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Aiming High for Social Justice Falls Short Without Economic Well-Being

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

One of the chief goals for those who aspire to improve conditions for all participants in a community is to insure social justice for all who live in the community.

How that term is defined differs according to the person’s interest or concern. However, the term is generally associated with the fact that all people have equal opportunity to develop and grow and make the best of the environment in which they live.

These opportunities range from the obvious like racial equality to fair housing to meeting basic needs. Over the years, those who crusade for social justice have viewed government as the great equalizer and protector of the underdog or the downtrodden. To a large degree, the welfare system attempts to achieve social justice for the poor by providing income supplements as well as social services to those in need.

While this approach to taking care of those who are in need was viewed as a socially conscious way of taking care of society’s poor, professionals have come to realize that merely providing handouts does not improve the lot of the poor. Instead of creating self-esteem, handouts have been determined to create nothing more than dependence and in fact fosters lower self-esteem.

Recognizing the need to break the cycle of welfare dependence, Congress adopted a policy of limiting the length of time persons could resort to welfare payments as a way of life. Although supporters of the current welfare system were dragged screaming and kicking into the debate, the proposal became the law of the land.

Here in Hawaii the law was soundly derided by those who saw the move as “not caring” about the poor and eliminating the safety net. Local bureaucrats struggled with the newfangled idea of putting welfare recipients back to work. Beliving that the law would be reversed, local officials took their time in designing the sytem and even today don’t seem to have a coordinated plan to train and support recipients in their effort to enter the workforce.

Only recently when the first group of welfare recipients was faced with the possibility of having their benefits terminated did there seem to be some effort to place recipients in jobs or even seek positions for which the recipients could volunteer, thereby meeting the minimum criteria to continue welfare benefits.

One of the often heard reasons for Hawaii’s less than successful effort to get welfare recipients back into the workforce is that there are few, if any, jobs available to make this program work. More than anything else, this is a point that should not be lost or overlooked by lawmakers and administrators alike.

Unless jobs are available, the “welfare to work” program cannot succeed. Either government creates jobs, which in the current financial crisis just won’t happen, or private business creates the necessary jobs. So it has come full circle. If private businesses cannot turn a profit in this environment where lawmakers believe profits mean businesses areripping off their customers, where will businesses get the money to create the jobs needed by those who are faced with a termination of their welfare benefits if they cannot get a job?

So if it is really social justice that lawmakers and other officials would like to achieve for all members of the community, then economic well-being and a strong economic environment are crucial to that equation. Merely providing handouts to the homeless or the poor is not going to improve the outlook for these people. Treating the poor like people, providing skills to allow them to be self-sufficient builds self-esteem and purpose.

While the “welfare to work” proposal has been characterized as being mean and hard-hearted, people should recognize that the current welfare system is not working. Certainly there are those who will never be able to fully support themselves such as the physically or mentally challenged. However, for a large part of the welfare population, taking handouts in the form of welfare checks is demeaning and provides little hope of being independent. Thus, the “welfare to work” initiative can achieve social justice if there just were the jobs that welfare recipients need.

So, while those who are concerned about achieving social justice for the poor may want to continue plying the rhetoric, the truth of the matter is that more effort needs to be focused on the economic well-being of our community. Instead of viewing business as the antithesis of social concerns, the business environment and the business climate must be seen as crucial to the well-being of the community as a whole.

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