Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 / Guest edited by Soniya Munshi and Craig Willse

Social Service or Social Change?

Reprinted with permission from The Revolution Will Not be Funded (edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Boston: South End Press, 2009).

Can we provide social service and work for social change, or do our efforts to provide human services maintain or even strengthen social inequality?

I first began thinking about this issue when the Oakland Men’s Project was established in 1979. At that time, we were responding to women in the domestic violence, sexual assault prevention, and child sexual assault prevention movements. When asked what we could do as men they said that they had their hands full dealing with the survivors of male violence and trying to get institutions to respond to these issues. But we were told that since it was men who were the perpetrators of most of the violence, men were needed to address other men.

Many men in the country who heard that initial call started batterers’ intervention programs, working with men individually and in small groups to help them stop their violent behaviors. At the Oakland Men’s Project we were involved in these efforts, yet we felt that in order to end male violence we needed more than groups for individual men who were violent. We committed to build an organization which, through community prevention and education, could contribute to ending violence, not just “reforming” individual perpetrators.

Nearly 30 years later, I look around and see many shelters and services for survivors of domestic violence, but no large-scale movement to end male violence. I see many batterers’ intervention programs, but few men involved in challenging sexism. The loss of vision that narrowed the focus of men’s work reflects a change that occurred in other parts of the movement to end violence, as activists who set out to change the institutions perpetrating violence settled into service jobs helping people cope. Why does this narrowing of focus continue to happen in so much of our community work?

Social service work addresses the needs of individuals reeling from the personal and devastating impact of institutional systems of exploitation and violence. Social change work challenges the root causes of the exploitation and violence. In my travels throughout the United States, I talk with many service providers, more and more of whom are saying to me, “We could continue doing what we are doing for another hundred years and the levels of violence would not change.” I meet more and more people who are running batterers’ programs who say, “We are only dealing with a minute number of the men who are violent and are having little impact on the systems which perpetuate male violence.”

We need to provide services for those most in need, for those trying to survive, for those barely making it. We also need to work for social change so that we create a society in which our institutions and organizations are equitable and just, and all people are safe, adequately fed and sheltered, well-educated, afforded safe and decent jobs, and empowered to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

While there is some overlap between social service provision and social change work, the two do not necessarily go readily together. In our violent world, the needs and numbers of survivors are never ending, and the tasks of funding, staffing, and developing resources for our organizations to meet those needs are difficult, poorly supported, and even actively undermined by those with power and wealth in our society. Although some groups are both working for social change and providing social services, there are many more groups providing social services that are not working for social change. In fact, many social service agencies may be intentionally or inadvertently working to maintain the status quo. After all, the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) wouldn’t exist without a lot of people in desperate straits. The NPIC provides jobs; it provides opportunities for professional development. It enables those who do the work to feel good about what we do and about our ability to help individuals survive in the system. It gives a patina of caring and concern to the ruling class which funds the work. While there is always the risk of not securing adequate funding, there is a greater risk that if we did something to really rock the boat and address the roots of the problems we would lose whatever funding we’d already managed to secure. In this essay I will explore the rise of this paradox and what activists might do to combat the deleterious effects imposed by the NPIC on our work for lasting social change.

The Economic Pyramid

To get to the root of the social service/social change dilemma we must examine our current political/economic structure, which looks like the pyramid below. In the United States 1 percent of the population controls about 47 percent of the net financial wealth,[1] and the next 19 percent of the population controls another 44 percent. That leaves 80 percent of the population struggling to gain a share of just 9 percent of the remaining financial wealth. The result is that large numbers of people in the United States spend most of our time trying to get enough money to feed, house, clothe, and otherwise support ourselves and our families, and many end up without adequate housing, food, health care, work, or educational opportunities.

The US Economic Pyramid

1 percent

of the population

holds 47 percent of the nation’s wealth
Independently wealthy

Over $3 million/household net worth
Average income over $374,000/year

19 percent

of the population

holds 44 percent of the nation’s wealth
Over $344,000/household net worth
Average income over $94,000/year

80 percent

of the population
holds 9 percent of the nation’s wealth

$56,000/household net worth

Average income $41,000/year

The economic pyramid[2] is only a rough instrument for measuring income distribution, as there are many gradations it overlooks. Nevertheless, it offers a snapshot of devastating social and economic inequality. Most notably, among the 80 percent at the base of the pyramid, there is a vast difference in the standard of living between those nearer the top and those near or on the bottom. And a substantial number of people (nearly 20 percent of the population) actually live below the bottom of the pyramid with negative financial wealth (that is, more debt than assets).

Questions To Ask Yourself
Where did you grow up on the pyramid, or where was your family of origin on the pyramid?
Where are you now?

