A guest post by David Kenkel
I am sure many of you will have noticed that ‘trauma informed practice’ has become a bit of a new buzzword in the world of social work. By contrast, why is the theory and practice of ‘poverty informed practice’ developed by Krumer-Nevo (2016; 2017) and others backgrounded and de-emphasised in our current context?
It is important to say that there are many earnest, well-intentioned and competent social workers and researchers who write about trauma informed care/practice. Writers such as Levenson (2017) are not part of some massive deliberate conspiracy to promote the neoliberal norm of individualising problems at the expense of a structural and broader societal view of social struggles. Instead, they are doing exactly what Antonio Gramsci described (Gramsci, 1971).
Gramsci, the Sardinian Marxist intellectual imprisoned until his death by Mussolini’s Fascist regime, wrote about dominant doxa – working with ideas and approaches that seem perfectly sensible without an espoused awareness that in doing so we are promoting one view of the world at the expense of others. The relocation of problems into the realm of individual responsibility has become perfectly sensible under a neo-liberal hegemony. What has become an un-sensible and a far less ‘speakable’ discourse is that the problems of individual families might, predictably, be to do with the structural situations in which society places them in, i.e., poverty.
What is now very clearly understood by writers across a range of critical Left perspectives is that neoliberalism – as a cultural and political philosophy – loathes collective approaches and will always opt for causation narratives which individualise responsibility for life outcomes. This is clearly illustrated in the writings of internationally influential and corporate-funded neoliberal think-tanks and their ‘research’ projects (Aschoff, 2015; Han, 2017; Harvey 2013; Kenkel, 2005 & 2020; Mayer, 2016; Pilon, 2017).
Accordingly it is not very surprising that the social work profession has accommodated a ‘trauma’ approach that appears to offer a compassionate recognition of the struggles of individuals and families, while also allowing a degree of mental sidestepping regarding the known reality that poverty, in and of itself, is a damaging and traumatising experience (Brown, Cohen, Johnson & Salzinger, 1998; Duva & Metzger,2010; Sedlak,, Mettenburg, Basena, Petta, McPherson, Greene and Li, 2010; Murali & Oyebode, 2004; Reeves, Mckee, Mackenbach, Whiteboard & Stuckler,2016; Szalavitz, 2011; Wynd, 2013).
What all these authors argue in various ways is that poverty is not great for mental health, and it makes it much tougher to parent children. This is not a revelation. It is merely a truth that gets less airplay, not because of a lack of validity, but because it contradicts a preferred ideological standpoint. What is much more soothing to the neoliberal ear is the tired old story that traumatised parents go on to traumatize their children and if we can fix them (one family at a time) the problems will go away. Understanding trauma and how to work with it is, of course, important. However, what is to be done when it is our historical and societal structures that have created the trauma of poverty in the first place? If this truth is accepted does the fix one family at a time approach to social work and social development still make sense?
Gramsci argued that the values, perspectives, and understandings of those who most benefit from social systems are (by a whole range of social arrangements) encouraged as the perfectly normal and ordinary understanding of the world for everybody. In this instance, those who most benefit from our current social systems are a large slice of mainstream New Zealand in the happy historical and politically derived circumstances of having been able to purchase one, two, three or more properties.
The notion that their comfortable financial status has come at the expense of pushing a large swathe of New Zealand’s population into a brutalising poverty is not a comfortable message. Hence (unsurprisingly) the prevailing neoliberal siren song that people choose their own paths in life and the poor have chosen unwisely is both attractive and pleasing – a wonderful anodyne for pangs of guilt about inherited privilege and the social destruction created by the neo-liberal wealth funneling policies of the last 35 years. Aotearoa has become an increasingly divided society, with the gap between rich and poor continuing to grow. This is not an unlucky accident. It is the simple consequence of a series of policy decisions made over the last several decades (Rashbrooke, 2015).
An interesting slant for me as a lecturer in social work is that while there is a fairly continuous classroom dialogue about the influence of neoliberalism and its negative effect on those we work with (particularly the impact of poverty), this is not generally replicated (from what I see) in mainstream social work literature, or standards for practice. This translates to being gently encouraged by those in charge of national curriculum development to make sure that I teach at least something about trauma informed practice. I am not similarly gently encouraged to teach poverty informed practice, or to provoke the radicalisation that this might inspire in graduates.
So, what might this poverty informed practice look like? **And a large thanks to the 2021 advocacy class for the spirited and interesting discussion that inspired this blog post (In conversation, 01-03-2021).
