The measured business model language of the recently released Productivity Commission Report on “More Effective Social Services” conceals a deeply disturbing set of ideological blinkers. The underlying dogma is that marketization will produce better public services. The narrow lens of supply and demand produces a predictable focus: greater consumer choice, better products, efficiency incentives and measures. However there is also a more deeply disguised, insidious and sinister narrative bias – particularly in relation to the development of social services.
Let’s go back a little in order to move forward. The Welfare State in the Aotearoa / New Zealand context had its own unique genesis. However, in common with similar nations, the intent was to ensure against the poverty and social suffering which results from unrestrained capitalism. Critically the shift was from the Charitable Aid model of moral self-responsibility to recognition of the structural determinants of social disadvantage. In the U.K. setting, for example, post-war state social services were designed to fight the five giant evils which William Beveridge famously associated with poverty: disease, want, ignorance, squalor and idleness (Townsend, 1970).
In addition to health, education, social security, and public housing, Parton (2014) reminds us of the pivotal role allotted to a ‘fifth social service’: social work! According to Parton the vision was for social work to “… provide the personalised, humanistic dimension of the welfare state, the primary tool being the social worker’s personality and use of relationships” (2014, p.2047). Social workers, even in the brave neoliberal universe of global markets, continue to engage in the lived worlds of socially disadvantaged people. In my opinion it is the vision of structural disadvantage generated by this engagement which sets social work apart.
Practice in this context generates a humanist and egalitarian world view which is in direct opposition to the simplistic neoliberal narrative. Let’s take it back another step. Neoliberal theory is the ideological script for globalised market production and development in the same way that classical liberal theory justified the first wave of capitalist development in Nineteenth Century Europe. As well as creating unprecedented production and private wealth this development also created social dislocation and suffering for those excluded and left behind. This was famously documented (in terms of the rudimentary social science of the times) by Charles Booth in his scientific study of poverty in London in the 1870s. Booth identified three distinct ‘classes’ within the ‘poor’: Class A – the irregularly employed but honest poor; Class B – the failing poor into which the honest poor could fall, and lastly Class C – an incapable and dangerous underclass (Himmelfarb, 1991).
Now, fast forward to Wellington, New Zealand, 2015. The Productivity Commission has borrowed Charles Booth’s late Nineteenth Century conceptions of causation and produced its own equally crude typology – social service recipients fall into four categories in this iteration – A, B, C and D. It is class D who are the difficult and dangerous ones who are repeatedly referred to in the document as ‘these people’. This designation distinguishes this ‘other’ from the deserving citizens who are imagined in such a discourse.
The key point I wish to stress is that we need to see beyond the ideological blindfold and recognise what social work tells us about social inequality and human worth. Social inequality results in relative deprivation. Relative deprivation can reproduce poor social outcomes across generations. This is an uncomfortable truth but it does not mean that the problem resides in a dangerous, work-shy, criminal, immoral underclass that reproduces itself. This is a convenient and highly misleading over-simplification. It blames the poor for their poverty and ignores the system which creates it. In the imagined neoliberal world of individual market choice and responsibility there is no need for the state social services envisaged by the architects of the welfare state. There is certainly no need for the inconvenient truth that the engaged practice of social work deals in – namely that ‘these people’ are the same as us.
No, we can release the five giants to crush the weak – this is, after all, the discipline of the market. Poverty is the spur of capitalism. For the safety of us all, however, we had better target Class D with all the efficiency and effectiveness we can muster. This is a Nineteenth Century prescription informed by a Nineteenth Century understanding of social suffering.
Ian Hyslop, Lecturer in Social Work, University of Auckland.
(The opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not represent the views of my employer, or any association to which I belong.)
Himmelfarb, G. (1991) Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc.
Townsend, P. (Ed.). (1970). The Fifth Social Service: A Critical Analysis of the Seebohm Proposals. London: The Fabian Society.
Parton, N. (2014). Social work, child protection and politics: Some critical and constructive reflections. British Journal of Social Work, 44(7), 2042–2056.