杨帆:【澎湃新闻英文版】Why China’s Welfare Warriors Have Had Enough of Front-Line Work

发布日期:2017-06-13 09:27:00

Inadequate social assistance schemes have left China’s public servants exhausted and the roots of poverty ignored — but now, change is in the air.


Yang Fan

Jun 12, 2017


Yang Fan Lecturer

Yang Fan is a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs and China Institute of Urban Governance at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.


Social welfare service managers to whom I have spoken in Shanghai routinely confront tough tasks — so much so that many feel conflicts with welfare applicants have turned them into warriors.

I recently interviewed a woman surnamed Chen who is currently the director of a social assistance administration in Shanghai. She mentioned that she and her colleagues have experienced harassment, insults, and even violence from social welfare recipients and applicants. “Poor people have become reliant on the government whenever problems arise, and their setbacks in life can easily translate into aggression toward us if their demands are not fully met,” she says.

Between June and December 2016, my colleagues and I surveyed 56 front-line welfare service managers like Chen in 42 social assistance administrations across 12 Shanghai districts. Our questionnaire revealed how many front-line workers hold negative views of welfare applicants: Almost 80 percent perceived applicants as being overdependent on welfare; one-third of them saw applicants as a kind of “moral underclass”; and about half of them thought applicants were an unavoidable burden on society.

During the same period, we also spoke with 968 Shanghai residents, all of whom were on welfare. Nearly all of them said that the government subsidies were too low, while only 30 percent of them expressed satisfaction with current social assistance policy.

In one interview, a middle-aged woman mistook me for a government official with the power to determine her welfare payments. She pointed toward a pile of neatly folded papers, saying that they were her husband’s hospital receipts and medical records. Her husband had died from stomach cancer several months ago, she continued, leaving her nothing but a few documents demonstrating that the family had spent nearly half a million yuan ($73,500) on treatment, of which only around 300,000 yuan could be compensated by their insurer and the government.

The same woman expressed deep disappointment toward what she perceived as the government’s ignorance of her family’s plight: “I am one of the poorest and most pitiful people in this country; why can’t the government help me more?” I gently reminded her that she was covered by the state’s social assistance scheme, which provided her family with a certain monthly income. Incensed, she suddenly stood up and threw a handful of the receipts at me, shouting: “That small amount of money can barely buy food for my family! Go get the government to reimburse my receipts!”

Such conflicts proliferate against the backdrop of increasing government investment in social assistance programs. The minimum standard of living allowance, or dibao, constitutes a major part of China’s social welfare system. The policy aims to provide a basic subsidy to people who are living under the local poverty line. It was initiated in Shanghai in 1993 as a means of pacifying the large number of laid-off workers left over from the marketization of state-owned enterprises, and it finally became national policy through legislation in 1999.

China has long embraced a money-based patriarchal social assistance culture, which fosters welfare recipients’ over-reliance on government.

- Yang Fan, lecturer

Since then, the policy has grown to cover vast areas of the country, swallowing up increased government investment. According to thelatest statistics issued by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, 27.5 billion yuan was invested in the dibao in February 2017, covering more than 34 million rural and urban households in China. Each dibao household can receive an average monthly stipend of 800 yuan, compared to 239 yuan in February 2012.

Moreover, the Chinese government has set a goal of eradicating absolute poverty by 2020, which means bringing about 10 million people out of absolute poverty every year until then. To achieve that goal, President Xi Jinping is mobilizing local and municipal officials to invest in an abundance of economic and human resources for various social assistance and poverty reduction programs, such as tailored poverty relief plans based on each household’s circumstances.

How can we reduce the stigma, dissatisfaction, and conflict haunting front-line social welfare work despite booming economic investment? In recent years, more and more nongovernmental organizations have devoted themselves to social welfare programs by bidding for government social service contracts. Their work has provided a different philosophy of poverty reduction.

A social worker and poverty researcher who asked to be identified by her surname, Zhu, is a good example of how NGOs are involving themselves in poverty reduction. Zhu told me she has always believed that relying solely on monetary handouts is an ineffective way to run social assistance programs. Her organization recently finished a two-year social experiment called “Flying High,” in which dibaohouseholds were categorized into three groups. One group was the control group; another received normal levels of intervention from social workers, which mainly involved skills training and basic psychological support; and the final group received “human development intervention,” including programs on asset building, parenting, and youth empowerment.

On top of skills training aimed at increasing employability, the asset-building portion asked each selecteddibao household to save 200 yuan per month for 24 successive months. At the end, the state supplemented their savings of 4,800 yuan with extra cash, giving each family a total of 6,000 yuan. During parenting classes, too, social workers provided individual services to each family, teaching them key relationship skills and providing therapy for dysfunctional couples. Finally, the youth empowerment interventions involved helping children plan for the future, encouraging stronger academic performance, cultivating artistic interests, and preventing psychological problems.

In addition, Zhu and her colleagues arranged for children from dibao families to visit universities, banks, and government departments, talking to professional managers, teachers, and officials about potential future career paths. They also gave the children access to free tutorial classes, provided opportunities to learn musical instruments, and offered psychological counseling where necessary.

In the end, the group that received human development intervention demonstrated significantly better outcomes than the other two groups. In particular, more people from this group than any other were weaned off the dibao, and their children’s academic performance and confidence about their futures were the highest among the three groups.

Zhu reflected that China has long embraced a money-based patriarchal social assistance culture, which fosters welfare recipients’ over-reliance on government. “Our organization’s mission is to use professional skills to cultivate poor people’s essential capabilities, to recover their dignity, and to break the intergenerational transmission of poverty,” she says.

Indeed, experience across the globe has demonstrated that material support alone cannot truly tackle the roots of poverty. The success of Zhu’s project, therefore, is based on the conventional wisdom that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish. Now we are witnessing positive outcomes, especially in the way that welfare recipients are placing more importance on self-improvement and on their children’s education. Similar projects are still few and far between in China. However, with more public resources going toward the training of professional social welfare workers and more access given to NGOs, we can expect China’s social assistance programs to depart from mere monetary assistance and shape a genuinely positive relationship among the state, public servants, and welfare recipients.

Editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: People prepare dinner outside a rented house in Shanghai, March 28, 2016. Aly Song/Reuters)


来源:澎湃新闻网英文版 2017.06.12

原文:Why China’s Welfare Warriors Have Had Enough of Front-Line Work

  • 推荐阅读