Historically, the United States has always had a steep economic pyramid with a large concentration of wealth in the two richest classes. But in the last 27 years, since the beginning of the Reagan administration in 1980, the distance between the ruling and managerial classes and the rest of the population has increased dramatically. Class mobility has decreased, and the economic well-being of the poorest 80 percent has substantially deteriorated. Those on the bottom of the pyramid have fared the worst. During this period, most of those in the top 20 percent have thrived because they have substantial assets providing them with social and economic security as well as access to power, resources, education, leisure, and health care. Of this group, those at the very top have consolidated their power and privilege.

I refer to the top 1 percent as the ruling class because members of this class hold positions of power as corporate executives, politicians, policy makers, and funders for political campaigns, policy research, public policy debates, and media campaigns. The ruling class maintains the power and money to influence, and often to determine, the decisions that affect our lives, including where jobs will be located and what kinds of jobs they will be; where environmental toxins are dumped; how much money is allocated to build schools or prisons and where they will be built; and which health care, reproductive rights, civil rights, and educational issues will be discussed and who defines the terms of these discussions. In other words, when we look at positions of power in the US, we will almost always see members or representatives of the ruling class. We cannot call our country a democracy when 1 percent of the population controls nearly half, and the top 20 percent controls 91 percent of the wealth and the access to power that wealth produces. This vast concentration of wealth produces the conditions of impoverishment, ill health, violence, and marginalization that necessitate the services so many of us provide.

While the ruling class might not all sit down together in a room and decide policy, members of this class do go to school together, vacation together, live together, and share ideas through various newspapers and magazines, conferences, think tanks, spokespeople, and research and advocacy groups. They do meet in Congress, corporate offices, foundation board rooms, elite law firms, and in national and international gatherings to make significant social, political, and economic decisions for their collective benefit. Perhaps most importantly, members of this class sit together on interlocking boards of directors of major corporations and wield great power on corporate decisions. Because multinational corporations have larger economies, greater security forces, and more political clout than many states and even than most countries, those who sit on boards of corporate directors collectively wield tremendous influence on political decisions through lobbying, government appointments, corporate funded research, interpersonal connections, and advisory appointments, as well as the power they wield through direct economic and political intervention in local communities and in the affairs of other countries.[3]

The next 19 percent of the economic pyramid, the professional/managerial class, are people who work for the ruling class. Members of this class may not gain the same level of power and financial rewards as people at the very top, but their work provides the research, managerial skills, expertise, technological development and other resources which the ruling class needs to maintain and justify its monopolization of political and economic power. This class also carries out the direct management of the largest public, private, and non-profit enterprises in the country.

But it is the majority of the population, the bottom 80 percent, which produces the social wealth benefiting those at the top. Laboring in factories, fields, classrooms, homes, sweatshops, prisons, hospitals, restaurants, and small businesses, the individuals comprising this enormous class keep our society functioning and productive. Meanwhile, entire communities remain entrapped in endless cycles of competition, scarcity, violence, and insecurity that those at the top are largely protected from.

Certainly the gradations within the bottom 80 percent (middle class, working class, and the dependent and working poor) produce additional security and benefits for some of its members, specifically those in the middle class, those who are white, or male, or citizens, or not incarcerated, or straight, or able-bodied, and keep many of us blaming and attacking those like—or even worse off than—us, rather than looking to the economic system and the concentration of wealth at the top of the pyramid as the source of our problems. The role of the NPIC is to keep our attention away from those in power and to manage and control our efforts to survive in the bottom of the pyramid. These functions are necessary to maintain the concentration of wealth and power because people have always resisted economic and political inequality and exploitation.

People on the bottom rungs of the pyramid are constantly organizing to gain more power and access to resources. Most of the progressive social change we have witnessed in US history resulted from the work of disenfranchised groups of people who have fought for access to education, jobs, health care, civil rights, reproductive rights, safety, housing, and a safe, clean environment. In our recent history, we can point to the civil rights movement, women’s liberation movements, lesbian and gay liberation movements, disability rights movement, unions, and thousands of local struggles for progressive social change.[4]

Questions To Ask Yourself
Are you part of any group which has organized to gain for itself more access to voting rights, jobs, housing, education, or an end to violence or exploitation—such as workers, women, people of color, people with disabilities, seniors, youth, lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans people, or people whose religion is not Christian?
How have those struggles benefited your life?
 How have those struggles been resisted by the ruling class? 
What is the current state of those movements you have been closest to?

