How come we don’t do ‘Poverty Informed Practice’?

A guest post by David Kenkel

I am sure many of you will have noticed that ‘trauma informed practice’ has become a bit of a new buzzword in the world of social work. By contrast, why is the theory and practice of ‘poverty informed practice’ developed by Krumer-Nevo (2016; 2017) and others backgrounded and de-emphasised in our current context?

It is important to say that there are many earnest, well-intentioned and competent social workers and researchers who write about trauma informed care/practice. Writers such as Levenson (2017) are not part of some massive deliberate conspiracy to promote the neoliberal norm of individualising problems at the expense of a structural and broader societal view of social struggles. Instead, they are doing exactly what Antonio Gramsci described (Gramsci, 1971).

Gramsci, the Sardinian Marxist intellectual imprisoned until his death by Mussolini’s Fascist regime, wrote about dominant doxa – working with ideas and approaches that seem perfectly sensible without an espoused awareness that in doing so we are promoting one view of the world at the expense of others. The relocation of problems into the realm of individual responsibility has become perfectly sensible under a neo-liberal hegemony. What has become an un-sensible and a far less ‘speakable’ discourse is that the problems of individual families might, predictably, be to do with the structural situations in which society places them in, i.e., poverty.

What is now very clearly understood by writers across a range of critical Left perspectives is that neoliberalism – as a cultural and political philosophy – loathes collective approaches and will always opt for causation narratives which individualise responsibility for life outcomes. This is clearly illustrated in the writings of internationally influential and corporate-funded neoliberal think-tanks and their ‘research’ projects (Aschoff, 2015; Han, 2017; Harvey 2013; Kenkel, 2005 & 2020; Mayer, 2016; Pilon, 2017).

Accordingly it is not very surprising that the social work profession has accommodated a ‘trauma’ approach that appears to offer a compassionate recognition of the struggles of individuals and families, while also allowing a degree of mental sidestepping regarding the known reality that poverty, in and of itself, is a damaging and traumatising experience (Brown, Cohen,  Johnson & Salzinger, 1998; Duva & Metzger,2010; Sedlak,, Mettenburg, Basena, Petta, McPherson, Greene and Li, 2010; Murali & Oyebode, 2004; Reeves, Mckee, Mackenbach, Whiteboard & Stuckler,2016; Szalavitz, 2011; Wynd, 2013).

What all these authors argue in various ways is that poverty is not great for mental health, and it makes it much tougher to parent children. This is not a revelation. It is merely a truth that gets less airplay, not because of a lack of validity, but because it contradicts a preferred ideological standpoint. What is much more soothing to the neoliberal ear is the tired old story that traumatised parents go on to traumatize their children and if we can fix them (one family at a time) the problems will go away. Understanding trauma and how to work with it is, of course, important. However, what is to be done when it is our historical and societal structures that have created the trauma of poverty in the first place? If this truth is accepted does the fix one family at a time approach to social work and social development still make sense?

Gramsci argued that the values, perspectives, and understandings of those who most benefit from social systems are (by a whole range of social arrangements) encouraged as the perfectly normal and ordinary understanding of the world for everybody. In this instance, those who most benefit from our current social systems are a large slice of mainstream New Zealand in the happy historical and politically derived circumstances of having been able to purchase one, two, three or more properties.

The notion that their comfortable financial status has come at the expense of pushing a large swathe of New Zealand’s population into a brutalising poverty is not a comfortable message. Hence (unsurprisingly) the prevailing neoliberal siren song that people choose their own paths in life and the poor have chosen unwisely is both attractive and pleasing – a wonderful anodyne for pangs of guilt about inherited privilege and the social destruction created by the neo-liberal wealth funneling policies of the last 35 years.  Aotearoa has become an increasingly divided society, with the gap between rich and poor continuing to grow. This is not an unlucky accident. It is the simple consequence of a series of policy decisions made over the last several decades (Rashbrooke, 2015).

An interesting slant for me as a lecturer in social work is that while there is a fairly continuous classroom dialogue about the influence of neoliberalism and its negative effect on those we work with (particularly the impact of poverty), this is not generally replicated (from what I see) in mainstream social work literature, or standards for practice. This translates to being gently encouraged by those in charge of national curriculum development to make sure that I teach at least something about trauma informed practice.  I am not similarly gently encouraged to teach poverty informed practice, or to provoke the radicalisation that this might inspire in graduates.

So, what might this poverty informed practice look like? **And a large thanks to the 2021 advocacy class for the spirited and interesting discussion that inspired this blog post (In conversation, 01-03-2021).

