New social work for new times

In the much anticipated speech which revealed the launch of a new Labour-led coalition government, Winston Peters talked about capitalism. This is significant because mainstream politicians in Aotearoa New Zealand very seldom mention the word. They don’t want to frighten the horses. What Peters suggested is that too many of us see capitalism as a foe rather than a friend and that a return to capitalism with a human face is required. This is a clear reference to the failed politics of neoliberalism. As Filipe Duarte has pointed out, the destructive failure of neoliberal capitalism has spawned a right wing populist politics of prejudice and nationalism. This is graphically illustrated in the Trump debacle. However this realisation can also be an engine for progressive change.

What might this mean for social work in the here and now? I believe that it may provide the opportunity to develop (and apply) a more critical and politically informed social work. We need to make our voices heard in the fight to level the playing field in what has become an obscenely unequal society. And we also need to develop a micro practice that is informed by respectful relational engagement. Child and family social work serves people on the social margins – people who actively struggle against structural disadvantage. Bridging this big picture – small picture divide is the challenge in front of us. It is an aim that is beginning to be pursued internationally (see Davidson, Bunting, Bywaters, Featherstone & McCartan, 2017).

The first step in our context is to critically re-think the out-going Government’s so-called social investment approach to social work. In this model state–held data is connected to a predictive cost formula – forward fiscal liability. The idea is to identify vulnerable individuals and families in order to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of social services. Although this may sound sensible on the surface it does not stand up well to critical scrutiny. It relies on the assumption that we can remedy the social deficit by means of surveillance and control.

The human targets of this analysis are people living in poverty. Deprivation is constructed as a behavioural problem attached to problem people. Through their social norms, their parenting styles, their trauma histories, such people are envisaged as reproducing poverty in their own lives and in the lives of their children. The idea is that social workers can provide, broker, or ‘commission’ interventions that disrupt this cycle. At the risk of radical understatement this analysis is grossly simplistic. I think it is time to own a more expansive vision. The following is from Israeli social work commentator, Michal Krumer-Nevo.

Social work has the potential to be provocative, to challenge the status quo, to reveal poverty as a site of injustice, to identify the numerous and incessant occurrences in which injustice happens and the structures and institutions that make it happen. By adopting a political lens in thinking about the theories we create and use, the research we conduct, and the practice we teach and carry out, we will be better positioned to fulfil our commitment to promote social justice, and not less importantly, and maybe even more importantly, we will enhance our relevance in the lives of people in poverty. What more can we ask for?

I think we can (and should) ask for more – but the above would be a grand start! We are embarking on a journey into interesting times. I would like to know how others read the opportunity that lies before us.


Davidson, G., Bunting, Bywaters, L., Featherstone, B. & McCartan, C. (2017). Child Welfare as Justice: Why We Are Not Addressing Inequalities. British Journal of Social Work, 47 (6) 1641- 1651.

Krumer-Nevo, M. (2017). Poverty and the political; wrestling the political out of and into social work theory, research and practice. European Journal of social Work, 20 (6), 811-822.

Image credit: Ulysse Bellier


12 replies on “New social work for new times”

Talofa lava
I totally agree. Social workers need to be positioned and placed with a foot in each camp. To be a conduit for the disadvantaged and those in poverty, to be a voice that is heard. But please bear in mind, we have an entirely different generation of new social workers under the past government.
To’alepai Louella Thomsen-Inder

Talofa To’alepai – nice to hear from you – yes times have changed but they changing again and plenty young social workers want to practice in more meaningful ways – we must be optimists as well as pragmatists! Take care.

Kia ora Ian,

Thank you so much for the post.

When Winston mentioned capitalism in his speech I became that bit more engaged in what he was saying and instantly knew (like you) he was referring to the failed neoliberal economic policies. As a structurally focused practitioner I instantly saw a slight crack in the failed ideology, a glimmer of hope that the profession could start exposing it.

I absolutely agree that the Social Work voice needs to be “heard in the fight to level the playing field in what has become an obscenely unequal society” and we all need to be open to new ideas as to how that voice is delivered. This isn’t saying that the way we have been voicing our concerns is wrong, far from it, in the face of sometimes insurmountable ideological rhetoric from Tolley and co we have punched above our weight. What I am saying is that now is the time to use all arsenal in our possession to start dismantling the processes built over the last 9 years – this includes direct Ministerial conversations, partnerships with Unions and other like minded organisations, Submissions, Activism (both locally and nationally) and education.

Mindful of the fact that I am not a tutor by any means I do have a bit to do with them through different activities here in Canterbury and I am heartened (to say the least) by their active involvement in making the professions voice heard and the way they teach the students by their very actions.

One word of caution on last nights ‘victory’- I have to admit that even though I am happy we have lurched to the ‘left'(for want of a better term) I am mindful that my activist actions over the last number of years in New Zealand have been because of Labour policies, namely the progression of the TPP and Rogernomics. I suppose I am saying that we should not be too caught up in the emotion and keep our eye on the prize which is a country that looks after its most vulnerable without hesitation no matter what party gets in.

In short we are embarking on interesting times, I am looking forward to it 🙂



“And we also need to develop a micro practice that is informed by respectful relational engagement.”

Yes. I so believe in this statement. Thanks for this.

The experience of “living on the margins” is as it has been punitively and simplistically presented by the outgoing governance culture has been hugely damaging to achieving social justice for all NZers. Let’s hope we can open the eyes of everyone who has been duped into thinking that the punitive pathway of ‘doing nothing’ to help their neighbor who is struggling is coming to an abrupt end!

Talofa Jane + Ian
I am in full agreement with you both
It has been a struggle being only in a handful of community based Pasifika reg social workers. Yet,the stats if you believe in them tell us what most in this sector already know
We and Maori are over represented in not only the prison population but children in care
I am now also one of very few ACC accredited social workers + so far 100% in sensitive claims,Maori + intergenerational as well as complex depravation + poverty.
I look forward to the day when more of us in this caring profession have no contractual boundaries + practice true social work

Yes Jayne – time to challenge and move beyond all that demonising and othering of people who are struggling – social workers can do more than the dirty work of neoliberalism. Change is in the air …

Kia ora Ian and other writers and readers, I agree the Labour led government signals a new opportunity that many have been fighting for. Some of us have been hoping beyond hope and can hardly believe this change has finally happened. Best case scenario it continues on a progressive track and social workers and allies are highly involved in it. I expect it will still take a lot of time, effort and smarts to keep the momentum up and no doubt fight off a huge backlash. Kia kaha, David.

Yep David plenty struggle ahead – we have had thirty years of a slide to the political right and a lot of vested $ interests will be licking their wounds and plotting to run this little Prague spring out of town. No laurels to rest in – the fight for social justice and a more engaged humane social work remains ahead – so we can enjoy the day but tomorrow it is game on for young and old!

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