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Social policy dictates the way in which a problem is viewed and the method used to manage it. Indeed, it can also influence whether or not we see a social problem as a problem at all. Are problems really problems; are they a form of deviant behaviour; can they be classified as mental illness? Do policies indicate the government's standpoint, and does this, along with the power of the media determine how society views a 'problem'. This essay will attempt to describe these points of view using the two illustrative examples - drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.
Firstly, it must be explained what is meant by a 'social problem'. Fuller and Myers (1941:321) define it as "what people think they are and if conditions are not defined as social problems by the people involved in them, they are not problems to those people, although they may be problems to outsiders". This definition is interesting; does anyone who's involved in a social problem classify it as such? Would a teenage mother or a drug addict identify their position as a problem or a lifestyle choice? This would suggest that something cannot be definitively identified as a problem, because people's views and attitudes are subjective, and what is a problem to one person may not be to another - they are socially constructed. According to Best (1995:6) they are "a product, something that has been produced or constructed through social activities". That is, all social problems are relative to their cultural and historical context, and for that reason that universal social problems cannot exist. This is not to say that general consensus' are not reached about what can be classed as a social problem.
The media play a key role in the labelling of social problems. The pages of newspapers are filled with headlines about teenage mothers, youth culture and unemployment. By drawing attention to these issues, the public's perception begins to change, and the stories become problems. This can lead to policy implementation in an attempt to tackle these problems, but that is not to say that it will happen. The sensationalising of these problems by the media can sometimes occur as a result of policy implementation, as the government themselves draw attention to these issues.
As values and norms have changed through history, so too have governments' approaches to problems. In the first half of the 20th century, teenage pregnancy was seen as deviant behaviour, but not necessarily a social problem. Today, teenage mothers are often portrayed as the underclass of society and the government has launched strategies and policies to attempt to combat it.
In 1999, the government introduced strategies to lower the number of teenage pregnancies in the UK. The document Teenage Pregnancy details over 8 chapters why teenage pregnancy is a problem. Some of the arguments involve legitimate health concerns for these mothers and their children, but the document also refers to the mothers as a problem. One of the reasons the document proposes that the UK has such high rates of teenage pregnancy is that "there are more young people who see no prospect of a job and fear they will end up on benefit one way or the other. Put simply, they see no reason not to get pregnant" (DoH, 1999:7). In light of this, it could be argued that teenage pregnancy is a result of other social problems such as the failure of the education system and the instability of the job market. Perhaps if these problems were addressed, then teenage pregnancy would decrease too.
Wilson and Huntington (2005) describe how teenage mothers are labelled as deviant because they do not follow the path that is expected of women as the female role has changed. While women are still seen as responsible for childrearing, there is also an expectation that they will attain higher education and a job. Because teenage mothers do not necessarily fulfil this role of the modern woman, they are seen as a problem, and as Wilson and Huntington (2005:59) write "have become the targets of marginalisation and stigmatisation." Policy has failed to address this problem.
Policy and strategies currently in place are based on the stance that teenage pregnancy is a problem. The strategy involves increasing the quality and amount of sex education that teenagers receive, with the view that this increased knowledge will lead to abstaining from sex for longer, and having a better understanding of the consequences. The second major strand of the strategy is to increase the availability and accessibility of contraception for teenagers, so that if they choose to have sex, they will be able to do so safely (DCSF, 2010). This policy approach is all about preventing the problem. Several documents concerning teenage pregnancy such as the 1999 Teenage Pregnancy Strategy discusses the economic and social cost of teenage pregnancy to the UK and former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote "As a country, we can't afford to continue to ignore this shameful record" (DOH, 1999). Why is teenage pregnancy regarded as such a problem?
While the strategy already discussed aims to eradicate the problem of teenage pregnancy, other policy approaches could be accused of attempting to hide the problem rather than solve it. Teenage mothers are often housed by the council in poor quality but affordable accommodation. The mothers live in these houses with their child, but hope of attending further education or employment is quashed by the price of childcare which is well beyond the reach of a single mother who is reliant on benefits. As a result, the teenager becomes a stay at home mother with no job, or at best a minimum wage job. Some would argue that this is an attempt to sweep the problem under the carpet, away from the view of the public. However, this is the stereotype that is portrayed by the media, and some would argue that this acts as a deterrent for other teenagers and to prevent the behaviour from recurring.