  • It might look like we (social workers) are out on the streets a lot protesting and pushing for change.
  • It might look like social work students and graduates needing to know a great deal more about the actual lived experience of poverty and its impacts so that our diagnostic lenses move away from individual deficit / trauma and towards collectively experienced burdens.
  • It might look like there is overt and clear articulation with the people we work with that a primary driver of their problems is poverty.
  • It might look like social workers becoming more skilled at teasing apart the subtle ways in which prevalent social discourses encourage the poor to blame themselves for their own circumstances.
  • It might look like those struggling to be parents on completely inadequate incomes are encouraged (by social workers) to become politically active with others and push for change. Solidarity might become a new buzzword!
  • It might look like, in solidarity with the people we work with, exploring how the heck you do / can survive on an inadequate income.
  • It might look like social work academics focusing on the impacts of poverty as a collective experience of a large proportion of New Zealand citizens, rather than more articles about the minutiae of individual practice.
  • It might even look like New Zealand needs a radical social work party or effective political lobby group – an organized body that consistently and persistently tells the other story – that lobbies strategically or even hoists a few MPs into the political system to be loud about that story.

In concluding …

I am not sure what might enable a poverty informed practice to rise to some degree of discursive authority?  A capacity to contest what can often seem the relentless tendency for social work doxa to see problems as located (and resolvable) at the individual / family level?

I am sure that dissent and struggle is needed and that keeping alight the radical flame that understands difficulties as outside of individual control is to also keep alive the moral and spiritual heart of our profession.

Image Credit: Eduardo Mueses



Brown, J. Cohen, P. Johnson, J. & Salzinger, S. (1998). A longitudinal analysis of risk factors for child maltreatment: findings of a 17-year prospective study of officially recorded and self-reported child abuse and neglect. Child Abuse & Neglect, 22(11) 1065–1078

Duva, J. Metzger, S. (2010). Addressing poverty as a major risk factor in child neglect: Promising policy and practice. Casey Family Services. Protecting Children 25(1), 63-74

Gramsci, A, 1891-1937. (1971).  Selections From the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.  In Hoare, Q., & In Nowell-Smith, G. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Han, Byung-Chul. (2017).  Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (Verso Futures). Verso. Kindle Edition.

Harvey, David. (2013). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Kenkel, D. (2005). Futurority:  Narratives of the future.100 point thesis submitted for Master of Arts in Social Policy. Massey University New Zealand.

Kenkel, D.J. (2020). Social Work in the Face of Collapse. Critical and Radical Social Work, 8, 1 – 14. doi:10.1332/204986020X15810733591637. Bristol University. United Kingdom.

Krumer-Nevo. M. (2016). Poverty-aware social work: A Paradigm for social work practice  with people in poverty. British Journal of Social Work, 46(6), 1793–1808.

Krumer-Nevo, M. (2017). Poverty and the political: Wrestling the political out of, and in to,  social work theory, practice, and research. European Journal of Social Work, 2,  811–22.

Levenson, J. (2017). Trauma-Informed Social Work Practice, Social Work, Volume 62, Issue 2, April 2017, Pages 105–113,

Mayer, Jane. (2016). Dark Money: how a secretive group of billionaires is trying to buy political control in the US. Scribe Publications Pty Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Murali, V & Oyebode, F. (2004). Poverty, social inequality and mental health. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2004), 10, 216–224

Pilon, R. (2017). Cato Handbook for Policy Makers. 8th edition. Retrieved from:

Rashbrooke, M. (2015). Wealth and New Zealand.  (BWB Texts Book 33) Bridget Williams Books. Kindle Edition.

Reeves,A, Mckee, M, Mackenbach, J, Whiteboard,M & Stuckler, D. (2016). Introduction of a National Minimum Wage reduced depressive symptoms in low-wage workers: A quasi-natural experiment In The UK. Health Economics. 1–17

Sedlak, A.J., Mettenburg, J., Basena, M., Petta, I., McPherson, K., Greene, A., and Li, S. (2010). Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS–4): Report to Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

Szalavitz, M. (2011). Yes, addiction does discriminate. The fix: addiction and recovery straight up. Home Features. USA.

Wynd, D. (2013). Child abuse: what role does poverty play? Child Poverty Action Group: Auckland, New Zealand.



28 replies on “How come we don’t do ‘Poverty Informed Practice’?”

At this time in history class should feature everywhere in theory and practice. NZ continues to resist this concrete reality. Government ignores it, neo tribal maoris continue to ignore it. Arrogant identity politics culture-politics is so steeped in technology, social media and cultural consumerism – class doesn’t exist in that fantasy. We must engage class division, poverty etc. now.

