Imagining a world where we needed fewer social workers

A guest post by David Kenkel

One of the strange ironies of our profession is that the social and economic conditions that create the need for our existence are also what we all seek to change. Reading between the lines of budget 2020, it seems likely there will be more jobs for social workers and better resourced social services. The tragic part though is that little will happen to change the economic circumstances of those we work with. It is admirable that this government recognises the need for expanded social services at this time. It is not admirable that they seem unwilling to truly address the underlying structural issues which create this need.

Budget 2020 is unprecedented in terms of a modern response to a global pandemic. With its $50 billion pledge to fight the imminent COVID-19 economic crash and the immediate allocation of $15.9 billion to stabilising services and aiding recovery, much of the Government’s spending announced on Thursday last is directed at keeping New Zealanders working or providing pathways and support into training and employment.

But what does Budget 2020 mean for those who are least protected from the mounting economic recession? Will Budget 2020 mean more money in the pockets of those in greatest need?  And, importantly, did Aotearoa really need a lethal pandemic to make it clear that the free market approach does not deliver collective social well-being?  While it is encouraging to see significant investment in job protection, job creation, training and a boost to housing and services for Māori communities, it is not immediately clear that this will mean much for the large number of children in Aotearoa who live in poverty.

The Government has pledged to spend roughly $1 billion on crisis welfare initiatives, with $412m allocated to social services and $252m toward feeding New Zealanders through a massive expansion of the free school lunches scheme and more funding for food banks. This will provide much needed support to families in dire straits through provision of services in our schools, via social service providers and community groups. However, the initiative does not equate to more disposable income for economically marginalised and struggling families.

The correlation between families living on incomes that are too low and a reduction in the well-being of children is blindingly obvious and remains largely unaddressed in the Budget announcement. It’s good to hear that there will be more apprenticeship schemes for young people, but I’m not so sure that means much for a four-year-old whose mum faces a weekly struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table. As was the case with last year’s ‘Well-being Budget’, there has been no dollar increase in benefits and, in light of COVID-19, no additional support for excluded migrant workers.

The irony of this sudden lurch towards what some are calling ‘crisis socialism’ is that the social fabric of New Zealand has in fact been in slow burn crisis for decades. While Budget 2020 contains many measures to mitigate the immediate impact of recession on the lives of New Zealanders, some of the moves that are being made should have happened 15 years ago. If we had acted then, a great deal of suffering could have been avoided for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. However, increased financial security for beneficiaries and our lowest paid workers is still absent from this package. 

Accordingly, despite much good news in Budget 2020, I remain concerned for our country’s poorest families and their children. The New Zealanders with the least voice have largely been left out. Raising the income (and improving the lives) of those ‘most vulnerable’ to a capitalist economy – and ensuring that people are not reliant on charity for food – would go some way to alleviating a great deal of unnecessary hardship in a land of plenty. Are we somehow still wedded to the nineteenth century doctrine of poverty as the spur of capitalism?

We must continue to work toward decreasing the stark divide between rich and poor in Aotearoa. This gap has rapidly reached obscene proportions and will only be widened by the present pandemic fall-out. A lasting remedy demands more than crisis aid and investment in the long-term growth of a productive low wage economy. Real and sustainable economic reform also entails more than merely distributing resources more equitably, necessary and desirable as this may be.

A fundamental shift in the power balance between private capital and the working class is necessary. This entails rejecting the economic and political doctrines of neoliberalism and top-down managerialism – promoting the development of workplace democracy; worker control of decision making and the progressive reform of ownership structures. Decision making authority and profit accumulation need to be separated from the self-serving interests of the business elite. There is nothing benevolent about historical or contemporary capitalism. As Doreen Massey argues, we need to think critically, question accepted wisdom and the ‘vocabularies of the possible’ which confine our social and political imaginations.

Underlying class struggle will not be resolved by placing boxes of food on the doorsteps of those who have been shut out of a decent life. The capitalist economic system is based on the uneven accumulation of wealth through the imposition (and ideological ‘naturalisation’) of exploitative social relations. Human labour is sold in the market place like any other commodity and private profit is extracted. This is the perennial political and economic bone to be picked if the demand for social work services is to be genuinely alleviated. Radical change may not happen tomorrow but it it is possible in the longer term and it is necessary if equality is to be achieved in Aotearoa and across the globe.

