Who Wants To Help A Grumpy Old Neighbor?

After the Second World War many Western and Northern European countries expanded their social securities, leading to the rise of the welfare state. Today we see a reversed trend: due to the recent financial crises, many European countries have to cut down on spending. One of the implications is the de-professionalization of home-care in the Netherlands. In practice this means that for people in need of care it will become more difficult to get, for instance, cleaning help. It will also take longer for elderly to get a place in a retirement-home. Instead, care should as long as possible be organized by acquaintances, friends and family. The welfare state is making place for the ‘participation society’, a society where we all take care of each other. The government argues that these kinds of measurements will not only cut spending, but also create a better, more social, society.

Visualisation of a social network analyis, by:  Calvinius

Visualisation of a social network analyis, by: Calvinius

That sounds great, right? We all chip in. Nobody gets left behind. It is an ideal that I like to pursue, and many contemporary planning theories are based on this kind of ideology. Think for example of mixed use development of housing. We no longer have to move out of our neighbourhood to climb the housing ladder. Instead, a family home/apartment are located in the same area as an elderly-home. That way grandma can have dinner a few times a week with her children and grandchildren, and they help clean from time to time, so that grandma can lead an independent life as long as possible. But, independent of whom? Yes, the risk for social exclusion might be mitigated, but dependence is unavoidable.

Last Monday The Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) published new research looking at community engagement and volunteering in Dutch villages. In other words, how much do people help out in their community and to what extent they are willing to help out their neighbours. The study uses concepts such as social cohesion and human bonding, but recognizes that these concepts measure at the level of a village (or neighbourhood). Variables such as socioeconomic status, being part of a religious community, age, and/or the perceived beauty of a village, all influence the willingness to engage in the community. Interestingly, the level of services does not, even though one might expect that presence or absence of things like community houses would have an effect on the social cohesion of a place.

Now, the major problem with concepts that describe groups or communities, such as social cohesion and human bonding, is that they hide the reality of the individual. The size and quality of social networks are very unequally divided amongst people. This means that, even though the social cohesion or human bonding is high in a certain place, there is still a share of people who are not included.

That is why the researchers from the SCP argue that new policies should focus more on social inclusion, thus strengthening, and enlarging, the social networks of people. A big problem, however, is that many activities only strengthen the social networks of those that are already ‘out there’. The person, disabled or not, that has a small, or no social network, is less likely to show up at that neighbourhood barbecue, which was organized to create new social relationships between neighbours.

I have a hard time believing that the government really thinks this kind of policies will lead to a better society. I think it is clear that the main point is to save money. The results and recommendations of the researchers are aimed at making the best of a worsened situation. Better schemes that connect the needy with the willing to help, might improve the situation for some. For those people, that were not able to find someone to help them, the new system is a source of inequality and arbitrariness. We might help out that lovable elderly lady across the street, but would we do the same for a grumpy old neighbour?

Download the research from the SCP here (Dutch).

Written by Sascha Benes. Follow him on Twitter, Linkedin and .