The Government promised us capitalism with a human face. To be fair, serious political attention is being directed at the social consequences of capitalism for the first time in decades. However, the soothing language of wellbeing can be deceptive. I think it is important to understand that this public policy initiative has serious limitations which are disguised in the current political context. Aotearoa New Zealand (ANZ) is a small liberal capitalist society. This model of economic, social and political arrangements sets the possibilities for reform and limits our perceptions of alternatives. I will argue here that we need to think outside of the liberal capitalist box if we are to imagine (and make) real distributive change.
This is a guest blog post by Lauren Bartley: a recent graduate and practising social worker.
I’ve spent the last four years at university banging on about social justice while doing the BSW at the University of Auckland. This was the very reason I began a career in social work, because I had deep sense of the injustice in the world and wanted to do something about it. I prided myself on being an activist, a radical. It became my passion, my defining feature. Early into the degree, I realised that there was a major incongruence between what I thought social work was, or should be, and what it actually seemed to be. By the end of my second year, most of my assignments had the same running theme: that as much as social workers espouse the value of social justice, social workers aren’t actually doing it. I deeply connected with Ferguson and Woodward’s (2009) criticism that social workers tend to “play down the structural factors and to focus on individual and personal issues.” (p.8). I was constantly frustrated and dismayed by how little attention seemed to be paid to the wider factors of colonisation, capitalism and neoliberalism, both in the degree and in the profession, and how little those structural inequalities and oppressions seemed to matter to everyone else. I challenged visiting social workers who presented in class, and was intensely critical of them when they said they had “no time” to address structural issues. Putting plasters on people was all social workers seemed to be doing, and this made me angry. A placement at Auckland Action Against Poverty served to fuel this cynicism, and I came to the point of having a crisis of faith, seriously reconsidering social work as a career.
The correlation between child maltreatment and poverty is no longer a state secret (Davidson, Bunting, Bywaters, Featherstone, & McCartan, 2017; Pelton, 2015), not that it was ever hidden from social workers in the field. However a rich vein of irony lies just below the surface of this statement because the nature of the relationship remains obscured, in policy and practice. As Gillies, Edwards, and Horsley (2017) so powerfully illustrate, blaming inadequate parenting for the reproduction of disadvantage and dysfunction is a time-honoured tradition in capitalist societies.
It is not difficult to be pessimistic about the future of social work in Aotearoa New Zealand at the present point in time. However I want to convey a sense of genuine optimism. Read on and I’ll explain why.
Social work has always been a challenging and conflicted job – that is the beauty of doing it well. It is important to have a critical understanding of the relationship between our practice and its wider context, historically, and in the now. According to Featherstone, White, and Morris (2014, p.36), social work needs…
Who hasn’t seen the brains? The luridly coloured images of two children’s brains, side by side. Presented as cast iron evidence of the impact of child neglect. I remember exactly where I was when I first saw that image. The venue was a lecture theatre at my university (at least 10 years ago) and the presenter was a professional I knew and (still do) held in high regard. The emotional impact of seeing the two brains was considerable- the ‘normal’ brain of a child of a particular age contrasted with the apparently shrunken brain of a child who had suffered abuse and neglect.
The slideshow below is of my address to the PSA Social Work Action Network conference on 1st and 2nd of September 2016 at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), New Zealand. I talked about the way in which social services are applying an increasingly punitive approach to the most disadvantaged people in our society.
On a recent trip to the UK, I was asked to talk about the work of the RSW collective at Salford University. I didn’t really want to, I wanted to talk about one of my other areas of research interest, but peeps insisted! As I was soon to learn, this was fuelled by the synchronicities between ANZ and the UK in many areas: neoliberal economic and social policies, punitive welfare reform, an increasing emphasis in child protection policy on removal of children earlier to permanency (with little attention to structural or family conditions), and criticism of social work and education. So people were keen to hear about our little project of resistance.
The long-awaited ‘Expert panel final report: Investing in New Zealand’s children and Their Families’ was released on Thursday 7 April.
In a recently published article in the Guardian newspaper a U.K social worker ‘called out’ the platitude (often found in the umbrella pronouncements of social work organisations and in the rhetoric of social work academics) that social work is ‘about’ social justice. The following excerpt from the article makes the central point.
The role of the child protection social worker in today’s world is not to strive to redress the imbalance of our society. And if the reality of what social workers do differs so radically from the ideology, then surely it’s time to look again at what we mean by social work and what the government and society expects of social workers?
I would like to invite some elephants to reveal themselves and vacate the child protection room. This might give us some more space to breathe and think. In other words let’s name some of the uncomfortable realities. Let’s be frank: child protection social work in Aotearoa New Zealand is enmeshed with social inequality. Pelton’s (2015) summary of recent research studies presents compelling evidence of the link between poverty, child maltreatment and entry into state care. It does not take a rocket scientist (luckily) to work out that a range of negative outcomes for children – including a greater risk of maltreatment – result from inadequate incomes, second rate education, deprived neighbourhoods, inadequate housing and poor health. Social workers are aware of this.