(*An amended version of this piece was first published by the Tertiary Education Union)

Image creditDaniel Grosvenor


Massey, D. (2013). Vocabularies of the economy. Soundings, 54. Retrieved from:

8 replies on “Imagining a world where we needed fewer social workers”

Re “However, increased financial security for beneficiaries and our lowest paid workers is still absent from this package.” – yes well there is a reason for this- Welfare policy making is politically captured by the socially and economically embedded principle of constructing “welfarism” – within the moral value judgment of “less eligibility”…..  Link example
Re “…..will not be resolved by placing boxes of food on the doorsteps of those who have been shut out of a decent life” –
But communities are blinded by being psychologically programmed with the use of “poverty porn” in fundraising promotions, and media reporting, to be addicted to the ‘warm fuzzies’ this activity generates for them – unless of course they are the people on the receiving end of “charity” long term, in which case the process takes on more of a ‘prison’ like construction-the “jailer” identified as a role for the neighborhood.
“….. Real and sustainable economic reform also entails more than merely distributing resources more equitably, necessary and desirable as this may be. ….. ….. [It’s good to hear that there will be more apprenticeship schemes for young people,] but I’m not so sure that means much for a four-year-old whose mum faces a weekly struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table. ….”
Under ( even Capitalist systems ) ‘work’ is only (morally) worthwhile if it provides the worker with a living income. Anything else is effectively slavery. A good start would be more than a top up of benefit payments, it requires a realistic look at who should be in the paid workforce, and who should be supported for taking time out, or for working in caring services needed within the community.
(joke) How can supporters of the status quo really visualize Clark Gayford setting out at 8am for a day dishing out Fish ‘n Chips behind the local takeaway counter – while Jacinda looks after Neve after pulling an “all nighter” in Parliament?
The average house hold may not have responsibility for running NZ but all over NZ, working age households face this and similar situations every day.
A parental leave payment for at least 1 parent of a couple; or guaranteed social security income entitlements for children and young people. In the instance of parents who have a child with a disability, sole parenting, there should be increased employment opportunities and professional supports and services for parents to be enabled to choose whether to remain or not in employment outside the home. ….. but oops! what about the process of growing the foster and daycare care industry?
And what is the point of expecting older workers to be encouraged to feel obligated to participate in full time work – especially when young newly trained and experienced working age people are queuing up for employment? There is no reason why older people or those with pressing domestic responsibilities shouldn’t have a choice to continue at different levels of employment rather that have to put up with a “all or nothing” career decision making environment. Is it conscionable to support the ‘valorization’ of older workers, or sole parents, or people living with disabilities who work full time; in socially and emotionally unhelpful ways? eg in a way which places this expectation on ALL older workers to remain in paid employment and in the same breath advocate to raise the age of eligibility for NZ Superannuation, just because a number of people are able and choose to remain working?
Do these people have any clues about what sort of society NZ would wind up with if they got their way?

You make some very good points. Thank you! One of the things that concerns me about this budget and, what it indicates about the ideological position of our current government is the focus on work / training / apprenticeships et cetera as the sole pathway toward economic and social well-being. While it certainly focuses on equalising opportunity. It does not dig deeper into the fundamental question of equalising outcome. To me it feels like socialism writ super-light. As a thought experiment: can we all imagine a utopian situation where those that choose, (or have chosen for them), staying at home to care for children being paid at CEO rates rather than being forced to live in poverty and then bullied back into the workplace as soon as possible? Arguably, parents who do the hard yards with kids contribute more to the social well-being fabric of New Zealand the than your average CEO. Maybe mums at home With kids deserve 100 K salaries.? It is certainly a tougher job than 9 to 5 and tough decisions made effect far more than the well-being of employees. Rather they affect the future of our social structure.

Re- ” Maybe mums at home With kids deserve 100 K salaries.?” There’s miles of difference between advocating for an income which keeps food on the table and a roof overhead, and the expectation of a “CEO salary”. Maybe the CEO salary expectation is the problem.
It is a systemic issue. Many working households feel resentment towards someone receiving social security, and prefer to put effort into undermining Unions, and ‘bashing’ social security recipients at election time, in order to avoid offending their employer by demanding he/she actually pay for their time; and; the retail industry playing their role- being so wedded to the idea of cheaper cheaper cheaper – that they resent paying their employees what they owe them …. and wonder why working in retail can be so ‘difficult’.

You are quite right about it being a systemic issue and i think the resentment shown toward beneficiaries has been carefully nurtured by a neo-liberal regime. I think also as carefully nurtured is the public acceptance of CEO’s getting massive salaries as of right. I was partly tongue in cheek suggesting stay at home parents should get CEO salaries. And, its always interesting to put out an idea that runs so countervailing to dominant norms. Its a way to get those norms more visible. I do remain appalled at little parenting by the poor is valued and supported in NZ.

