Social work and social investment: Fear and loathing in Aotearoa

The so-called social investment strategy being implemented by the current Government is based on a narrow individualised analysis of the causes of poor social outcomes. The intent is to spend some money on problem people now in order to reduce social costs in the future. The specific focus is on reducing the long term cost of benefits and prisons.

Like much ideologically loaded social policy there is a strong superficial appeal. Social service workers are familiar with the idea that social deficits can be inter-generationally reproduced and that the traumatic effects of violence and abuse can echo down the generations. It is a short step from this insight to accepting the idea that we need to fix these people – efficiently and effectively, once and for all.

However there are some significant gaps in this account of social suffering. In narrative terms it is a very thin story. To begin with it constructs a world of good and bad people: deserving citizens vs. violent criminals and dependent beneficiaries. The White Paper and the Vulnerable Children’s Act were about identifying and excluding the dangerous people in our midst. Of course some individuals are particularly dangerous and children need to be protected from such people, but ‘predator threat’ is not the normal scenario with child welfare work. It is much more likely to be about young parents (mostly women, often Maori) coping with the insecurity and strain of parenting in poverty.

Secondly, the causes of suffering and alienation are socio-economically generated. We don’t have 150,000 children living below the poverty line because their parents are deviant and insufficiently entrepreneurial. We have a history of colonisation, cultural dispossession and displacement. We have a recent history (as do similar societies) of the destruction of working class industries, statutory weakening of the trade union movement, dismantling of social housing and of state support for those living on the margins of our unequal society. This is without considering the trauma which the state has meted out to those in institutional care over the last fifty years. I wonder which parts of society these victims of state violence have come from and what the intergenerational consequences have been?

We are told that social workers should not really be concerned with this level of trauma and the suffering which it gives rise to. No, it is about stemming the inter-generational transmission of dependence and criminality – one family at a time: stopping the rot.

So, the construction of causation is very narrow. What about the means of remedying the situation? We are told that we have the data – held across various Government services – to identify the enemy within – those who are most costly and likely to reproduce harm. We can target and treat, we can commission the most effective services, we can deploy psychologists, and we can use evidence to make sure we get maximum bang for the buck. If this doesn’t work there is always early permanency and the safety and love of middle New Zealand, right? In a generation or so we can all be happy middle New Zealanders – a nation of real estate agents perhaps?

And where does social work fit with this particular policy fantasy? Even in the statutory setting, social work has always been about engaging with the lived realities of service users – listening to the challenges people face in their lives and building solutions: doing ‘with’ rather than doing ‘to’. Children need to be protected from abuse and child protection social workers need to be comfortable with authority and use their statutory power when required. However the core of the work is relational – it is not about predicting, identifying and calculating risks, treating psychopathology and measuring outcomes.

Call me old fashioned if you like but social work is a way of knowing and doing that is concerned with relationship, communication, understanding and care. The point is that the current policy direction is not about social work or at least not about social work as I understand it. Ten years ago now Parton (2008) talked about social work moving away from the relational / narrative basis of its ‘knowing and doing’ and towards an ‘informational’ knowledge base dictated by the logic of the algorithm. Hello? The use of objective data to identify liability, construct risk and apply high tariff evidence based intervention is the name of the new game in town.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that two issues of vital importance to the future identity of social work are at stake here. First is the function of professional social work in advocating for social and economic justice for the people we work with. Secondly the role of engaging, listening, respecting, understanding the worlds – hopes, dreams and strengths – of multi-stressed whanau – supporting, enabling and empowering. Challenging work. Not easy but it is social work. From where I sit the job of the trauma Police looks like something quite different altogether.  Are my fears justified?   I’d like to hear what people think.


Parton, N. (2008). Changes in the form of knowledge in social work: From the ‘social’ to the ‘informational’? British Journal of Social Work, 38(2), 253–269.

Image credit: GotCredit


8 replies on “Social work and social investment: Fear and loathing in Aotearoa”

This person thinks your summation of the situation is accurate. In some ways, perhaps the amendments to the Children Young People and Their Families Act 1989 to remove the title of ‘Social Worker’ is a blessing in that the State is no longer pretending to deliver social work services.

Having said that, I would like to raise concern for all social workers who have been transferred to the new Ministry of Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki via the use of a ‘pick and drop’ mechanism, and renamed as ‘Children’s Workers’ .

Granted, this action has ensured ‘business as usual’ can proceed.

How do colleagues who are Registered Social workers function an environment where core social work principles, values and commitments are so blatantly disregarded?

Thanks for your contribution Jen – no doubt many workers committed to child and whanau centred work will do their best to battle on with the social work kaupapa in child protection but it is a struggle against the wind I fear – and it is so important for the profession to grasp what is at stake and to resist the dogma we are being sold.

For anyone who has studied, or lived the experience of a (“Social Darwinism driven” ) socially engineered social policies, especially as a person who belongs to the “have nots” in especially ‘western’ countries over the last 2 centuries…this social prognosis is not so much as a ‘new’ reality as a return of an old much used dystopian rationale…’frightening’…

Thanks Jane

There are two important issues. First social work aims to be a voice / force for social justice in a society that has become increasingly unequal over the last thirty years. Secondly social work loses its art ( relational, context-informed, communicative engagement) in a system that assumes that applied social science is about diagnosing and treating dangerous people. * See link –

And, yes, this approach is particularly problematic in a class society of ‘haves’ and ‘have-not’s.

As has been suggested in recent and past posts ‘social work’ ( workers, managers, educators, organizations) can (and will) continue to develop alternative visions and strategies / practices of resistance, alliances with other progressive movements: keeping the fire burning as and how we can:

The good fight must be fought on all fronts
And in all forms
Advancing and outflanking
Retreating and retrenching
Restocking and replenishing
Re-imagining and reinventing
For the guises of oppression re many
And the road to Damascus has many donkeys


Ian, from a neoliberal point of view, I think I can understand why the quadrant of risk factors an algorithm may provide offers policy-makers/paper shufflers with sufficient triangulation to feel confident that they are on to the right thing in supporting ‘at-risk’ children.

And if this means that children that would otherwise have been overlooked/”slipped through the cracks” are somehow (ever so sensitively) supported ONLY AFTER an event (and never before), I tend to think that there is some merit to this work.

However, I fear for our imminent dystopian world where zealous ‘children’s workers’ decide to play god based on predictive data and intervene in advance. To me that is a scenario akin to fascism that needs a strong and robust professional agency of social workers.

Yes Scott – the data prediction stuff can never be specifically accurate and it is better to offer universal services and make them accessible to high needs communities. The use of data to target and compulsorily treat is potentially the thin end of the wedge – this strategy is about stemming the costs created by the poor and it neglects larger causation. This sort of discipline of the poor doesn’t worry the advantaged – it reinforces their deserving identity. This is indeed I fear part of an ongoing denigration of social democracy based on the ideal of equality and yes we let this go at our peril.

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