How the world is healthier, happier, and wealthier than ever – and what that might mean for Social Work

By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council.

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Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now (2018) is the most interesting, evidentially robust, and uplifting book I have yet to encounter. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, Enlightenment Now documents the astonishing progress of the human species. Pinker contends that Enlightenment ideals, science, reason and humanism, are attributable to the decline of suffering and the exponential improvements in health and well-being.  

Here are just a few of the areas of progress identified by Pinker: 

  • From 1960 to 2015, the global rate of child mortality has fallen from 18 to 4 percent. In the not-so-distant past, 1 in 5 humans died before they were 5 years old. Not only are we less likely to die young, but we are also living a lot longer. 
  • Extreme poverty is reducing at an unprecedented rate. In 1800 most people everywhere were poor, with 95% of the world living in what is today considered ‘extreme poverty’ (less than £1.40 a day). Over the past 2 centuries, this has plummeted to 10%, with half of that decline occurring in the last 35 years.
  • Running contrary to the idea that wealth is finite, the world is about a hundred times richer than it was in 1800. Running contrary to another popular idea, whilst the rich are getting richer (which is true) this isn’t necessarily at the expense of the poor, because they are also getting richer.
  • A century ago, the wealthier countries spent one percent of their wealth on education for children, health, to help the sick, the unlucky and the elderly whereas today they spend almost a quarter of it.
  • What it means to be poor and in poverty by modern standards is incomparable to what it meant to be poor and in poverty in the past. The vast majority of those living under the poverty line have access to electricity, running (hot) water, flush toilets, a refrigerator, a cooker and colour tv – provision that wasn’t available to the aristocracy 100+ years ago.
  • The amount of time spent on housework fell from 58 hours per week in 1900 to 15.5 hours in 2011. Time spent on laundry alone fell from 11.5 hours per week to 1.5 hours per week in 2014. In our modern life, we spend 42.5 hours a week less on housework than some of our grandparents.
  • Childhood slave labour wasn’t an abhorrent social ill in the past, rather an economic necessity, and justified morally as a form of education. The rate of children in child labour in England halved between 1850 to 1910 before being made illegal soon after (P. 231). Childhood has since been reconceptualised as a privileged stage in human development, and in many countries, education has become compulsory and child labour illegal.
  • Correspondingly, the rate of literacy and education has improved. In 1820, more than 80% of the world were unschooled, whereas today the reverse is true and more than 80% of the world receive a basic education.
  • We live in the safest time in human history. Deaths in war battles, genocides, homicides, terrorism-related deaths, death from fire, drowning or natural disaster, motorcycle accidents or other accident-related deaths, including occupational accident deaths have all declined substantially.
  • Rates of rape and violence against wives and girlfriends have decreased significantly in recent decades and occur at a quarter of the rate in which they occurred in the past 30 years. Of course, too many of the crimes still occur but it illustrates that heightened concern for violence against women has resulted in evidential progress.
A summary of the various areas of progress. Source here.

These findings and many more detailed in the book have radically altered my view and understanding of the world we live in. This does not mean however that I am less sensitive or more inclined to overlook the problems we face, rather I can now situate those concerns within the staggering and unbelievable progression achieved over the last few centuries. As pointed out by Max Roser, founder and director of Our World in DataThere are big problems that remain. None of the above should give us reason to become complacent. On the contrary, it shows us that a lot of work still needs to be done.’ 

I am also mindful that looking at averages of progress does not say much about the psychological experience of an individual. Take for example, living in poverty in the United Kingdom today. For most my childhood neither of my parents worked because my dad was a drug addict and my mum had chronic fatigue and depression. Our family was therefore reliant on state benefits, and we lived in relative poverty. There were several elements of this experience that were deeply shaming and had a profound effect on my identity and relationships (even to this day). It wouldn’t have been much consolation to be told that I was in some ways better off than the aristocracy 100 years ago. Of course, this would be true. I had access to safe housing, plumbing, electricity, central heating, a television, washing machine, tumble dryer, clean water, food and a cooker amongst other things. But it wouldn’t have ameliorated the stressfulness of living on the breadline or the experience of feeling judged, stigmatised and alienated.

Progression and Social Work 

There were two issues Pinker touches upon that I think bears relevance to Social Work. The first, derived from the work of Political scientist, Kathryn Sikkink is the ‘information paradox’. Pinker writes: ‘as human rights watchdogs admirably look harder for abuse, look in more places for abuse, and classify more acts as abuse, they find more of it-but if we don’t compensate for their keener powers of detection, we can be misled into thinking that there is more abuse to detect’. (p. 207). 

