by Patricia McBroom
James Midgley, who took office Jan. 2, wants to reassess the welfare state that began with Roosevelt and the New Deal. He wants to link up social programs with economic development and shift from hand-outs to jobs. He wants to, well, end welfare as we know it.
Midgley has been working toward transcending the welfare model of social justice since he was a student of social work and sociology in South Africa 30 years ago.
Now, as Berkeley's new welfare dean, he is in a unique position to help lead a transformation in California, as this state grapples with the enormous poverty problems that are coming to rest at the doors of local and state government.
Until recently the dean of social work at Louisiana State University and then an associate vice chancellor there, Midgley grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, where he was motivated from an early age by the need to promote social equity.
"I always wanted to be a social worker for some bizarre reason," said Midgley in a recent interview. "My friends would say, 'Social worker? What's that?'"
As a young man working in South Africa's shanty towns, Midgley became disillusioned with the welfare model because "it became obvious to me that disorder at this level could not be dealt with by a social worker."
Nevertheless, he went on to complete a master's in social work from the London School of Economics and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Cape Town. Then he went about finding new ways of tackling what many consider irresolvable problems.
Asked to create a new program in social policy for developing nations at the London School of Economics, Midgley emigrated to England in 1972. There was hardly an academic monograph on which to base the new program, but Midgley jumped in, writing some of the first books in the field, including the first textbook, "The Social Dimensions of Development: Social Policy and Planning in the Third World."
It was during his 15 years as a professor in London that Midgley developed the theory and methods for linking social programs with economic development, so that "when you spend money on helping people, you also are making a contribution to the economy."
In Louisiana he encountered again the inadequacy of the welfare model in dealing with poverty. Here was a state split radically between the wealthy and the poor.
"We were paying a pittance in welfare for mothers to stay at home, but we were not investing in their schooling or the education of their children," said Midgley, social work dean at LSU from 1986 to l992.
"We've been maintaining people in abject poverty," he said. "We ought instead to be making an investment in them, telling them that 'You too can be part of a productive economy.' It can be done."
Midgley pointed out that government training programs often have been underutilized, as in programs for the disabled, where bureaucrats spend most of their time determining eligibility for a welfare check. "The theme is: 'We'll send you a check. Now go away and don't bother us,'" he said.
Undeniably, the social development approach to poverty takes coordination among individuals whose paths ordinarily do not cross, such as business people and social workers.
In Louisiana, for instance, Midgley is helping a microenterprise formed by a group of mentally ill people who do office cleaning. Convinced they can do more than janitorial work, he has enlisted the help of the business school so the group can expand its business.
"Economic development is generating enormous prosperity in this country and throughout the world," said Midgley. "Now we need to find a way to bring everyone into it. That is what we need for the future -- we can call it social investment."