Welfare: To help one or to help many?
Welfare Officers, campaigns and committees exist in many organisations, and especially inside Unions. Sometimes ‘welfare’ roles focus on individual people’s problems, and sometimes they focus on “mass welfare”: the things that affect many people’s engagement with, or enjoyment of, life within whatever context they find themselves. In an ideal world, every single welfare issue would get equal attention until it is resolved, but we live in a world of finite time and resources, and so prioritisation becomes the issue.
I have observed the differences in approach to welfare between many organisations. Some seem obsessed with systemic barriers to people’s welfare to the extent they can’t stop and give the one crying person a hug. Others are completely the other way round; obsessed with helping individuals and the good karma of a happy client, they completely miss some of the biggest ongoing issues around them, afraid that they might curtail people’s freedoms with nanny-unionism or something similar.
I would describe mass-welfare as any issue affecting more than 10 people. I put this number so low because experience tells me that if more than 10 people claim they are affected by something, there will be more people muddling along without raising the issue. And whilst individual issues often have very detectable outcomes (one person blocked from continuing on their course, one person assaulted whilst walking home, for instance), mass issues can have much wider outcomes, some of which can’t be measured; you can look at crime statistics for a given path with new street lights before and after they’re put in place, but even then, you can’t say how many people really were safer afterwards, as measuring feelings with surveys is hugely subjective.
Individual Welfare is usually a much less contentious, even political, area. Lets take the example of Carnage bar-crawls. For those who don’t know, students buy a t-shirt by way of entry ticket, and then are directed from venue to venue by stewards who’s job is ambiguously somewhere between ensuring students stay safe and ensuring they get dangerously drunk.
The person in charge of a 2009 Bangor event is now awaiting a likely-custodial sentence for smashing the face of a resident who asked for reassurance of a quiet end to the night. Several police forces are considering banning the events from their cities outright. Their award-winning status is endowed by Nuts Magazine, an old favourite of women’s committee discussions on removal of lads mags from Student Union shops.
There are plenty who will defend these events as a good night out, with the majority of students suffering no more than a hang-over. But plenty of evidence is stacked against these events, and even those students who are adament the events are good fun could be said to be having their welfare endangered by the events. This is not a simple case of someone going to a student union welfare officer and saying they need help; this is potentially even so much as a union officer stepping forwards and telling students’ what’s good for them. So should Students’ Unions do something about Carnage? (Genuine Question, please discuss)
I have to say, I’m definitely in the mass-welfare camp. I certainly believe that effort is best placed in dealing with the issues that affect large groups of students, but that individual concerns do need addressing when raised. I do think Welfare needs to be dealt with on a wider political level, in which questions are asked about the root causes of problems affecting multiple students. Its great to provide pastoral support for a single person, and hopefully put a smile back on their face. Sometimes you can make a small welfare change that helps many many people, and the result is almost unnoticed by each individual. And sometimes you can make a change that helps a minority group of people but which annoys or even enrages a more privileged group.
Indeed, very often Welfare issues are tied to privilege, either because, whilst an issue is universal, it might be compounded by lack of privileged means to mitigate it, or because it genuinely is a case of a unprivileged group facing something alone. When dealing with an issue on an individual level allows you to ignore such factors, cutting past the politics and into the simple and immediate, it can be quite tempting to take the easy option. But when it comes to picking between helping individuals or groups, which really should be the priority?