allen Lane, 2003

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