A very interesting point. I have always found it fascinating that the rise of identity politics marched in lockstep with the rise of the neoliberal hegemony. And, because one of the things that neoliberalism, (considered as a cultural discourse) is very good at is pretending that the current iniquitous state of the world is a natural inevitability rather than a created artefact. So, the assertion of diversity rights perhaps somewhat plays into the notion of all peoples being autonomous choosing subjects, rather than only autonomous in carefully constrained ways but otherwise positioned by history and circumstance.

So, I agree with you, class needs to be back on the table. As does the attending question of who gets what slice of the world’s resources and how is this determined?

Class, if it is to be a political force / analysis of any authority of course relies on collective solidarity and a recognition of common interest. Having had a good look around the neoliberal think tanks, it is very clear that any form of collectivity is seen as extraordinarily dangerous to the neoliberal worldview. So people getting together in recognition of shared struggle, which is what class politics is all about, is something that neoliberal ideologues work very hard to stop and silence.

I think personally, that the time is coming where very diverse identity groups will begin to recognise that the shared threat to our environment and, very apparent theft of most of the world’s resources by a very small group of people requires a collective approach. So, partial alliances recognising that there is a major threat to human well-being may form strong themes in the coming decades.
Whether that calls itself class analysis or not is less important than the reemergence of collective solidarity. Thank you for your comment. I found it thoughtful and inspiring

Hi David. Was your comment directed to me? If it was, thanks v much. I will read your post again and respond. All best.

Hiya- yessss. NZ governments seem to talk “big” about poverty and reform, even daring to use these two words in the same sentence when on the campaign trail; but, when in power a new and ‘unsympathetic’ reality hits home.
The corporate world places itself above political power systems, and, relies on the hierarchical nature of a “ring-fenced” dictatorship to thrive, and as such “poverty [deprivation of resources] is the supposed driver of these mechanisms. ie; the “s**t sandwich” method of social control; aiming to maintain a carefully calculated proportion of people in poverty, enough to terrify those who have a lot to loose by not towing the line.
[The label] “neo liberal” is just the same as the old “liberal” utilitarian concept, only with more technical tools of control. What sounds ‘egalitarian’ – eg “The greatest good for the greatest number” transcribes into anything but this for the majority of the population. However that is changing with the democratization of access to mass communications technology.
A mainstay of the [Utilitarianism] system is the ability to create and maintain systemic concentration camps for anyone not directly needed to participate in the cause of industrial progress and profit seeking. Use of this mechanism supposedly came up against a sudden and swift[ish] challenge to deal with the “fallout” created by WW2 and the “new deal”. [ ALBEIT not in every country]. Coercive control had to evolve or die. [quote example – wiki- “The workhouse system was abolished in the UK by the same Act on 1 April 1930, but many workhouses, renamed “Public Assistance Institutions”, continued under the control of local county councils.”
These institutions never “closed” they just evolved by way of the 3 layer social structure; True “democracy” for those who were able to buy it, ie have enough wealth and privilege to possess the ability to “duke it out for the prize” at the top, and gather an army of “groomed” assistance in the form of “the middle class” [who live under a variable reward system of socialism provided by “their” “elites”], and provide a barrier against the rest of the [excluded and weeded out] population. [think about how we treat our pets]. NB- ‘Conspiracy’ is only an optional component of this process.
“Eugenics”[as an excuse for oppression] is just as seductive to the 2/3 of the population mandated to benefit from this process in its political form, as its pseudo-scientific entity, and has much more versatility of form and as such possesses longer and more resilient shelf life!
Historically, post war, much of the misery of this “eugenically” conceived poverty was disguised because most of the [smaller] NZ population was included in family circles and the ‘socially constructed’ laws governing them were enforced informally, and publicly invisible, encased within family and localized communities. The impact on victims was publicly trivialized – eg family violence, the practice of ‘social’ euthanasia and coercive control through institutionalization of victims, a form of ‘exile’. The impact on “wives and children” in particular were “family affairs” not publicly exposed as they are today. Then, victims had no public voice.
It was also a reality that people were routinely killed off to enforce the socially constructed regime. eg; [historically] the welfare of returning war veterans and the ‘spent’ worker population was routinely neglected as they ‘weren’t supposed to survive’ the battlefield, or workplace to be able to ‘retire’ under this social regime, so no provision was made for this reality- or for the fact that people often survive by creating their own enclaves in the community. The world was a bigger place then.
This system and its consequences have been around for millennia. What is different now is the democratizing of access to mass electronic globally capable communication technology.
As such the aforementioned power structures are evolving into a metaphysical form. For example the issue of “welfare fraud”.
Such prosecutions and lawsuits do not recognize the constitutional rights of people who receive welfare, and are applied to hierarchically to restrict privacy, equal protection, and due process, according to individual social and economic status; treating people differently simply because they have been left with no choice but to accept welfare payments, and living in publicly provided housing supplied by taxing incomes and profits of existing elites and their cohorts to survive. To maintain this coercive control, existing social structures such as being a member of a “family” has to be maintained as a privilege reserved for those whose financial and social status allow it.
The [neo liberal] narratives serve a process of subjecting welfare recipients to legally enforced standards that do not apply to anyone else. The alternative of course is to support the systemic imposition of “starvation” and “homelessness”, which has been demonstrated as being alive and well by NZ’s “housing crisis”.
Our welfare [NZ] laws are not that dissimilar in principle to those which implemented the creation of the workhouse system, but are becoming increasingly unacceptable to the wider population. Watch this space!

