Published in Straits Times here.
Original as follows:
From my infrequent visits back to Singapore, it appears that the meritocratic system my generation benefitted from has all but disappeared. Boundaries have become entrenched. Upward social mobility has become increasingly difficult.
I agree with Prof Teo You Yenn that we need to understand the individual personal and familial circumstances of those at the bottom of our social hierarchy before we can help them.
In my voluntary role in Greater London I have had to deal with too many clients whose families are trapped in a vicious circle of debt (it usually starts with a small high-interest loan or credit card debt), unemployment (uncompetitive because of their low skills), poor health (depression arising from unemployment, other health issues from abuse of drugs or medicines) and a lack of education which means they did not even know where to start looking for help.
As a result, children suffer from poor housing/homelessness, poor nutrition, poor attendance at school (they do not dare open the doors to bailiffs chasing legitimate debts), and ultimately a lack of qualifications.
Despite all the resources thrown at them by schools which get a ‘premium’ for disadvantaged children, free health (NHS) and free education, these children still fail to thrive.
Meanwhile taxpayers are disbursing huge benefits payments for unemployment, housing, health issues (mental and physical) that seem to offer an abysmal ROI (return on investment).
And we haven’t even touched on the issue of crime that results from such dire circumstances.
In my ideal world, I will send in a mentor – not necessarily a social worker, retired management consultants may apply – to identify what their skills and resources are, why these are under-utilized, and arrive at a holistic 12-/18-/24-month plan to get both the adults and children back onto a level playing field (debt-free, employed, in good physical and mental health).
From my perspective as a social anthropologist, such families cannot be freed from such ‘benefits traps’, ‘poverty traps’ or ‘inequality traps’ until they have been helped to help themselves (ie NOT to reproduce these cultural patterns).
Sometimes it could as simple as knowing how to discipline children, what to feed them, or perhaps even learning how to cook.