A guest post by David Kenkel
One of the strange ironies of our profession is that the social and economic conditions that create the need for our existence are also what we all seek to change. Reading between the lines of budget 2020, it seems likely there will be more jobs for social workers and better resourced social services. The tragic part though is that little will happen to change the economic circumstances of those we work with. It is admirable that this government recognises the need for expanded social services at this time. It is not admirable that they seem unwilling to truly address the underlying structural issues which create this need.
Budget 2020 is unprecedented in terms of a modern response to a global pandemic. With its $50 billion pledge to fight the imminent COVID-19 economic crash and the immediate allocation of $15.9 billion to stabilising services and aiding recovery, much of the Government’s spending announced on Thursday last is directed at keeping New Zealanders working or providing pathways and support into training and employment.
But what does Budget 2020 mean for those who are least protected from the mounting economic recession? Will Budget 2020 mean more money in the pockets of those in greatest need? And, importantly, did Aotearoa really need a lethal pandemic to make it clear that the free market approach does not deliver collective social well-being? While it is encouraging to see significant investment in job protection, job creation, training and a boost to housing and services for Māori communities, it is not immediately clear that this will mean much for the large number of children in Aotearoa who live in poverty.
The Government has pledged to spend roughly $1 billion on crisis welfare initiatives, with $412m allocated to social services and $252m toward feeding New Zealanders through a massive expansion of the free school lunches scheme and more funding for food banks. This will provide much needed support to families in dire straits through provision of services in our schools, via social service providers and community groups. However, the initiative does not equate to more disposable income for economically marginalised and struggling families.
The correlation between families living on incomes that are too low and a reduction in the well-being of children is blindingly obvious and remains largely unaddressed in the Budget announcement. It’s good to hear that there will be more apprenticeship schemes for young people, but I’m not so sure that means much for a four-year-old whose mum faces a weekly struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table. As was the case with last year’s ‘Well-being Budget’, there has been no dollar increase in benefits and, in light of COVID-19, no additional support for excluded migrant workers.
The irony of this sudden lurch towards what some are calling ‘crisis socialism’ is that the social fabric of New Zealand has in fact been in slow burn crisis for decades. While Budget 2020 contains many measures to mitigate the immediate impact of recession on the lives of New Zealanders, some of the moves that are being made should have happened 15 years ago. If we had acted then, a great deal of suffering could have been avoided for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. However, increased financial security for beneficiaries and our lowest paid workers is still absent from this package.
Accordingly, despite much good news in Budget 2020, I remain concerned for our country’s poorest families and their children. The New Zealanders with the least voice have largely been left out. Raising the income (and improving the lives) of those ‘most vulnerable’ to a capitalist economy – and ensuring that people are not reliant on charity for food – would go some way to alleviating a great deal of unnecessary hardship in a land of plenty. Are we somehow still wedded to the nineteenth century doctrine of poverty as the spur of capitalism?
We must continue to work toward decreasing the stark divide between rich and poor in Aotearoa. This gap has rapidly reached obscene proportions and will only be widened by the present pandemic fall-out. A lasting remedy demands more than crisis aid and investment in the long-term growth of a productive low wage economy. Real and sustainable economic reform also entails more than merely distributing resources more equitably, necessary and desirable as this may be.
A fundamental shift in the power balance between private capital and the working class is necessary. This entails rejecting the economic and political doctrines of neoliberalism and top-down managerialism – promoting the development of workplace democracy; worker control of decision making and the progressive reform of ownership structures. Decision making authority and profit accumulation need to be separated from the self-serving interests of the business elite. There is nothing benevolent about historical or contemporary capitalism. As Doreen Massey argues, we need to think critically, question accepted wisdom and the ‘vocabularies of the possible’ which confine our social and political imaginations.
Underlying class struggle will not be resolved by placing boxes of food on the doorsteps of those who have been shut out of a decent life. The capitalist economic system is based on the uneven accumulation of wealth through the imposition (and ideological ‘naturalisation’) of exploitative social relations. Human labour is sold in the market place like any other commodity and private profit is extracted. This is the perennial political and economic bone to be picked if the demand for social work services is to be genuinely alleviated. Radical change may not happen tomorrow but it it is possible in the longer term and it is necessary if equality is to be achieved in Aotearoa and across the globe.
(*An amended version of this piece was first published by the Tertiary Education Union)
Image credit: Daniel Grosvenor
Massey, D. (2013). Vocabularies of the economy. Soundings, 54. Retrieved from: https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/soundings/54/vocabularies-of-the-economy