Thanks Jayne,
What a fabulous response. Deeply thoughtful and I agree with a great deal of what you say. Perhaps deserving of a post on its own?
I wanted to pick up on just one point around what you state about eugenics. I tend to view the eugenics movement as one of those nasty notions that submerges for a time and then re-emerges. Very clearly it is re-emerging now in terms of how the poor are described and behaved toward, particularly, those within the sighting range of OT. Eugenics is a discourse that suits both fascistic Governments and also neoliberalism. In that, it’s a brilliant way to keep the middle classes on board, and produce / diagnose a perceived disgusting and dangerous ‘other’ that governments are then entitled to act upon with the support and inclusion of the middle classes. A very dangerous time. I am reminded of a post I did a few years ago where after some research I discovered that during the fascist era in Spain 300,000 children were uplifted from supposedly Communist/left-wing families and relocated into supposedly good thinking right wing families. The agency of uplifted course being some version of social workers. That is why I believe it is critically important that social workers as a broader profession continue to champion the notion that people’s lives are least seldom a function of individual choice, and more commonly, a product of social circumstances over which individual families have little control.

If we do not continue to champion a position recognising that broader social policies are often deeply iniquitous and position / diagnose some as choosing to fail in what purports to be a fair system, social work risks becoming just another arm of what look likely to be increasingly oppressive arm of the state as environmental conditions worsen and economies crash in consequence. Thank you again for your deeply thoughtful response, I would suggest you think about submitting it, (or something similar), to the reimagining social work blog as a post.