Another issue that the majority of people would agree can be classified as a problem is drug addiction. In 1998, government implemented a 10 year initiative aimed at reducing drug use and increasing levels of recovery from dependence (UKDPC, 2007). However, despite these aims being set out, a review of the strategy in 2007 found that "Despite the increased investment in treatment, the majority of government spending on responding to illegal drugs is still devoted to enforcing drug laws" (Reuter & Stevens, 2007:2). This would suggest that the government views drug addiction as a criminal problem rather than a health related one.
The criminalisation of drug users sees serial offenders sent to prison, where treatment and rehabilitation are scarce. In addition, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2002) reports that illegal substances are readily available within prisons, which means that addicts are able to maintain their addiction in prison. With this is mind, it would seem that policy that criminalises drug addicts is ineffective. A review of the effectiveness of drug treatment programmes within prisons by the Institute of Criminal Policy Research found that despite high levels of spending on drug treatment programmes within prisons, they are not effective and are not yielding results. According to Howard (2008:11) "Without proper treatment and support we put the health and well-being of prisoners at risk, and we should not be surprised if they revert to drug use and offending on release".
Many drug addicts also suffer from mental illnesses such as depression. It is difficult to define which is the cause and which is the effect as mental illness and drug abuse often present together. In April 2012 evidence was presented to the House of Commons in an attempt to persuade the government to consider decriminalising drug use, and instead focus on helping addicts to address their mental health and addiction issues. According to the Home Affairs Committee (2002)the criminal justice system is unable to understand the mentality of an addict and the underlying problems such as depression are not addressed in order to help them recover. It would seem that there is a need to address addiction as a health behaviour rather than a criminal one.
In Portugal, policy makers have taken this approach. It is now legal to use and be in possession of illicit drugs, and there is focus on recovery from a health point of view. Drug users are not sent to prison but are instead offered help through treatment programmes. According to Hughes & Stevens (2010: 1014) "The major perceived success of the Portuguese reform has been its contribution to changes in public health problems... the number of deaths in Portugal recorded as drug-related reduced signi¬cantly between 1999 and 2002". By removing the notion of deviant/illegal behaviour, drug addicts are looked at in a different way. They are not seen as criminals, but as people who need help to address their mental health issues.
When any policy or strategy is implemented, there is the question of whether the problem can be solved on behalf of the individuals who are affected by the problem, or for the benefit of society. Is it being done for the wellbeing of the individuals involved, or is it done so that society can be rid of another problem/inconvenience. It could be argued that by doing so in order to help the individual, society will benefit too, but whether the same can be said if it is done for the benefit of society is questionable.
Due to the problem of defining what is a problem or not, there will always be competing views on how to address it, often proposing polar opposite viewpoints. These approaches to social problems result in different types of policy, and the type of policy implemented is indicative of how the problem is viewed. This essay has attempted to explain and illustrate this with the use of two current social problems.
Best, J., (eds.), 1995, Images of Issues. 2nd ed. New York: Walter de Gruyter.
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 2002, Methadone Maintenance Treatment, Atlanta: Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
Department of Health, 1999, Teenage Pregnancy, London: Department of Health.
Department for Children, Schools and Families, Department of Health, 2010, Teenage Pregnancy Strategy: Beyond 2010, Nottingham: Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Fuller, R., Myers, R., 1941, 'The Natural History of a Social Problem', American Sociological Review, 6, pp 320-329.
Home Affairs Committee, 2012, Drugs, London: Home Affairs Committee.
Howard, R., 2008, 'Bars to Progress', Drink and Drugs News, pp10-11.
Hughes, C., Stevens, A., 2010, 'What can we Learn from the Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs, The British Journal of Criminology, 50, pp 999-1022.
Reuter, P., Stevens, A., 2007, An Analysis of UK Drug Policy, London: UKDPC
Wilson, H., Huntington, A., 2005, 'Deviant (M)others: The Construction of Teenage Motherhood in Contemporary Discourse, Journal of Social Policy, 35(1), pp 59-76.
UKDPC, 2007, The Analysis of UK Drug Policy, London: UKDPC.