The ‘New Normal’?

A guest post by Mike O’Brien

The focus for the last few weeks has been on health (containing/eliminating the virus) and the economy – getting business going again. These priorities are what are seen to matter, even to the extent that last weekend one commentator argued that “the very basis of our society is business” (Sunday Start Times, April 12). Health matters, the economy matters, but is that all that matters?

Discursive emphases at this time set the tone and shape for how and what we plan for and prioritise in the society that lies ahead. I want to argue here for a focus too on the social, alongside health and the economy. Many commentators have highlighted the pending levels of unemployment, of social dislocation and the unequal impacts and experiences of Covid-19. But where is the reconstruction of the social in this discussion? Does the comparative neglect and low priority of the social (other than social distancing, a problematic phrase in its own right) mean business as usual: BAU in the sense of the old residual welfare state where ‘the social’ is left (again) to tidy up the mess, deal with the fractures, mop up the consequences of economic and racial inequality?

There have been economic packages, wage subsidies, education packages, measures for the film industry, the list goes on. Yes, there have been important benefit increases, too little, but an important step. But where is the comprehensive package for the social services? We know that a crisis in service demand is building.  Stories abound too about three and fourfold increases in food parcels, accommodation for the homeless, increases in domestic violence. The big gap is a clear plan and strategy to support and empower social life – collectively, culturally, organisationally and financially. Social workers should have a key role in this.

A recurrent theme in the discussions and debates of the last few weeks has been the ‘new normal’. What might that ‘new normal’ look like in the social sphere? Some core priorities would have to include meaningful implementation of what it means to be bicultural and to ‘recognise the Treaty’, a comprehensive programme to reduce and ideally eliminate poverty (especially child poverty), provision of affordable and accessible housing, ready access to social and economic assistance through MSD, better services and programmes for those with a disability, comprehensive initiatives to reduce and respond to child abuse and neglect. This vision requires the development of programmes and processes which are inclusive, eliminating the exclusiveness that comes with othering. And this is only a partial list!

None of this will happen until and unless what we loosely call ‘the social sector’ articulates what ‘the new normal’ should look like for Aotearoa/New Zealand and for social services – and puts that package of planning alongside the health and economic packages. And perhaps that is where the issues lie. We can quite readily identify the neglect of the sector and of the needs of those with and for whom it works – and we can also readily identify the powerful forces which create and sustain that neglect. But our own voices have been very quiet in naming what ‘the new normal’ might look like, in part perhaps because we have been very engaged in responding to the effects of the current stresses.

However, unless we set out what our new normal looks like it will be BAU, probably worse than what we have had for the last three decades. Those who had political and economic power at the middle of March will want to ensure (and are already working to ensure) that what emerges protects and advances their interests. But, aren’t many of those interests really part of the problem? The new normal must be better than that, much better. It is time to articulate new visions and to press for them vigorously, with at least as much energy as is demonstrated by vested economic interests.

So, what might some of this look like? There are immediate needs that must be responded to – income, food, shelter, access to medical care. We have seen many wonderful acts of kindness in the last few weeks that come from a sense of acting for the collective good. It is that collective good (rather than individual interest) that can (and must) be harnessed in the new normal. That means significant social and economic changes.

What would a package that included those changes look like? It would start by asking what it actually means – at a range of different levels – to be a truly bicultural society that is reflected in how we make decisions, who gets to make what decisions and in the allocation and reallocation of resources accordingly? Big questions, but questions that need to lie at the heart of a recreated new normal.

There’s a second big one; how do we ensure that everybody has an adequate income (however we define that) so that we make big inroads into the blight of poverty, of homelessness and lack of access to appropriate housing – that  families have sufficient food to  meet the needs of all family/whanau members and that everybody is assured a real opportunity to participate in Aotearoa New Zealand society. This means that our wage, tax and benefit system must undergo major change to ensure better and fairer income distribution. A more progressive tax system must include a meaningful capital gains tax.

Third, for the social services sector itself, how do we organise, deliver and fund services in ways that are bicultural, in ways that enable genuine participation for users, engage meaningfully with the many diverse communities which we serve, ensure that those working in the sector (in their various capacities) are appropriately recognised, rewarded and enabled to be professional in ways that advance the well-being of the individuals, whanau and communities they engage with.

These are all big asks and there are many others to add to the list. The daily work of social work practitioners and the organisations in which they are employed are potentially at the centre of this. There will be great pressure (from various quarters and often with the best of intentions) to remain focused on the daily demands. Goodness knows, they will be heavy enough in the new normal. But this won’t be sufficient if we are going to be part of creating a better social model.