Sorry this is a bit long but I hope you’ll bear with me. I haven’t seen anyone open this particular can of worms on RSW yet. I am a ‘retired’ housewife, with no academic qualifications, and as such would require such a post to be supported by someone higher up in the academic food chain to have enough credibility to air such a controversial subject.
Re your comment, “I discovered that during the fascist era in Spain 300,000 children were uplifted from supposedly Communist/left-wing families and relocated into supposedly good thinking right wing families.”
Since you have brought this up, yes you’ve got this connection with current human rights based social policy making challenges in a nutshell.
NZ Social Workers are dealing with an external social and political culture which views vulnerable populations as an “economic resource”. NZ housing distribution is also administered in this way. That is why we have a “housing crisis”. It is a paradigm which is very difficult to shift, and places itself outside the scope of discussion about human rights.
My close relative was present [as a child,who narrowly escaped transportation herself], when a ‘shipment’ of these children arrived in the UK. Some of these children were taken in by the the UK NCH. Many were in terrible health. Also post WW2, children in care were ‘exported’ from UK to other commonwealth countries. Many of these children were told by the ‘care’ authorities that their parents had either ‘died in the bombing’ or worse ‘abandoned’ them.
The current global human rights campaign against human trafficking-in particular child trafficking- began when a social worker from a former children’s home blew the whistle on historic child abuse which occurred at the Hart de la Garenne, located in the Channel islands. The authorities tried to silence him so he used the fledgling Internet service to find victims. 160 people came forward. From there the rest is recent history!
This was a small chapter in what was – and still is a global predatory business network, which uses ‘Eugenic’ social policy focusing on ‘population control’ to justify its actions.
In NZ, the ‘abandonment’ narrative was used against children taken from unwed mothers for decades. There is a TV series which is based on this reality, set in Australia in the ’60s and ’70s. The opening sequence is particularly chilling, where a seemingly ‘loving’ father feeds sedatives to, his [pregnant] daughter and transports her to a home for unwed mothers. He arrives at the home, wakes her up and delivers her to the door half drugged with a suitcase and drives off. After viewing this compelling series I have come to a conclusion that the script writers used commentary from women who had these experiences. Some members of my peer group have talked about experiencing this type of abuse from their families.
In NZ I volunteered for a community organization where some of the women who attended had been dumped by their families into the psychiatric system. NZ mental health policy at that time was restricted to ‘individual’ psychiatric treatment and institutionalization used as a primary pathway to resolution for families. Relinquishing mothers’ babies were also a rich resource for the adoption and fostering industry. All this was considered ‘normal’ and the ‘right thing to do’ at that time.
This [NZ] Social policy was especially harsh on young women, and regarding matters about pregnancy and childbirth. Usually the women were too terrified to talk about their experiences, and it was not a good idea to ask. I emphasize that this social policy was adhered to when NZ was supposedly doing well economically.
It is made very difficult for victims to talk about these matters in public because of the backlash. Often public commentary is dismissed by being described in terms like “poverty porn” and “anecdotal”. The victims of Lake Alice were similarly dismissed but they did fight on.
The whole sorry mess is coming out, especially when NZ victims are interviewed by MSM. This presents an opportunity for social workers to rethink as individuals and as a social group, about what social policies will be accepted and what will be rejected. However the beneficiaries of the oppressive past will be a force to be reckoned with.
One fertile area of research is the use of Micro aggression by MSD and many other social services NGOs as a tool to facilitate the use of “managerialism ” to process social services applicants and ‘clients’ who are often at the mercy of their good will. link-
It is interesting that while there are increasing calls from academics and social services NGOs for “individualizing” welfare entitlements, regard for the “couples based social unit” persists as the primary focus of enforcing aggressive social mobility sanctions- even in the instance of social services recipients who are past reproductive age. In these instances the only reason for this remaining is NZ’s voter support and appetite for individually applied mass social oppression to reinforce social prejudice between welfare recipients and the [larger] financially independent community, and to enable restriction of opportunities for both social acceptance and social mobility for people receiving welfare payments as their main source of income.
It is of interest that there is now a plethora of social services payouts for wage support -eg The new Best Start payment (which comes into effect from 1 July 2018) is a universal (i.e., non-income tested) payment of $60 per week in respect of each child under the age of one year. Details of this and more can be found in this paper- “page 17- Individualizing entitlements in New Zealand’s benefit and social assistance systems -A report prepared for Superu” produced by The NZ Work Research Institute.
The amount MSD recipients receive in the main benefits however is not enough to pay for independent living expenses either, and supplementary payments like Accommodation Supplement are essential even when a person is not living alone.
Often the AS supplement is almost as much per household as the core benefit payments. And – it all goes to the NZ real estate industry. These wage supplements go some way to softening the impact of economic discrimination by housing providers, and preventing owner/occupier property mortgagee sales. Without it our homeless population would increase dramatically.
Quote from the same document [P2] “A range of significant impacts also affect couples, many of whom are ineligible for core benefit support if one partner becomes unemployed, even if the other partner’s income is at minimum wage levels.” Furthermore, the housing crisis means that increasing numbers of MSD recipients have no choice but to live in “shared” accommodation or face being homeless. The Welfare Working Group points to the cost of creating individual welfare eligibility for this group as the major reason for their reluctance to support “individualization” of welfare eligibility.
It could be PART of the cost but other [possibly embarrassing] matters also manifest as a cost and social liability.
What is of interest is that these payments also support a “low wage/high living expenses”economic business culture for employers; while attempting to prevent prejudice against the recipients who belong to NZ’s “waged” social groups. However the “housing shortage” threatens this status quo as more social services recipients, irrespective of employment status, are forced to live in circumstances which challenge the relationship behavior thresholds that constitute the MSD criteria for being in“a relationship in the nature of marriage”, and increasing numbers of people who qualify for these tax and welfare “breaks” fail to meet the eligibility criteria for access to a home deposit and mortgage funding, in part because of eligible income thresholds. That is possibly why the wheels fell off the Kiwi Build scheme.
