From the bottom up

University of Otago Associate Prof Pat Shannon considers ways of tackling some of New Zealand's ...
University of Otago Associate Prof Pat Shannon considers ways of tackling some of New Zealand's "wicked" social problems. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
There are signs that communities are pulling together to face the challenges posed by the modern world, according to Associate Prof Pat Shannon, of the University of Otago.

Indeed, the influential social issues researcher is cautiously optimistic, despite the torrent of negative economic and social statistics, that local community development networks can provide more effective support for local needs, including people who have suffered damaging "life shocks".

"There are lots of grounds for hope," he says, but cautions that communities must look to themselves.

"The system is not delivering, from international banks to shonky local finance companies; inequality in New Zealand is exploding and we know from 'The Spirit Level' [an international study of inequality] that this is not good for anyone, even the multimillionaires.

"People don't believe the Establishment any more. They are starting to take action for themselves - communities, transition towns, iwi development, social entrepreneurs, social enterprises, the whole voluntary non-profit sector and volunteers, thousands of people - keeping society sustainable.

"We are doing things for ourselves despite the system. Of course we don't have long, but it is starting."

In and among those participating in the grass-roots efforts that Prof Shannon observes, are the social workers and community development entrepreneurs that he has spent half a lifetime educating and advocating for. That their contribution to the revitalisation of hard-pressed communities is not routinely heralded comes as no surprise.

"It is no surprise that social work, despite being an extremely complex and demanding task, with a range of knowledge required of few other professions, is treated poorly by the Establishment," he says.

"Supporting and advocating for the disadvantaged is not something that endears itself to the silver spoon brigade. Yet they cannot do without us."

That is not to say they have not tried. In the early 1990s, a government minister had tried to get rid of social workers in mental health but "we had a series of major tragedies and they had to bring them back".

Prof Shannon says that though much social research is "just descriptive counting and measuring outcomes" with little or no knowledge on how the outcomes had arisen or "what to do about them", work done at the university's department of social work and community development studies had identified ways forward.

He has been involved, with colleagues, in a 10-year research programme and, by using 12 case studies, has helped develop a "strategic model of how to bring about change in the community".

"I intend to continue this programme even though I am no longer in the university."

He plans to call it " Reunion: re-creating connections for people and communities".

In a talk given at a University of Otago conference earlier this year, Prof Shannon urged the development of a more effective regional partnership between community groups and government departments, in order to counter poverty and avoid "a serious social crisis".

The failure to eradicate family and child poverty in New Zealand and the rapid increase in associated serious problems must "lead to a reconsideration of the value and effectiveness of social support", he said.

He noted recent groundbreaking research by the Ministry of Social Development had highlighted the importance of "life shocks" in contributing to severe hardship.

A detailed investigation of critical incidents leading to hardship in Dunedin, which he led last year in association with Christian agencies' foodbanks, had also identified "the importance of community-level social support".

He noted there had been improvements in national superannuation, while political developments involving the Maori renaissance had brought positive outcomes, as had the introduction in 2006 of the wage-earner family support scheme Working for Families.

But there had also been major increases in "wicked problems", including those involving family and child poverty, as well as health and crime issues.

Research undertaken by the Government had indicated the reason people ended up in financial hardship was "a combination of low income and bad luck: what they called 'life shocks'. Health problems, losing their jobs, marriage breakup, losing their houses and things like that."

"In the Dunedin foodbank study we wanted to understand how it happened, the process of social exclusion, how people reacted and how we could best help before things got too bad."

The Dunedin research confirmed the government research finding: "People suffered crises in their lives and struggled to deal with them, often losing all their resources and ending up in debt before swallowing their pride and going for help".

"The key thing that drove them to seek help was usually their kids. When the kids were suffering, it was the last straw," Prof Shannon says.

"Some of the people, especially the women, were really impressive [in] their courage and the efforts they went to, all to protect their kids.

"The voluntary sector and foodbanks were great. They helped with food but much more as well, getting people back on the up again."

But the study showed that many of the official services, ranging from health services to benefits, were "more concerned with rationing than helping" and often made things worse.

"The key response for us was support and empowerment, helping people build the support networks which can protect and empower them and minimise the factors that make them vulnerable.

"The tragedy is that so many of the services, supposedly designed to support people, in fact made them more vulnerable and at risk."

After about 45 years of involvement in social work and community development, Prof Shannon is quick to take issue with some of the negative stereotypes of beneficiaries.

Some politicians provided "misleading information" and loved "coming up with cases of beneficiaries who are supposedly getting lots of money".

If that was the case, given the rules in place, it was "the fault of the politicians and bureaucrats - they should be dismissed for incompetence".

He is particularly critical of the "stigmatising" of single mothers receiving the domestic purposes benefit, and of critics who pretended such mothers "are all young women who see it as a permanent lifestyle choice".

"That is rubbish. Most such beneficiaries are mature people getting out of bad relationships and most are on the benefit for only three years. Hardly a chosen permanent lifestyle."

He also takes issue with "all the targeting and punitive measures, making support harder to get", and suggestions "beneficiaries and families are all malingerers".

"Politicians know better, but dishonestly scapegoat and single out people who can't defend themselves," he says.

"Beneficiaries are people who have lost their jobs; people with serious disabilities, mental health issues; women struggling to raise children on their own after escaping violent relationships.

"Yet the politicians stigmatise them. They pretend to be against domestic violence but stigmatise women who try and get out of such situations. It is hypocritical.

"All we need is a bit of history. Child abuse, family violence, imprisonment rates have all exploded since [then Social Welfare Minister Jenny] Shipley's benefit cuts of 1991 when they cut some, hardly generous, benefits by up to 25%."

Politicians from various political parties had since "failed to do anything about it", he said.

Supposed ignorance was "no defence". Groups such as Child Poverty Action had clearly demonstrated the effects.

Social and community development workers face many major challenges:

• As a result of physical maltreatment from 1998-2002, 590 children were hospitalised after an assault; of those children, 46 later died.

• Among OECD countries, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of child death from maltreatment, with 1.2 child deaths per 100,000 children annually; four to six times worse than the leading industrial countries' average.

• New Zealand children in their first year of life have the highest rates of all age groups for death from assault; Maori children face twice the statistical risk of death by assault as non-Maori children.

- Source, "Improving the Transition", recent report to the Prime Minister.

Associate Prof Pat Shannon.

• Born: Wellington, June 1943.
• Worked as a community worker in Porirua, from 1965.
• MA-MSW (master of social welfare) degree, Auckland University, 1974.
• Taught in sociology department, Auckland University 1974-75.
• Joined University of Otago staff, 1976, later completing an Otago doctorate.
• One of the founders of the University of Otago's social work and community development studies.
• Author of several books, including, with Dr Susan Young, Solving Social Problems: A Southern Perspective.
• Took voluntary severance from Otago University, effective from June 30, as part of restructuring of former social work and community development department, and the creation of a new combined sociology, gender and social work department.
• Will continue long-standing southern research interests.


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