A guest post by David Kenkel
Like many social workers, I’ve been following the debate about forcible data collection and the design of what look likely to be very interventionist approaches by the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children/Oranga Tamariki. I’ve wondered why a large proportion of New Zealand citizens apparently approve of strategies being applied to others they would hate to have applied to themselves? In thinking about this I’m drawn to the whakataukī: There, but for the grace of God, go I. I like this saying because it captures a vision of solidarity and community. It reminds me that the differences between my life and the lives of others are mostly to do with accidents of history. It’s a way of acknowledging that the good or bad fortune of ourselves and our neighbours are as much to do with the lottery of social circumstances, as our own individual efforts. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, I suspect it was a similar vision, that drove Michael Joseph Savage and the first Labour Government of New Zealand, to introduce the Social Security Act 1938, establishing the first social security system in the world (Silloway-Smith, 2010). The economic circumstances of the time made it clear that the wellbeing of each was inextricably linked to the wellbeing of all.
In a sense, this way of thinking about others–the self, society and good and bad fortune–is at the heart of social work ethics. As the IFSW (2014) definition of social work states, “…social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing”. In other words, our practice tries to make things better for people that life has kicked around; and, while doing so, we also consider the bigger picture: who’s doing the kicking and what can happen to make that stop. We do this because we recognise that life is not fair for a lot of people, who are really much like us, and we want to make it fairer, more just. I want to contrast this vision with a rather chilling statement made by Papadopoulos (2004) when he argued that, under neoliberal conditions, people are no longer regarded by social institutions as whole human beings, but rather as flexible assemblages of capacity with plug and play skill sets. Papadopoulos (2004) argued that the market has become the arbiter of a kind of ethics where thriving in the employment marketplace is the ultimate good. Developing flexible skill sets, that always present the best face to the employment market, has become more important than any coherent moral vision of what people are and should be. My concern is that, as a result of this neoliberal worldview, we are now moving from regarding New Zealanders as assemblages of skills that are fit for the market (or not), to viewing a proportion of society (those who don’t do so well or who come to attention of child protection) as assemblages of damage in urgent need of fixing. Media stories of benefit dependency and poor parenting by beneficiaries help to create the perception of these assemblages of damage as a drain on society, and a burden to the economically successful. The spectre of these supposedly damaged souls traumatising their children, in an endless cycle of intergenerational failure, adds a must-take-action urgency to the narrative.
This image of a society segmented into damaged individual takers and skilled economic contributors legitimates a “muscular authoritarianism” (Featherstone, White & Morris, 2014) on the part of social support agencies: justifying the targeting, assessment and repair of the takers. These interventions are undertaken expediently, efficiently – and all to often – brutally. The validity of this view is supported by the growing number of reports that describe beneficiaries’ encounters with agencies, such as WINZ, as frightening and dehumanising (see, for example, Morton, Gray, Heins & Carswell, 2014). What is seldom visible in recent policy discourse is any recognition of the structural and systemic causes of vulnerability, trauma and damage. These broader social factors include: poor or unobtainable housing, wages insufficient for a family to live on, cruel welfare policies and the despair and hopelessness that inevitably occur when large segments of the population are marginalised and pushed below the poverty line (Duva & Metzger, 2010; Kenkel, 2005 & 2016; Murali & Oyebode, 2004; Rashbrooke, 2013).
What might happen if society continues to travel down this path of dividing itself into healthy economic contributors (good) and problematic others (bad)? When I reflect on this from a social work perspective, particularly in terms of child protection, I am frightened. The bleak future I envisage – when reading the rhetoric published by the media, politicians and the Ministry for Vulnerable Children – is a society that perceives two quite separate groups of people: the majority who can offer their children a stable, loving home; and the smaller minority, the others, who cannot, and are regarded as complicit in creating their own ongoing cycle of misery and damage. Two groups with few points of emotional, spiritual or practical commonality, and little sense of kinship or fellow feeling. The majority group perceive the minority group as unable to parent adequately, justifying harsh interventions that disregard how a profoundly unequal society can damage a proportion of its citizens. In this context, the mission of social work is being deliberately reframed, away from social justice and social change, and towards individual family and whānau assessment–diagnosing the damage and the ‘capacity to change’ of individuals and families. At the same time, psychological experts are ushered into the field to instruct us on how to work with trauma. The risk is that the quality of our work will be measured against metrics of intervention designed by professions who do not share our commitment to social justice, social change and anti-oppressive practice. I find this an ugly and sad picture of social work and not one that I will sign up for.