A complacency has come into effect that ignores the fact that more ‘waged’ NZers are also failing to get access to suitable accommodation in this environment, which contributes to a lack of action from the general NZ public, and difficulty for housing activist organizations to get support. Many think it “can’t get any worse” because they have no concept of how the social horrors of barrios and slums develop, or how institutionalization works, as a process.
Another aspect of the matter is the payments now available to new parents. Historically the main focus of prejudice against unpartnered parenthood was about the “economic burden” on the state and community. The payments and tax credits to parents are almost the economic equivalent of the original DPB. Yet people who receive ‘sole parent support’ are still pilloried for the their personal and sexual lives.
The main objection from the Welfare Working Group to removing the MSD relationships regulations was that this would be ‘too costly’. However the Work research paper disputes this, ALBEIT without further comment.
I was curious about this. After investigation, I found that action against recipients of Sole Parent Support, Superannuation and Jobseeker nets huge claw-back returns in repayments, and penalty payments from welfare recipients and supports a specialized investigation industry;
eg Details from a report published by the Public Policy Institute, Auckland University, and CPAG, ‘Relationship status’ and the Welfare System in Aotearoa New Zealand. A Report prepared for the Peter McKenzie Project May 2019 p20 “ MacLennan (2016) describes‘Kathryn’s story’ and how the government spent over $100,000 on legal costs over 17 years and are still to this day pursuing debt which advocates argue she should not have had in the first place. After serving a prison sentence, she was expected to repay $120,000 out of an invalid’s benefit.”
[In 2011/12 almost 1/3 of welfare fraud prosecutions were for ‘relationship’ fraud, 67% of which involved individual ‘over-payment’ debts of $100,000+ and involved women and ‘undeclared’ relationships
information source; ]
“Currently, the Ministry of Social Development has a team of over 100 ‘fraud investigators’ working throughout New Zealand alongside an Intelligence Unit designed to identify risk and investigate allegations made by members of the public. There are four regional fraud ‘Investigation Hubs’ located across the country and an Integrity Intervention Centre aimed at matching information with other government agencies to ‘detect over-payments and fraud sooner’(Ministry of Social Development, 2015, p.26). Dependent on the level of risk involved, allegations and suspicions of potential benefit fraud are either investigated through the Integrity Intervention Centre or the National Fraud Unit (Ministry of Social Development, 2013)”
Any changes to further “individualize” benefit payments and scrap the MSD relationship regulations would impact on job security and revenue for Government, Courts, legal teams, and other unspecified numbers of professionals and NGO and private social services businesses.
Many of these people being investigated and prosecuted are parents who would struggle to retain custody of their children, employment, and mental health, and face the impact of the housing crisis, through such an ordeal, even if they were not convicted. NGOs are often where they go for help so these institutes also benefit from the work these ‘clients’ bring, and are often eligible to have these activities funded by MSD.
For many NGOs and government agencies, this activity generates the need for service provision in professional child fostering services, mental health treatment services, and legal assistance and attracts government subsidies, careers and professional advancements.
Also in the face of welfare eligibility individualization being accepted, what would the State’s legal position be regarding the ongoing collection of these welfare fraud fines and debts?
Another powerful business organization that would not welcome the destigmatization process welfare entitlement ‘individualization’ would bring would be unscrupulous landlords, and property managers, along with domestic abusers, and criminals who go after peoples’ welfare entitlements, particularly those ‘targets’ who are entitled to public housing, and live alone.
The advent of DPB, while it helped many escape abusive partnerships also enabled a new paradigm in fraud victimization-targeting in the form of other peoples’ welfare entitlements. These people are enabled to extort money and otherwise take advantage of their victims in part because of the social ostracism welfare recipients experience, the anonymous phone line reporting and fear of legal prosecution experienced by their victims.
Because the ‘welfare’ stigma persists many beneficiaries face ostracism from ‘normal’ social contact. Many of these people often frequent dating services like “Tinder”, and even church and community groups, where potential victims may attempt to socialize in an attempt to re-partner, or simply get a social life. Many people are unaware of the full social implications of receiving a welfare benefit as their primary source of income, particularly long term, and are unaware about the personal dangers inherent in being part of this particular oppressed social group. Susan St John noted the chilling effect single benefit recipients experienced on repartnering. What she may not have understood is the impact of stigmatization on the socializing and dating process. It is a reality that many NZers seeking a life partner view someone being on a welfare benefit as unwelcome ‘baggage’, and while they may initially seek the company of this person, even for what seems an extended period of time, relationships often sour under social pressure, and they are passed over in favor of someone who is ‘waged’ or a more recent trend in NZ, a property owner. This matter is not often about ‘agreeability’. Social stigmatization encourages ‘normal’ people to treat welfare recipients poorly in their personal lives, which often makes ‘normal’ socializing spaces less safe.
Criminals who set out to steal or take advantage of other peoples’ welfare entitlements are often very skilled and use these social environments to find and groom their targets, and often know how to avoid prosecution. The existence of the anonymous fraud reporting line, and the complexity of the MSD regulations prevents these crime victims from seeking help, and being heard.
Reluctantly the prosecution process was altered to make purported partners of welfare recipients accused of breaching the MSD relationship regulations also liable for prosecution.
This recent law change to making these people responsible for their share of the repayments and equally liable has nothing to do with protecting benefit recipients from being victimized in this way, or ‘fairness’. It is more about having a wider range of options to collect the over-payments and fines. The measure is a very poor and abusive way to reinforce barriers to benefit recipients attempts at social mobility or to ‘normalize’ their life. If welfare eligibility criteria was ‘individualized’ these guys would come under much more community scrutiny.
When all this is taken into consideration, resistance to “individualization” of welfare entitlements from the bureaucratic, and professional circles, and many NZ voters becomes more understandable. A lot of work needs to be done.

