Social well-being: A radical change of course or soft neoliberalism?

The Government promised us capitalism with a human face. To be fair, serious political attention is being directed at the social consequences of capitalism for the first time in decades. However, the soothing language of wellbeing can be deceptive. I think it is important to understand that this public policy initiative has serious limitations which are disguised in the current political context. Aotearoa New Zealand (ANZ) is a small liberal capitalist society. This model of economic, social and political arrangements sets the possibilities for reform and limits our perceptions of alternatives. I will argue here that we need to think outside of the liberal capitalist box if we are to imagine (and make) real distributive change.

Neoliberalism and capitalism aren’t the same thing. Capitalism is a system for organising ownership, production and distribution. Neoliberalism is a set of values, ideas and practices. It is a body of doctrine that has justified an aggressive form of globalised capitalism. Over the last forty years, in ANZ and comparable societies, neoliberal economics has involved more than getting the state out of the market-place. Neoliberalism requires the state to actively facilitate the capacity of private corporations to increase their profits. An upward redistribution of wealth has been intentional and the visible poverty which currently troubles us has been an inevitable consequence of adopting this model of development.

As Garrett (2018) suggests, neoliberalism can be accurately described as “a counter-revolution against welfare capitalism (Fairclough & Graham, 2002, p.21)”. Neoliberalism is also more than economics. It is a way of understanding and acting in the world that positions individuals to meet the needs of capital. We are impelled to become entrepreneurs of ourselves and our futures, particularly those of our children. Not everyone can succeed in this game and the wages of success are accompanied by anxiety and insecurity (Sugarman, 2015). However, it is those on the margins of society who suffer the most.

Like all socio-economic regimes, liberal capitalism requires consent. The aim of reproducing subjects to meet the needs of the dominant social and economic system is not new. While imprisoned by the Italian government in the early 1930s, Antonio Gramsci wrote that a function of the state is to “… raise the great mass of the population to a particular cultural and moral level (or type) which corresponds to the needs of the productive forces of development, and hence to the interests of the ruling classes” (Hoare, Nowell-Smith & Gramsci, 1971). In relation to the history of public policy and child welfare Featherstone, Gupta, White & Morris (2018) assert that “…with the exception of a few decades of the 20th century, history shows a strong tendency towards individual social engineering to produce model citizens with parenting practices the primary focus of state attention.” (p.27).

Ferguson (2004) argues that the late nineteenth century response to the threat posed by modern urban poverty was “… to contract out, mainly to social work, the job of dealing with the ‘refuse’ of modernity.” However, there have always been tensions in this arrangement. Social work is not always a compliant control mechanism. Social workers see the fruits of inequality and exploitation. They are apt to develop an inconvenient understanding of the need for political and economic solutions. Governments, by contrast, are prone to identify scientific practices as the most efficient means to address the contradictions of capitalism – including the human fall-out. It is unsurprising that our current government looks to science to provide solutions to poverty, disadvantage and social division in modern ANZ.

In neoliberal times, social policy has become increasingly punitive towards a certain section of the population (Parton, 2014). The sanctioning of costly and unproductive benefit-dependent citizens is the most obvious example. Social work has not been immune to this discourse. In the English context Gupta, Featherstone, Morris & White (2018, p. 24) further describe an “… increasingly inward focus on brains, psyches and individual homes” in concert with state austerity, rising numbers of care orders and forced adoptions. Poverty has become associated with brain development and biology. Along with permanent removal there has been an exponential growth in evidence-based parenting programmes. Mothers are encouraged to parent their children out of poverty.

The Expert Panel on Modernising Child Youth and Family (2015) recommended a move away from child protection practice centred on crisis intervention and family reintegration to the concept of early and intensive intervention. The Panel also recommended timely permanent removal of children when it is not possible for birth families to provide the required care. Family-centred trauma is the named problem. Rescue and love are identified as the answer. This reform process was informed by neoliberal ideology and constructed within a social investment policy framework. Failing individual citizens are understood as packages of future cost to the state in terms of benefits, prisons and health. Individual and collective liability is the target of intervention.

As we know, there was significant push-back from Māori interests and social services groups against this simplistic understanding of cause and consequence. Compromises – and arguably confusion – are reflected in the final principles of the amended legislation (Devaney, 2018).  We also have significant research that points to a steep social gradient in child protection practice (Keddell, Davie & Barson, 2018). Children from the most deprived families in ANZ are around ten times more likely than the children of the most affluent families to be removed into care. Systemic poverty and inequality matter. Care numbers continue to rise as does the proportion of Māori. It remains to be seen whether the development of intensive intervention and prevention services will alter this pattern.

It is also important to recognise that the political context of the ongoing reform process has changed with the formation of the current coalition government. We are told that we have moved from a Social Investment to a Social Wellbeing lens. An early Cabinet Social Wellbeing Committee paper (April 2018) is at pains to assert that this approach is a “marked departure” from the “narrow” social investment approach. But, is it really? Or, is it more akin to disciplining the disadvantaged with the gloves on rather than off?

Neoliberalism is not one-dimensional. In the U.S context, Nancy Fraser (2017) contrasts the “reactionary neoliberalism” (purely representing the interests of financialised capital) with the more marketable “progressive neoliberalism” seen in the Democrat Party politics of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton: the inclusion of liberal feminism and multiculturalism within elite politics. Garrett (2018) has coined the term Rhetorically Recalibrated Neoliberalism to describe a softer, re-branded variant of neoliberal capitalism.