Now, more than ever, social workers and all socially concerned citizens will have to give real voice and application to the social justice part of their mandate.  That means articulating a vision for the new normal which looks above the daily parapet, joins with colleagues and supporters from different places to set out a new picture, a genuinely different picture which will give practical meaning to the new normal for those we work with, for our colleagues and for ourselves in all aspects of our lives. This is a time, despite the social distress ahead, to aim for real change in the social. 

It is a daunting, but exciting, task. That has never discouraged social workers in the past. We will in fact simply be picking up a baton that is well embedded in our history and we can then plant this flag (to mix metaphors) in the years that lie ahead.

Image Credit: Michala Lipvoka

4 replies on “The ‘New Normal’?”

Kia Ora Mike -Thanks very much for this important contribution. The question about why no talk of expanded social work services in the face of pending recession (unemployment, poverty and struggle) raises crucial issues. Over the last thirty years, in neoliberal times (within the dominant politics of liberal market individualism) much activity that passes for social work has been about rationing, risk assessment and enforcement of individual and family discipline – and, of course, doing this in efficient and evidence-based ways!

I wonder have politicians and others lost sight of the capacity of social work to do more than this. As you say, we need to look up from the grind-stone – how can social work meet new need in new times in ways consistent with a politics of social democracy? Can we be a relevant profession ( among others) or have we become too blind to see what could be done? Perhaps a re-imagining / reasserting / reclaiming of the whanau / community / social support functions of social work is needed.

Kia ora Mike,

Fantastic post, as a profession we can lead the social changes needed but we also should, IMHO, our voice to the economic discussion that will no doubt be all consuming very shortly. The only contribution I have is the wee list I wrote on the ANZASW FB page of what I thought might be good things to add to the ‘new normal’ moving forward. I have copied it below:

April 13

I started writing a wee list, it is not everything that I have been thinking about. A lot of this is Aotearoa specific however some can be transferred onto the global scene.

I invite you all to add to this list. Maybe we can have an Aotearoa New Zealand Social Worker view of our post pandemic society?

In no particular order:

• Free education – while some of us could afford to pay for our degrees a great number had to take out loans or just didn’t attend university because it was just too expensive. It should not be that we. There are a number of countries in the world where university is free or it is hugely subsidised. Everyone, who wants to, should be given the chance to attend higher learning in whatever field they desire

• The implementation of a living wage – let us (the global ‘us’) stop pretending that people can survive on a minimum wage. May be now that a large part of the population has learnt to survive on virtually nothing there may be some empathy with those that have to live on a minimum wage every day.

• Fruit and vegetables to be GST Free – Make eating healthier cheaper for all of us. It isn’t rocket science. For those economists worried about the loss in revenue, increase the tax revenue on alcohol. God knows it causes a hell of a lot of harm to NZ communities.

• Being bilingual myself I place immense importance on the power of language. I would like to see Te Reo Māori taught at the same level as English in New Zealand schools. If we truly are bi-cultural then let us all embrace one of our official languages and become bilingual. Bilingual nations do exist around the world, it is only political will that stops us from doing the same.

• Add warning labels on all alcohol and increase the tax on it. The same as they do on cigarettes.

• Embrace Circular Economic processes and thinking before it is too late

Over to you good folk

Kia ora Mike,
You’ve been one of my ‘above the parapet’ role models for many years. I agree with your pleas not to neglect a focus on the ‘social’. I’ve been aware of the early and significant response made by community, iwi and marae groups and also see that as usual people are working without enough resource and often at their own risk.
The Global Agenda for SW and the SDGs clearly include the social alongside economic and environmental imperatives and state that none of these takes precedence over the others but must be seen as an integrated whole. Perhaps we’d be wise to refer to our international instruments to support our case to move towards a more social justice focus. As many have said, the rhetoric is clearly there in our professional codes and vision statements. Time for us to get serious about reclaiming a professional identity that fits the rhetoric.

From listening alongside many social work advocates, I believe the new Normal must embrace the economy of affection (meaning, the meaning in our spiritual emotional intellectual physical cultural way of being in relationships here, together). Yes while these often disappoint and may seem, imperfect, Rumi ,beloved Sufi poet reflected how -in our imperfection, our brokenness, we are perfectly placed to heal this world
(No one else is better placed to begin than those whom admit they know those cracks, sags, inconsistencies, and hope…). Mike. Thank you. You have placed down again a wonderful baton and on it, a flag of examples… ‘many wonderful acts of kindness in the last few weeks that come from a sense of acting for the collective good. It is that collective good (rather than individual interest) that can (and must) be harnessed in the new normal’.
That many wonderful workers are writing – reading here, then does highlight that in words then action, we have begun to Occupy this new Normal!

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