- It might look like we (social workers) are out on the streets a lot protesting and pushing for change.
- It might look like social work students and graduates needing to know a great deal more about the actual lived experience of poverty and its impacts so that our diagnostic lenses move away from individual deficit / trauma and towards collectively experienced burdens.
- It might look like there is overt and clear articulation with the people we work with that a primary driver of their problems is poverty.
- It might look like social workers becoming more skilled at teasing apart the subtle ways in which prevalent social discourses encourage the poor to blame themselves for their own circumstances.
- It might look like those struggling to be parents on completely inadequate incomes are encouraged (by social workers) to become politically active with others and push for change. Solidarity might become a new buzzword!
- It might look like, in solidarity with the people we work with, exploring how the heck you do / can survive on an inadequate income.
- It might look like social work academics focusing on the impacts of poverty as a collective experience of a large proportion of New Zealand citizens, rather than more articles about the minutiae of individual practice.
- It might even look like New Zealand needs a radical social work party or effective political lobby group – an organized body that consistently and persistently tells the other story – that lobbies strategically or even hoists a few MPs into the political system to be loud about that story.
In concluding …
I am not sure what might enable a poverty informed practice to rise to some degree of discursive authority? A capacity to contest what can often seem the relentless tendency for social work doxa to see problems as located (and resolvable) at the individual / family level?
I am sure that dissent and struggle is needed and that keeping alight the radical flame that understands difficulties as outside of individual control is to also keep alive the moral and spiritual heart of our profession.
Image Credit: Eduardo Mueses
Brown, J. Cohen, P. Johnson, J. & Salzinger, S. (1998). A longitudinal analysis of risk factors for child maltreatment: findings of a 17-year prospective study of officially recorded and self-reported child abuse and neglect. Child Abuse & Neglect, 22(11) 1065–1078
Duva, J. Metzger, S. (2010). Addressing poverty as a major risk factor in child neglect: Promising policy and practice. Casey Family Services. Protecting Children 25(1), 63-74
Gramsci, A, 1891-1937. (1971). Selections From the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. In Hoare, Q., & In Nowell-Smith, G. New York: International Publishers, 1971.
Han, Byung-Chul. (2017). Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (Verso Futures). Verso. Kindle Edition.
Harvey, David. (2013). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
Kenkel, D. (2005). Futurority: Narratives of the future.100 point thesis submitted for Master of Arts in Social Policy. Massey University New Zealand.
Kenkel, D.J. (2020). Social Work in the Face of Collapse. Critical and Radical Social Work, 8, 1 – 14. doi:10.1332/204986020X15810733591637. Bristol University. United Kingdom.
Krumer-Nevo. M. (2016). Poverty-aware social work: A Paradigm for social work practice with people in poverty. British Journal of Social Work, 46(6), 1793–1808.
Krumer-Nevo, M. (2017). Poverty and the political: Wrestling the political out of, and in to, social work theory, practice, and research. European Journal of Social Work, 2, 811–22.
Levenson, J. (2017). Trauma-Informed Social Work Practice, Social Work, Volume 62, Issue 2, April 2017, Pages 105–113, https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/swx001
Mayer, Jane. (2016). Dark Money: how a secretive group of billionaires is trying to buy political control in the US. Scribe Publications Pty Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Murali, V & Oyebode, F. (2004). Poverty, social inequality and mental health. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2004), 10, 216–224
Pilon, R. (2017). Cato Handbook for Policy Makers. 8th edition. Retrieved from: https://www.cato.org/cato-handbook-policymakers/cato-handbook-policy-makers-8th-edition-2017
Rashbrooke, M. (2015). Wealth and New Zealand. (BWB Texts Book 33) Bridget Williams Books. Kindle Edition.
Reeves,A, Mckee, M, Mackenbach, J, Whiteboard,M & Stuckler, D. (2016). Introduction of a National Minimum Wage reduced depressive symptoms in low-wage workers: A quasi-natural experiment In The UK. Health Economics. 1–17
Sedlak, A.J., Mettenburg, J., Basena, M., Petta, I., McPherson, K., Greene, A., and Li, S. (2010). Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.
Szalavitz, M. (2011). Yes, addiction does discriminate. The fix: addiction and recovery straight up. Home Features. USA.
Wynd, D. (2013). Child abuse: what role does poverty play? Child Poverty Action Group: Auckland, New Zealand.