Kia ora koutou katoa
The following reflections from each and all of us at the RSW Collective are offered at the turn of a challenging and energising year for social work in Aotearoa New Zealand. We don’t pretend to speak for anyone else, but we do encourage critical imagination and action – together we can help shape a progressive future.
The social profession seeks to do more than bandage the victims of an unequal society; it needs to be a voice for social change. Critical social workers need to have a powerful voice in practice development, policy analysis and in wider politics. We have something to say about the genesis of social suffering and this involves more than administering evidence-based treatment to the poor.
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Marx (1845)
Jacinda and Winston, and the coalition government, came to power with a promise of “capitalism with a human face”, a kinder government and a more compassionate society. So, how are they doing? Amongst other things they promised to review the benefits system, address the housing crisis and respond to the epidemic of mental distress in our communities. Each of these policy domains, and more, have had working groups established, policy papers published and modest plans proposed.
After almost a decade of neglect of the social fabric, it would be churlish to say that reforms are not welcome. But let us be clear, the coalition government does not propose to address the systemic cause of these social issues: a capitalist mode of production that cannot exist without producing inequality, precariousness, mental distress and ecological destruction.
Consider, for example, the growth of mental distress. The coalition government just released He Ara Oranga: Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction. In the main this report explores the rationale for increasing the capacity of mental health services and making services more responsive to need. Quite right too. The report recognises the social determinants of mental distress but goes on to frame solutions in terms of community and institutional prevention projects, like well-being initiatives in schools. What is missing is a deeper analysis of the reasons for the growth in mental distress, especially among young people. The report hints that “modern life” may be have an impact on mental health and gives the all too frequent nod in the direction of early brain development and too much time spent on social media.
There are, however, alternative hypotheses: hypotheses that recognise the pervasive impact of capitalist social relations on our subjectivities. Just last year, Curran & Hill (2017) , two UK psychologists, published a meta-analysis in the Psychological Bulletin (a gold standard, peer-reviewed journal) demonstrating the growth in perfectionism among young people and its close association with many forms of mental distress (including anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders). The authors conclude that these changes are related to a fundamental shift in young people’s sense of self associated with the emergence of neoliberalism, competitive individualism and meritocracy (as well as increasingly anxious and controlling parental practices).
Of course, we need a better resourced and more responsive mental health service, just as we need to fix the housing crisis, end deep income inequality and meet the aspirations of tangata whenua for constitutional transformation. The trouble is, it is delusional to believe we can accomplish any of these goals without a socialist movement and a socialist government that is genuinely committed to human flourishing and founded on values of equality, community and cooperation, not market competition. There-in lies the problem. Even the most social democratic of governments, in the most auspicious of economic times, does not want to alarm what it considers to be the goose that lays the golden egg: the capitalist economy.
If we want to build a society that is genuinely committed to human well-being, to environmental sustainability and the empowerment of people, we need to end capitalism. In order to re-imagine social work, we need to re-imagine Aotearoa: that is an extra-governmental task of political mobilisation that is beyond the scope of critical social work; yet, if we are serious about making a difference, critical social workers must engage with it.
While 2018 was a year of many campaigns and controversies, for me reproductive justice for women stood out. Reproductive justice is simply the right to safe, high quality, legal health care for all matters to do with human reproduction. Reproductive rights and health have long been near to my heart as a site of struggle for women. The first protest actions I participated in as a young student were about abortion- a raging issue in the 70s. I watched old white male politicians on television belittling the rights of women in an outpouring of misogynist, ignorant and cruel bile. I wept when hearing of the lonely terror of young women who found the money to access an illegal abortion in New Zealand or faced the frightening journey across the Tasman. I raged at my friend’s story of a jeering border official who performed a pat-down while insinuating he knew she’d come back from having an abortion.
Years later I worked as a social worker in women’s health. I saw women in their early 50s grapple with a very late and totally unwelcome pregnancy. They talked about feeling humiliated, sitting in a waiting room full of young women who’d made ‘a mistake’. I shared the sadness of girls of 12 or 13 who were raped by their 20 year old ‘boyfriends’ and was shocked that their parents’ main emotion was (inexplicably) shame not anger.
In that work I shared the experience of stigmatising attacks by the anti-choice zealots, almost every day, at the gate of the service I worked for. ‘Operation Rescue’, SPUC- whatever – old (to me then) white, pious, patronising, moralising, crucifix-waving men and women ranting at the women and girls who were stressed already by needing to access a legal health service. One of those zealots wrote to me recently, after one of my articles about law reform was published, to express faux concern about the violent intrusion experienced by women exercising their right to a safe abortion. What a hypocrite! He and his wife were there protesting in the 80s. And now he wants to distance himself from those tactics. The shouting and harassment, the trespassing and the arson attacks, maybe a little too rough for the current climate? More subtle, insidious campaigns are favoured now, no doubt funded generously by the wealthy American fundamentalists who pop up miraculously wherever there is a law reform campaign.
