The value of ‘having more’
One of my earliest experiences of working with children & families in social work was visiting a young mother who was excited because the “Provie Man” (Provident Loan company) had lent her £200 so she could buy Christmas presents for her children. I didn’t want to destroy her temporary sense of happiness and excitement, and it was too late to change the fact of the loan, but I knew that with crippling interest rates she would struggle to pay way over the odds in interest over the coming year, and no doubt repeat the cycle again the next year. All so she could buy a pile of cheap toys that would break in no time. She was just one of many in the same situation.
Travelling in Ecuador at Christmas I stayed with a family whose children received only one present: a bag of mixed biscuits and sweets. All the children in the village received the same present. Few received anything else. The parents simply explained that they couldn’t afford to buy the children any more presents. Yet none complained.
The children didn’t go without. They received everything they needed it when they needed it: clothes, books for learning. There were few toys but plenty of opportunity to play with natural materials, using their imagination in play with friends of all ages. Play was not always supervised and sometimes might have been thought unsafe, but they learned to help and look after each other. There was also masses of love and attention from their parents, their aunties and uncles, cousins, siblings, friends and neighbours, as they learnt the ways of their community.
From the opening lines from Michael Meegan’s book, All will be well – “We were not designed to live the lifestyle that has become predominant today. The nature of our Western economy is to feed an insatiable value system based on having more. It is based on people not being happy. If people began thinking that they were content with what they possessed already, the economy could no longer sell you the latest style or the latest ‘must-have’ stuff ….. We settle for trifles such as wealth, fame and comfort … self help books, at best, do three things … remind people they are locked into cycles and patterns of negative thinking; point out practical ways of changing behaviour or developing self-awareness and they can help people to climb out of emotional straightjackets; but these are merely by-products for a way of life that we were never meant to live. … It is often easier to read about happiness than to become happy, easier to aspire than to do, easier to plan than to break the entrenched patterns of our daily routine.”
Meegan sums up well the cause of so many of the social problems social workers spend their working lives dealing with, picking up the pieces from the fallout of the “insatiable value system of having more”; including the consequence that leads young women and others to take out Christmas loans they cannot afford to buy things their children don’t really need so they can feel they are meeting their children’s needs and so their children can begin early compete among their peers to climb the ladder of always “having more”.
Society demands social workers deal with society’s problems, recently in England this including taking the form of the Troubled Families Programme. Allegedly social workers are applying the values of society: do not steal or murder, etc, etc. But are these the real values of modern society? And how do the real values of society compare to the values of social work?