Re- “I do remain appalled at little parenting by the poor is valued and supported in NZ.” There’s a “reason” for that too – “Eugenicly” conceived social policy making- which has been turned into ‘hatefulness’ towards “the poor”. It is a very predatory belief system, which sadly attracts the wrong sort of person into positions of power within social services and politics. People wanting to change this need to study the latest research on the present day Eugenic movement. The Third Reich fell decades ago, but the idea it was built upon did not die. The same values abandon incarcerated people and detained immigrants — along with the sick and elderly — to die. They aren’t productive. They might need things.

It is interesting to note that now that the latest beneficiaries are pakeha returning from overseas because of COVID19 some people and commentators are realising that current benefit rates are impossible to exist on!!!
Watch the social welfare ship change course!

Yes, good point – I think WINZ will get a thorough shake-up as it starts to get an influx of middle-class unemployed.The really sad part here is that WINZ has over the last 10 years in many ways developed into a punishing device for the poor. And, perhaps it is only with the influx of returning New Zealanders and middle-class newly unemployed that the cruelty that WINZ has displayed will begin to matter to the New Zealand public. Somehow, this speaks to me of what Max Rashbrooke called the growing empathy gap in New Zealand. Wearing my optimistic hat, it is possible that facing a shared catastrophe that affects so many; ordinary New Zealanders will move away from the distancing and contemptuous attitude toward the poor that neo-liberalism has encouraged.

Hi David

i find so much of what you have written that shows the complete lack of comprehension that at the heart of this – and many other governments approach to the provision of social supports.

as you say no amount of food parcels will creat a society taht is fundamentally fair for all — or taht creates a relatively level playign field – or at least one taht everyone can get onto in teh first place.

what i really struggle with is borrowing 50 billion – rising to 200 billion dollars over 4 years ( minimum) and doing nothing wiht it that actually fundamentally changes our society. All the announcements are more like a rush back to before – but with more spending on social services — yes more food banks – more DV centres a bit more Whanau Ora — and some other lollies for poorer and more marginalised individuals – but NOTHING that actually changes their options and lives.

Where was a radical reform of the tax system that allowed people earnign 50-60K to keep what they earn — and not be taxed so taht they need a handout back! Where was a transferrable tax allowance — to allow couples ( of all gender mixes) to facilitate one parent staying at home more

Kiwibuil 100,000 home, now becomes 1600 a year for five years- all state owned — not community housing with shared ownership / rent to buy options

why are we creating low wage jobs cutting trees and cleaning river – instead of high wage options- like the technology to keep the rivers clean in the first place

why the government rush back to offices and commutes — instead of maintaining a lot of homeworking- more efficient, family friendly and as we have seen with the imrpovemetns in air and watere quility – great for the environment.

why build another two lane highway — when we could and should be putting ultra fast fibre into every home in NZ –better to spend some of the 50billion on free internet for everyone in NZ

We keep hearing the term unprecendented times– yet the rebuild/budget response is back to what we did before but with a little more in teh way of handouts — and very little in teh way of hand ups

At teh same time the deputy primeminister is essentially advocating xenaphobic responses – send all migrants and workign visas home –

The tragic part – is our children and their children will be paying this 200billon – use the figure over 4 years not one – back for decades to come — but none of it is beign used to undermine the structural inequities that exist today in NZ —

As it stands – teh message Social Workers can give – is theres lots more handouts availble to get you through — not lots more opportunity for you and your family/Whanau to take control your own lives and reach for your dreams

To put the 50 billion extra this year alone in persecptive — the total extra amounts for one year only – announced pre covid 19 as some of the biggest investments ever were – 380M for mental health ( 1.9bill over 4 years) -400 million for teachers – 20 million for Domestic violence – 5 million for Whanau ora –12 million for prioner reintegration programs —

A succession of governments have introduced and reinforced things like Working for families, Accommodation supplemants, Temporary Assistance – all of which were nothign more than election bribes – most of which ended up in landlords pockets –

The money invested – and thats a loose description – could easily have been directed to reducing tax for individuals belw say 60K or family groupings up to 110K – allowign them to keep what they earned — and the self respect and esteem that they worked hard for.

Yes some rich people may also have benifited — but A – the idea is not to make rich people poor — its to make poorer people richer — and B – just raise the tax rates for incomes above 150K – to compensate for what was gained — its not hard to do – hell set up another working group to show you!

This will be without doubt – and by a huge margin — the biggest single debt issue in our lifetime – and therefore the largest single investment.

Whilst we at least technically have a Labour government to make it — it would appear that they require a massive amount of lobbying from our profession and the industries we work in – to ensure far more of it gets spent stopping the need for food parcels not increasing the availability and dependance on them

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