Our centre-left coalition is working hard to build aspirational consensus. The April 2018 policy document (above) talks about a more ethical approach to data usage, building resilience, enabling choice, diversity, inclusion and partnered delivery. Services for the most in need are described as “proportionate universalism” rather than “targeting”. However, a focus on problems at the family level remains central. The more developed (June 2018) engagement setting paper – “Child Wellbeing Strategy – Scope and Public Engagement Process” – does make an explicit connection between poverty and wellbeing. It speaks of “mitigating the effects of child poverty and social disadvantage” – focusing on core populations of interest. It also makes links to the Child Poverty Reduction Bill which appears to be big on targets but light on mechanisms.

This strategy discussion document draws on a detailed appendix which defers to the wisdom of the Government’s science advisors. The science in question is associated with the medicalised psychological / behavioural social sciences – the sort of science that tells you about how to fix families and individuals. Vigilant social workers can be trained to intervene with a selective suite of evidence-based tools. Poverty is a factor in a list rather than an over-arching cause of social suffering. Two of the six suggested policy focus points in the document relate to early years development – the first 1,000 days and the period between two and six. Early intervention is prescribed as an antidote to social failure. This thinking is consistent with the biologised discourse so thoroughly critiqued by Gillies, Edwards & Horsley, 2017 – (see also Beddoe & Joy, 2017).

Now, don’t get me wrong. Coalition social policy is a significant improvement on that of the outgoing regime. But let’s not kid ourselves that it has rejected the neoliberal template or that the science which informs it is ideologically neutral. It is always instructive to consider what is left out of the narrative. In the social wellbeing agenda there is no mention of the logic of capitalism – the profit driven socio-economic system which determines the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity in our society. There is no reference to class, exploitation, economically produced and reproduced inequality. No mention of social exclusion, social violence, precarious labour. Effectively, there is no consideration of the root causes of social and economic injustice and no plan to significantly redistribute wealth or economic power. Why would there be?

So, don’t be fooled, we are not there yet.  There is a long way to go if we are to develop an economically, culturally and socially just model of child and family welfare in Aotearoa New Zealand. And there is a long way to go to develop a sustainable democratic socialist state. This is not a time for complacency in my humble opinion.

Image credit: Frans de Wit



Beddoe, E., & Joy, E. (2017). Questioning the uncritical acceptance of neuroscience in child and family policy and practice: A review of challenges to the current doxa. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work Review, 29(1), 65-76.  doi.10.11157/anzswj-vol29iss1id213

Cabinet Social Wellbeing Committee. Towards Investing in Social Wellbeing. NZ Govt. 12 April 2018.

Cabinet Social Wellbeing Committee. Social Wellbeing Strategy – Scope and Public Engagement Process. NZ Govt. 8 June 2018.

Devaney, E.  Are We There Yet? The Journey to Oranga Tamariki the Ministry for Vulnerable Children: An Analysis of the Law Reform Process (June 20, 2018). Available at SSRN.

Expert Panel – Modernising Child, Youth and Family (2015) – Final Report. Wellington, NZ: NZ Govt.

Featherstone, Gupta, Morris & White (2018). Protecting Children:  a social model. Bristol, U.K: Policy Press.

Ferguson, H. (2004). Protecting children in time: Child abuse, child protection and the consequences of modernity. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fraser, N. From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump – and Beyond. American Affairs. Winter, 2017. Vol.1 (4).

Garrett, P.M. (2018). What are we talking about when we talk about ‘neoliberalism’? European Journal of Social Work. DOI: 10.1080/13691457.2018. 1530643

Gillies, V., Edwards, R., & Horsley, N. (2017). Challenging the politics of early intervention – Who’s ‘saving’ children and why. Bristol, U.K: Policy Press.

Hoare, Q., Nowell-Smith, G., Gramsci, Antonio. (1891-1937). (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York: International publishing.

Keddell, E., Davie, G., & Barson, D. (2018). Child welfare inequalities: understanding the evidence base. Presentation at Social Policy and Social Work, Dublin.

Parton, N. (2014). The politics of child protection: contemporary developments and future directions. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sugarman, J. (2015). Neoliberalism and Psychological effects. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. 35(2), 103-116.


3 replies on “Social well-being: A radical change of course or soft neoliberalism?”

Ian, your opinion is anything but humble! As per usual, your words here are inspiring!

Your points on what is missing from the policy are the truly significant parts of this piece. All too often we do not look deeply enough and only take things at face value.

While social workers are often considered critical thinkers, we also find ourselves increasingly in positions where we cannot act (such as the ‘gag’ clauses in government roles). Why do we social workers continue to be gagged? You are right Ian; this is not a time of complacency. We social workers need to start to rise and fight for those in which we have dedicated our lives and careers for!

That is what I hope for at least, in my truly humble opinion!

Hi Reece – Thanks. No-one has all the answers but a critical stance (thinking beyond what is presented / considering what is not said and wondering why – who controls the narrative? – always helps you in social work). You get to see the structures of society and the social relations of oppression in the lives of people. You also need to take people one at a time and realise that we are all fallible – and you can’t fight every battle all at once – but you can fight some e hoa and there are plenty good people who do understand that our society can and should be more economically and socially just. Social justice needs to be the horizon – not wellbeing in an unjust society. Pardon the rant – and look after yourself. Ian

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