So, in 2018 abortion became a global issue. In Ireland the tragic, senseless death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 strengthened calls for repeal of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which effectively banned abortion in Ireland. Campaigns in South America, Australia and New Zealand were world news. A placard slogan favoured by ‘baby boomer’ feminists is “I can’t believe I have to protest this shit again”.
Well I do believe it and I’m not surprised. I wasn’t asleep when politicians asked WINZ to talk to welfare beneficiaries about their contraception (and their daughters’!). I wasn’t asleep when funding was threatened for feminist organisations that deal with the impact of male violence against women. I’m not sleeping through the endless litany of whining, passive-aggressive reckons of far too many men: from those ‘journalists’ with a big platform to the Aarons and Jasons with their Twitter profile pics of their cars; men for whom abuse and harassment of women is a really cheap hobby.
At the centre of all this violence is patriarchal capitalism. What we have seen as we have won victories – whether abortion reform or a new accountability spurred by #metoo – is the violent reactionary tactics of some when their power as privileged, white and wealthy men is challenged. They circle like sharks to find ways to hurt women who contribute to public life, saving their extra bilious nastiness for women of colour and trans women.
Women’s bodily autonomy has always been the site of the worst of patriarchy, whether it’s embodied in slavery, rape, control of our fertility, or power over what we do, wear, how we live, love and work. But we will have justice. We will continue to struggle. Feminism is a practice of freedom and we will be free.
The child protection reforms of 2015 were framed around several key issues, three of which were: care, intensive intervention and prevention services. While there have been substantial developments in transition out of care and support of foster carers, much-needed attention to the far larger group of children notified or investigated but never removed – those potentially requiring ‘intensive intervention’ or ‘prevention’ – has yet to eventuate. The rhetoric of permanency in ‘safe and loving homes’, and the social investment discourse that accompanied it, appear to have culminated, in the meantime, in more children entering care.
Back in 2016 I wrote the following:
Is the purpose of the system to support families to retain the care of their children where possible, or to remove as soon as problems become apparent? We are moving towards the latter, which tends to result in large numbers of children coming into care, overwhelmingly from families at the margins of high deprivation and multiple complex problems (as is happening in the UK). Is this fair, without first offering the resources that might assist with those problems?
Currently we can clearly see this effect borne out in the rising numbers of children, particularly young children, coming into the care system (Duff, 2018).
What sort of resources do we need to reverse the current slide towards an ever-greater number of children entering state care? Understanding of the complex factors driving system contact is imperative. The group of families affected by this process experience deep relative deprivation. The dis-proportionality of Maori is increasing rather than reducing. There are significant socioeconomic inequities in child protection system contact across the board.
While there is potential value in offering services under the banner and budget bid of intensive intervention, broader social protections also need attention. Two quick studies as illustration: McLaughlin (2017) found that rises in petrol prices increased rates of notification to child protection services, even with controls for demographic and other economic variables. Shinn et al found that homeless families who received permanent housing subsidies had half the rate of children entering foster care than those offered social service packages, including that of “transitional housing and extensive psycho-social services” (Shinn et al., 2016: 79).
Yep, permanent housing was far more protective than family services. Here in ANZ, where we have both income and housing crises for families with children, we are only just beginning to connect the dots and see how these economic factors are associated with child protection system contact – by way of the Child Poverty Reduction Bill and Vulnerable Children’s Act amendments. We need more of this.
If we separate family life from social context, and view child abuse and neglect as only related to personal deviance needing ‘services’, we limit the responses to less effective, more intrusive and potentially very damaging options.
McLaughlin, M. (2017). “Less money, more problems: How changes in disposable income affect child maltreatment.”Child Abuse & Neglect (67), 315-321.
Shinn, M., et al. (2017). “Can Housing and Service Interventions Reduce Family Separations for Families Who Experience Homelessness?” American Journal of Community Psychology 60(1-2),79-90.
I have never been much for New Year’s resolutions – or forward planning for that matter. However, I think that in social work we do need to do the work in front of us and have an eye on the horizon.
Practice will always be linked to social injustice in complex and challenging ways. Doing the right thing in complex situations, in complex times, in complex systems, with people who live complex and conflicted lives – often in pressured and unforgiving environments – is not always easy. The beauty of social work is in untangling the threads of social complexity and doing the right thing as and when we can.
Ernesto Che Guevara is famously said to have written the following: “Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world.” I think this is a good reminder about where the heart of social work should dwell.
Social work can be an exhausting and bewildering occupation as Zane Scarborough’s powerful poem illustrates. It can also have moments of magic and with better funding and understanding from policy makers there could be more of these.