The Buffer Zone

People in the ruling class have always wanted to prevent people at the bottom of the pyramid from organizing for power in order to maintain the power, control, and, most importantly, wealth that they have accumulated. At the same time, they have generally wanted to avoid directly managing people on the bottom of the pyramid. To maintain this separation and to prevent themselves from becoming the objects of people’s anger, they have used legal, educational, and professional systems to create a network of occupations, careers, and professions to deal directly with the rest of the population. This buffer zone comprises all occupations that carry out the agenda of the ruling class without requiring ruling class presence or visibility. Some of the people employed in the buffer zone fall into the 19 percent section of the pyramid; however, most have jobs that put them somewhere near the top of the bottom 80 percent. These jobs give them a little more economic security and just enough power to make decisions about other people’s lives—those who have even less than they do. The buffer zone has three primary functions.

The first function is taking care of people at the bottom of the pyramid. If it were a literal free-for-all for that 9 percent of financial wealth allocated to the poor/working and lower-middle-classes, there would be (particularly in the eyes of those who benefit most from the economic pyramid) “chaos”: many more people would be dying in the streets (as happened during the Depression, for example) instead of invisibly in homes, hospitals, prisons, rest homes, and homeless shelters. Individual, hidden deaths and personal tragedies caused by AIDS, cancer, occupational dangers, environmental pollution, unsafe consumer products, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, family violence, lack of health care, homelessness, poverty, discrimination, and neglect keep people from adding up the total cost of the concentration of wealth. There are many occupations—social welfare workers, nurses, teachers, counselors, case workers, advocates for various groups—to either manage or sort out (generally based on class, race, gender, immigration status, and other social categories) which people get how much of the 9 percent and to provide minimal services for those in need. These occupations are performed mostly by women and are primarily identified as women’s work.

Taking care of those in need is valuable and honorable work, and most people do it with generosity and good intentions. But it also serves to mask the inadequate distribution of jobs, food, housing, and other valuable resources. When temporary shelter becomes a substitute for permanent housing, emergency food a substitute for a decent job, tutoring a substitute for adequate public schools, and free clinics a substitute for universal health care, we have shifted our attention from the redistribution of wealth to the temporary provision of social services to keep people alive.

The second function of jobs in the buffer zone is keeping hope alive by distributing opportunities for a few people to become better off financially. There are still many people who believe the myth that anyone can make it in this society—that there is a level playing field. To keep that myth believable there have to be examples of people who have “made it”—have gone to college from a poor family, moved from homelessness to stable housing, found a job despite having few “marketable” skills. Some of those who have buffer-zone jobs determine which people will be the lucky ones to receive jobs and job training, a college education, housing allotments, or health care. Those who gain access to these benefits are held up as examples that the system works and serve as proof that if one just worked hard, followed the rules, and didn’t challenge the social order or status quo, they, too, would get ahead and gain a few benefits from the system. Sometimes getting ahead in this context means getting a job in the buffer zone and becoming one of the people who hands out the benefits.

When the staff of a housing agency enables three families out of a hundred in a community to get into affordable housing, or a youth program enables a handful of students out of hundreds in a neighborhood to get into college or into job training programs, buffer-zone organizations can honor the achievements of those who have made it, validate that the system does work for those who play their cards right, and pat themselves on the back for the good work they have done in helping a few succeed. At the same time, by pointing to those few who succeed, they provide a social rationale for blaming those who didn’t make it because they did not work or study hard enough. The focus on the individual achievements of a few can distract us from looking at why there is not enough affordable housing, educational opportunities, and jobs for everyone.

The final function of jobs in the buffer zone is to maintain the system by controlling those who want to make changes. Because people at the bottom keep fighting for change, people at the top need social mechanisms that keep people in their place in the family, in schools, in the neighborhood, and even in other countries. Police, security guards, prison wardens, highway patrol, sheriff’s departments, national guard, soldiers, deans and administrators, immigration officials, and fathers, in their role to provide discipline in the family—these are all traditionally male roles in the buffer zone designed to keep people in their place in the hierarchy.[5]

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  1. Net financial wealth refers to all assets excluding housing and subtracting debt. It would include
    checking and savings accounts, stocks and bonds, commercial land and buildings, and so on. [Return to text]
  2. Edward N. Wolff, Recent Trends in Wealth Ownership, 1983-1998, (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY:
    Jerome Levy Economics Institute, April 2000). Figures are for 1998. [Return to text]
  3. A full analysis of how the ruling class and power elite control power and wealth, can be found in my book You Call This a Democracy? Who Benefits, Who Pays, and Who Decides? rev. ed. (New York: Apex Press, 2006). [Return to text]
  4. For a history of these struggles and movements, see Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (1980; repr., New York: Harper Perennial, 2003). [Return to text]
  5. These distinctions in function are not always so separate in practice. For instance, many caretaking roles, such as that of social workers, also have a strong client-control element to them, and the police are now trying to soften their image by resort to community policing strategies
    to build trust in the community. [Return to text]