What is required for social work to change this disturbing vision of the near future? Mostly, the answers are predictable: resist, challenge and educate! In this instance though, because what we are resisting is not just changes in policy and practice but a change in the way New Zealanders perceive each other, I argue we need to go beyond the usual remit of social work influence. We need to consider the ways in which the social work profession can inform the comfortable majority of New Zealanders about the lived experience of so many of their fellow citizens who suffer under current economic and social policies. I think the timing is right for this kind of social work education of the wider public. There is increasing outrage about homelessness; blaming the poor for being poor is becoming a pathetically threadbare argument as the reality kicks in that one third of New Zealand’s children live in poverty. We all know that deprivation and poverty make parenting harder and we need to assert the “well duh! – it’s obvious” argument. It is critical that social workers publicly advance the idea that social structure impacts the experience of individuals and families and resist the idea that the primary cause of dysfunction is rooted in individual and family pathology. We need to do this on every front. In particular, our professional body, the ANZASW, must take a very clear position and refuse to collude with a de-contextualised, individual blaming version of social work. If they won’t or can’t do this then they cannot continue to claim to represent social work as a profession with moral integrity. We also need allies, we need to work with professions and groupings who also understand that individual experience is shaped by social context.
There is no use pretending that this kind of resistance will be an easy task, even though it must be done if our profession is to retain its moral heart. We are up against the deeply embedded societal myth that individual choice is the driver of everything, a myth that has become – as a result of 30 years of neoliberal dominance – naturalised, and taken for granted: we are all free, we use our liberty to make individual choices, and by so doing we become the responsible agents of our own circumstances. However, against that story, the daily, lived experience of our service users suggests an alternative view. Every day social workers witness the struggles of fellow citizens oppressed by inequitable systems. Fellow citizens whose so called choices are seriously constrained by social and economic inequality, by racism, sexism and a host of other oppressions. Our experience teaches us that private problems cannot be separated from public issues.
We need to talk about this and not just to each other! Social work needs to stop being a silent profession that is only ever commented upon. We need to find ways of bringing our clients back in from the cold world of being perceived by the public as damaged goods waiting to be fixed; back to the warmer world of being neighbours and ordinary people with unsurprising struggles.
In the decades ahead it is our task to tell this counter-narrative to the larger world. This is a job that all social workers need to attend to, but it is particularly the responsibility of our professional body and those social workers lucky enough to have a foot in the academy and some space and mandate to promote alternative understandings. We need to challenge the destructive certainties of neoliberalism and tell the story of our clients in humanising ways, ways that rekindle a truth that we are all in great danger of forgetting: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Image credit: John Darroch
Duva, J. & Metzger, S. (2010). Addressing poverty as a major risk factor in child neglect: Promising policy and practice. Protecting Children, 25(1), 63-74.
Featherstone, B., White, S, & Morris, K. (2014). Re-Imagining child protection: Towards humane social work with families. Bristol, England: Policy Press.
Kenkel, D. (2005). Futurority: Narratives of the future. (Masters thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand).
Kenkel, D. (2016 April 23). The absent elephant in the Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel report. [Blog post] Retrieved from:
Morton,K., Gray,C., Heins,A., & Carswell, S. (2014). Access to justice for beneficiaries a Community Law Response. Christchurch, New Zealand: Community Law Canterbury.
Murali, V & Oyebode, F.(2004). Poverty, social inequality and mental health. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 10, 216–224.
Papadopoulos, D. (2004). Editorial: Psychology and the political. Critical Psychology, 12, 5–13.
Rashbrooke, M. (2013). Inequality: a New Zealand Crisis. Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books..
Silloway-Smith, J. (2010). Looking Back to Look Forward: How welfare in New Zealand has evolved.