The second issue is the expansion of psychological and psychiatric problems. Pinker highlighted that with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association there has been tripling of disorders between 1952 and 1994. There is now almost three hundred disorders.  This led Pinker to conclude that ‘The expanding empire of psychopathology is a first-world problem, and in many ways is a sign of moral progress. Recognizing a person’s suffering, even with a diagnostic label, is a form of compassion’ (p. 282). 

In social work, we have seen a substantial increase in child protection investigations, number of looked after children as well as a widening of the boundary of what constitutes child abuse (Hood et al, 2021). 

The number of children in care in England and Wales has steadily increased over the past decades, reaching almost 87,000 in England and Wales at the start of 2020. Source: Nuffield Family Justice Observatory

There have been varying explanations for this trend, but an interesting point made by Donald Forrester, at a recent conference in BANES was that it is surprisingly recent in our history that we didn’t consider domestic abuse, substance misuse or physical abuse as harmful to children. It is only with the advance of research into these issues and an improved understanding of the effects of these issues on children do we now conceptualise these as problems that warrant statutory involvement. He identified this amongst other reasons for why we might be seeing increased rates of involvement with children and families. He also thought, as did Brid Featherstone who was also at the conference, that we too readily become involved in the lives of children and families.

Donald likened our current approach to child protection as ‘mission creep’, which is defined on Wikipedia as

‘the  gradual or incremental expansion of an intervention, project or mission, beyond its original scope, focus or goals, a ratchet effect spawned by initial success’.    

In a fascinating paper on ‘Expanding Concepts of Harm’, Haslam (2016) argued that the concept of abuse has witnessed a ‘horizontal creep’, that is, new forms of abuse were studied and recognised and a ‘vertical creep’, that is, the behaviour qualifying for a given kind of abuse became less extreme. For example, ‘the boundary of neglect is indistinct (p.3)’. Haslam writes, ‘As a consequence, the concept of neglect can become over-inclusive, identifying behaviour as negligent that is substantially milder or more subtle than other forms of abuse. This is not to deny that some forms of neglect are profoundly damaging, merely to argue that the concept’s boundaries are sufficiently vague and elastic to encompass forms that are not severe’.

Haslam (p.14) points out that that ‘expansion of the moral circle into new and milder forms of harm  might appear to be an entirely beneficial sign of moral progress’ and ‘aligns with a liberal social agenda by defining new kinds of experience as harming and new classes of people as harmed, and it identifies these people as need full of care and protection’. However, he also warns that it can have a ‘dark side’, resulting in ‘excessive and disproportionate enforcement regimes’. Perhaps, more recently, we have veered into the latter, systematically intervening too readily. 

This all leads to the rather intriguing, albeit provocative idea, that increased rates of children in care may not necessarily reflect an increase in child abuse per se, rather our powers for intervening and our standards regarding how children should be treated are unprecedentedly high. I suspect Pinker would argue that this is consequential and in line with rapid economic and social progress of the past few hundred years. Perhaps we have become blindly over enamoured with the idea that statutory social work is a necessary social good when in fact it may reflect a once-in-time necessary aspect of social progress, but long overdue an overhaul, or even more extreme, dispensed with entirely (I read an interesting article recently titled ‘The End of Social Work’ that made such a claim, although for different reasons). 

Although I find the above claims interesting to explore, I do not think that we should abolish statutory child protection social work, although it is clear we need to rethink our current approach. It is important to take a hard critical look at our current system and consider whether, in its entirety, it does more harm than good. From a practitioner’s perspective, I think that despite its flaws, we will always require some form of a statutory system. As pointed out powerfully by psychotherapeutic counsellor and residential worker, John Radoux:

‘…even if we could wave a magic wand… dramatically improve the quality of children and families social work, and, let’s say, half the number of children in care, there would still be many thousands of children in the care of the state and necessarily so.  It is naïve and sentimental to imagine otherwise. For example, I am certain I would not be alive to write this piece now if I had not been removed.  I have looked after many children whose expressed wish was to remain in care, those who were angry they were not removed sooner and many more where it would have simply been too dangerous for them to return to their families. This might be uncomfortable to accept but accept it we must’.  

A brief video by Steven Pinker:

By Richard Devine (02.07.21)

If you have found this interesting/useful, you may wish to consider scrolling down further, and join a growing community of 230+ others in signing up for free blogs to be sent directly to your inbox (no advertisements/requests/selling). I intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment, and trauma.  Or you can read previous blogs here.

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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