A guest post by Mike O’Brien
The focus for the last few weeks has been on health (containing/eliminating the virus) and the economy – getting business going again. These priorities are what are seen to matter, even to the extent that last weekend one commentator argued that “the very basis of our society is business” (Sunday Start Times, April 12). Health matters, the economy matters, but is that all that matters?
Discursive emphases at this time set the tone and shape for how and what we plan for and prioritise in the society that lies ahead. I want to argue here for a focus too on the social, alongside health and the economy. Many commentators have highlighted the pending levels of unemployment, of social dislocation and the unequal impacts and experiences of Covid-19. But where is the reconstruction of the social in this discussion? Does the comparative neglect and low priority of the social (other than social distancing, a problematic phrase in its own right) mean business as usual: BAU in the sense of the old residual welfare state where ‘the social’ is left (again) to tidy up the mess, deal with the fractures, mop up the consequences of economic and racial inequality?
There have been economic packages, wage subsidies, education packages, measures for the film industry, the list goes on. Yes, there have been important benefit increases, too little, but an important step. But where is the comprehensive package for the social services? We know that a crisis in service demand is building. Stories abound too about three and fourfold increases in food parcels, accommodation for the homeless, increases in domestic violence. The big gap is a clear plan and strategy to support and empower social life – collectively, culturally, organisationally and financially. Social workers should have a key role in this.
A recurrent theme in the discussions and debates of the last few weeks has been the ‘new normal’. What might that ‘new normal’ look like in the social sphere? Some core priorities would have to include meaningful implementation of what it means to be bicultural and to ‘recognise the Treaty’, a comprehensive programme to reduce and ideally eliminate poverty (especially child poverty), provision of affordable and accessible housing, ready access to social and economic assistance through MSD, better services and programmes for those with a disability, comprehensive initiatives to reduce and respond to child abuse and neglect. This vision requires the development of programmes and processes which are inclusive, eliminating the exclusiveness that comes with othering. And this is only a partial list!
None of this will happen until and unless what we loosely call ‘the social sector’ articulates what ‘the new normal’ should look like for Aotearoa/New Zealand and for social services – and puts that package of planning alongside the health and economic packages. And perhaps that is where the issues lie. We can quite readily identify the neglect of the sector and of the needs of those with and for whom it works – and we can also readily identify the powerful forces which create and sustain that neglect. But our own voices have been very quiet in naming what ‘the new normal’ might look like, in part perhaps because we have been very engaged in responding to the effects of the current stresses.
However, unless we set out what our new normal looks like it will be BAU, probably worse than what we have had for the last three decades. Those who had political and economic power at the middle of March will want to ensure (and are already working to ensure) that what emerges protects and advances their interests. But, aren’t many of those interests really part of the problem? The new normal must be better than that, much better. It is time to articulate new visions and to press for them vigorously, with at least as much energy as is demonstrated by vested economic interests.
So, what might some of this look like? There are immediate needs that must be responded to – income, food, shelter, access to medical care. We have seen many wonderful acts of kindness in the last few weeks that come from a sense of acting for the collective good. It is that collective good (rather than individual interest) that can (and must) be harnessed in the new normal. That means significant social and economic changes.
What would a package that included those changes look like? It would start by asking what it actually means – at a range of different levels – to be a truly bicultural society that is reflected in how we make decisions, who gets to make what decisions and in the allocation and reallocation of resources accordingly? Big questions, but questions that need to lie at the heart of a recreated new normal.
There’s a second big one; how do we ensure that everybody has an adequate income (however we define that) so that we make big inroads into the blight of poverty, of homelessness and lack of access to appropriate housing – that families have sufficient food to meet the needs of all family/whanau members and that everybody is assured a real opportunity to participate in Aotearoa New Zealand society. This means that our wage, tax and benefit system must undergo major change to ensure better and fairer income distribution. A more progressive tax system must include a meaningful capital gains tax.
Third, for the social services sector itself, how do we organise, deliver and fund services in ways that are bicultural, in ways that enable genuine participation for users, engage meaningfully with the many diverse communities which we serve, ensure that those working in the sector (in their various capacities) are appropriately recognised, rewarded and enabled to be professional in ways that advance the well-being of the individuals, whanau and communities they engage with.
These are all big asks and there are many others to add to the list. The daily work of social work practitioners and the organisations in which they are employed are potentially at the centre of this. There will be great pressure (from various quarters and often with the best of intentions) to remain focused on the daily demands. Goodness knows, they will be heavy enough in the new normal. But this won’t be sufficient if we are going to be part of creating a better social model.
Now, more than ever, social workers and all socially concerned citizens will have to give real voice and application to the social justice part of their mandate. That means articulating a vision for the new normal which looks above the daily parapet, joins with colleagues and supporters from different places to set out a new picture, a genuinely different picture which will give practical meaning to the new normal for those we work with, for our colleagues and for ourselves in all aspects of our lives. This is a time, despite the social distress ahead, to aim for real change in the social.
It is a daunting, but exciting, task. That has never discouraged social workers in the past. We will in fact simply be picking up a baton that is well embedded in our history and we can then plant this flag (to mix metaphors) in the years that lie ahead.
Image Credit: Michala Lipvoka