Thanks Jayne,
You are absolutely right about the history and the disproportionate impact on women and mothers (and how this continues!!). Thank you for the depth of research and thinking in this response. Its left me much to ponder. I can only completely agree with your last statement that indeed there is a great deal of work needing to be done.!
Thank you again for this response.

Thanks comrade David this is excellent and will be cited in the literature review for my DSW thesis 🙂
I think the unique contribution of social work to the world is that we work, or at least we should work at both the personal and political levels. Individuals and families/whanau are important and we must serve them. But when their problems are ultimately the result of unjust social structures we must be actively challenging them. A vital point that “poverty, in and of itself, is a damaging and traumatising experience”.

Thanks Peter,
yes, I agree social work is in a unique position.

I think what too often gets overlooked, is that any work with individual families is also always a political act. All our actions either support or challenge an ideologically derived context that positions individuals and family.

Maybe it’s time that we brought back that statement so commonly used by second wave feminists that the personal is the political.

Great article, David. Some thoughts, in no particular order:
When you try to look at systemic issues like poverty while doing a social work job, you are often swimming against the stream of what your agency wants from you. So you have to be really motivated, which can be difficult as the years go by. Working with others of a like mind really helps.
If you are going to be politically active, you need to protect your back. Join your union. If there isn’t a union, which applies to most NGOs, organize in your workplace and lobby the union to put resources into what you are doing.
Don’t work alone. Look for alliances wherever you can: community groups, other unions members, even MPs – different groups bring different perspectives, strengths and resources.
Information is power: when the National Government smashed the unions in the 90s, whole generations lost their main source (apart from the old Labour party) of an alternative view of the world and history – alternative to mainstream media, that is. Get information out to clients what lets them see their world in a different way – simple facts, history, analysis – and use whatever will work for your particular clients: social media, pamphlets, pictures, photos, stories…And make sure you use everyday language.
Work with your clients, and if possible work with groups of clients, on all this. There is nothing like the combined consciousness and energy of a group.
Learn from the activists of the past. I learnt from the unions, the anti-apartheid movement, the anti-racism movement, and old lefties. I learnt that when you try to do this stuff it can get complicated, and it helps to have guidance from those who have been there, done that, and have a good level of left-wing analysis.
Don’t neglect the election. It’s a great opportunity to raise issues, get information out that is relevant to people’s choices, and start discussion. It’s so much easier to enroll now, but it’s still worth talking to people who have recently moved about making sure they can vote on election day.

Nice comment Jackie. I’m not sure I agree with others that “social work is in unique position”, except perhaps that radical social workers are in a unique position to attempt to resist the harm inflicted by neoliberal state social work services (the dominant tradition). Radical social workers can try to be “in and against the state“, but yes they need to work in collectives to be able to swim against that rip tide. It’s about time we stopped talking about “social work” as if it was a single coherent practice defined for all time by the IFSW definition. Social work is a practice, and there are many kinds of social work practice, and at least two different traditions. In this recent RSW podcast, Iain Fergusson offers some thoughts on the radical social work tradition, and how to sustain it.

Thanks Neil,
a really good point.

I find myself increasingly suspicious of calls for consistency, As consistency can so often mean the imposition of not much more than a bland rhetoric.
I wonder if we should be starting to talk about social work(s) rather than social work?
One of my concerns about the increasing authority of the SWRB Is that in aiming for consensus about social work what is somewhat silenced is the radical voice that needs to be turned not just outward but inward and able to critically view the ways that social work ( If considered in the singular) is in fact a political device, at constant risk of political co-option

Thanks Jackie,
great comments!

I completely agree, any form of activism is not much good if you try and be a lone Ranger. And yes, I think you’re right we have a great deal to learn from the past.
In trying to teach about social work, I find it increasingly important to include early a broad historical overview of the last 50 years.
One of the many things that seems to accompany the neoliberal project is the attempted removal of a sense of history, particularly the sorts of history that suggests that things can be different.
If the status quo is presented as an inevitability rather than the product of systematically enforced policies over a period of decades then people are left without the necessary conceptual tools to challenge that status quo.

So the basic message that I see portrayed in media, education, and just about any site you can think of that promotes the neoliberal worldview is that people should be content to live in the endless now of consumerism and that this is the best (or only) possible world.

I also agree about the necessity to cover your back. I personally find it deeply reassuring to both belong to an active union and be active in the union myself.