Writing, like social work, is as much an art as it is a science. Sometimes words won’t come and sometimes they come unbidden. In the rarefied bureaucratic mire of Child Youth and Family in the late 90s, the following arrived in my head one stress-filled morning:
The good fight must be fought on all fronts
And in all forms
Advancing and outflanking
Retreating and retrenching
Restocking and replenishing
Reinventing and reimagining
For the guises of oppression are many
And the road to Damascus has many donkeys
All of you who graft away at this work, trying to stand up when things don’t feel right (and it seems so much easier not too), be of good courage, be kind to yourselves and connect with others who imagine a socially and economically just future. Much is to be done to make this world whole and we each have a part.
This time last year, we were filled with anxious anticipation. So how has it gone, the first year of a Labour led coalition?
The new government was presented with a huge social agenda caused by the economic rape and pillage of all that we have held dear in Aotearoa New Zealand. The fact that, in the last 30 years, Aotearoa New Zealand has moved from being one of the most equal to one of the most unequal countries in the developed world (New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services 2018) is in itself a frightening statistic. The neoliberal values train has been full steam ahead here in Aotearoa New Zealand (which is why the road building agenda is much stronger than the subsidised transport development agenda – but that is a different story).
There seems to be a calmness in governing. The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, presents as strong, confident and assertive. She has led with a strong femininity that is unusual in politics, and so very welcome. The message of kindness does prevail. Incomes have improved for many at the lower end of the pay scale. There is a clear agenda for supporting people in need.
This year has seen the criminal justice summit. That was encouraging. We have seen the mental health review, revealing what was already known about the poor funding of services. These events have provided hope for those of us working in this area of social work. There seems to be a truly positive feel, with intention to change. No more check-up from the neck-up mental health services? No more imprisonment for minor driving offences? Most social workers would celebrate changes such as these.
So why do I still feel so doubtful?
What scares me most is the general public’s inability to make any rational analysis of information presented to them: to not be able to see through the diatribe propagated by the opposition. What has happened to critical thinking? It is the lack of critical thought from the proletariat that will cause the demise of the welfare focus of the current government. I know that this is part of the neoliberal agenda, to confuse or mislead, leading to apathy. However, the irony is it that when the government actually appears to be trying to make some difference; the general population, by not supporting the move towards a more equal society, continues to consent to poverty, institutional racism, and disproportionate representation of minority groups in our health services, our prisons and our cemeteries.
I for one refuse to consent, I will encourage and celebrate critical thinking and action. I will work to help derail the ancient monster on our tracks and replace it with modern light rail.
When I was a young mom, I wrote in my journal about how I wished Santa were more like me. My thoughts were a bit unfinished about this, possibly because I was at a stage in my feminist life of being mostly angry. Like many of my friends I really didn’t want my daughters to write letters to Santa asking for barbie dolls and easy bake ovens. We didn’t want to buy these things as a Santa proxy. We wanted them to ask for things that suited our principles about what was important, and we wanted Santa to reflect those principles. My older self tells me we needed Santa to be a woman and a feminist, or at very least a wise male comrade. We desperately needed a Santa who could help us raise our children in a patriarchal world.
I believe our biggest challenge as a social work profession, is grappling with the tension that lies between our daily work, and our aspiration for social justice. How can we (Santa) give our babies barbies for Christmas and still walk around in our feminist T-shirts? How can we support women and children to adapt to life in a society that does not truly have their ‘well-being’ at heart (Waring, 2018), and still call ourselves social workers? It has to be possible; the task of our profession has always been to figure out how.
I have learned this year just how important the feminist movement is to social work, how feminist thought helps us to make sense of the world, to strengthen our “social work gaze,” to find places for action and change. Whether it be reproductive rights, gender pay equity, the invisibility of women’s work, domestic violence, or the feminisation of poverty, feminist vision and action are relevant to the practice of social work. Feminist bell hooks (2015) talks about the need for a new “mass-based” feminist movement that can only occur if we collectively recognise issues of race and class. This is familiar territory for social workers who understand the daily impact of colonisation, racism and poverty. It’s a perfect fit, always has been. My hope for 2019 is that we find a way to support each other both to challenge what gets in the way of our professional principles, and to raise our children in ways relevant to our/their unique worlds.
hooks, b. (2015). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. New York: Routledge.
So, here ends our collective contributions to the reimagining conversation for 2018. As the well-known socialist Albert Einstein pointed out, progressive social change requires both action and imagination. This includes education. Social imagining is the spark that lights the vision and collective human effort is the engine of social justice.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery captures this as well as anyone: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the immensity of the sea.”
Wishing you all a happy, healthy and active New Year. Kia kaha koutou.
Kaua e mate whēke mate ururoa!
Neil, Liz, Emily, Ian, Simon & Deb
Image credit: Wendelin Jacober