An author I like called Han,
wrote something that I still find quite chilling. What he suggested is that neoliberalism’s tendency to site all responsibility for life outcomes within the individual rather than broader social (oppressive and iniquitous) structural forces means that people have nothing to resist or struggle against other than themselves.
He said something along the lines of that under those conditions revolution becomes almost impossible, and depression and self blame becomes almost inevitable.
His perspective helps me make sense of the horrible epidemic of depression and anxiety amongst young people.

Thanks again for your comments. Very thought-provoking and much appreciated!

Han, Byung-Chul. (2017). Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (Verso Futures). Verso. Kindle Edition.

Thank-you Jackie, particularly for the activism shopping list. However it is a difficulty that these courses of action can place people working in such a corporatized workplace environment, which places evermore subtle and chilling nuances upon workers.
Social work and welfare are highly politicized as a result of the revival of ‘liberalism'[ I am shying away from placing the “neo” epithet-the concepts are anything but “neo”- the ‘struggle’ is as old as civilization.
It is also a difficulty that our community organizations are now becoming ‘corporatized’ as well. Being ‘poor’ is all encompassing of time, emotion and intellectual ability. For example, a family with children living in a vehicle has multiple assaults on their recovery, and ‘help’ often comes with an equally large helping of political and moral censure if they attempt to draw attention to themselves. This fear was expressed by parents in emergency housing about their fear of seeking help due to the fear of loosing custody of their children to CYFS [now OT].
It is a small miracle of achievement that the OT inquiry got so far, and down to the brave efforts of ‘survivors’ of this system that it did! [Sadly] Social workers often need to be mindful that they may have to summon this level of personal and professional mana and need to be prepared to deal with situations which require them to sacrifice their career and personal advancement to achieve these goals.

I think it is the Geek manifesto that says that policies that have been uttered by politicians cannot be changed. so if we hear of a policy being formed get in first with expert advice. politicians do not like to retract on policies that are bad.

researchers cannot control the use/ misuse of their research by policymakers.

the Strathclyde university model of literacy for teachers has an explicit component that addresses poverty issues and teaching. Otherwise the pedagogy of poverty will continue. This pedagogy
is highly performative, teacher-directed, skills based. this teaching method of adult directed restrictive activities results in low esteem and disengagement. so teaching practices enshrine disadvantage. the good news is that teachers behaviours change if taught this model and can adapt their teaching practices. (Ellis and rowe (2020)
Literacy, social justice and inclusion: a large-scale design experiment to narrow the attainment gap linked to poverty. Support for learning, 35, 4.

Thanks Karen,
I think you nail it very accurately in describing how unlikely it is for politicians to back away from policies, no matter how evident it becomes that policies are unworkable/harmful.. I had the interesting experience of doing a fair amount of lobbying and advocacy work in Wellington some years ago and I certainly saw that unwillingness to back away from foolish policies a lot. It’s one of the problems with our kind of political system I think. Or, perhaps any kind of political system?
The Strathclyde university model of literacy sounds very interesting and I will take a look at it.
Thanks for letting us know about that. Your thoughts much appreciated!

Hi David – Excellent post and discussion. I agree that the theory and practice of social work can generate political awareness and (potentially) solidarity with people who are oppressed. This is because social work targets the margins of the working class and intersecting disadvantage. It almost always has done and social workers are exposed to this material reality. Iain Ferguson recognizes this in the interview that Neil has just underlined.

But I don’t think social work is inherently freedom enhancing in terms of some sort of internal professional essence. There has been too much oppression in the name of social work for this to be true. Social work exists in a political context like everything else and the skills and knowledge associated with social work can be applied for good or ill.

In the post war Welfare State social work was often about promoting some degree of equality because that was the political vision of the time. Although this too is contested of course. This vision has shifted over the last 30 or 40 years as global capitalism and the philosophy that supports it has been re-stoked.

Much of the function of social work has shifted because of this political reorientation. It is not ‘social work as a fixed thing in itself’ that has changed (and needs to be changed back) – rather it is the dominant political vision that has changed and this is the rubric that needs to be challenged and reformed.

All the differing waves of risk focus, strengths, evidence, trauma we have seen in recent decades are mostly about individualized practice – getting people back up and running on the bottom rung of the capitalist race.

Social workers can be part of political struggle but as Jackie point out, simply saying that is part of the job or role of social work isn’t enough to make it a reality. That is why the debate started here is important. Have a good Easter David and thanks again for starting this conversation …

Thanks Ian,
I couldn’t agree more.
There has been too much harm done under the name of social work to allow any real credence to the notion that social work is inherently all about enhancing freedom.

I also very much agree that social work is a product of capitalist states and, hence unsurprisingly reflects the changing nature of those capitalist states.
It’s an interesting point that perhaps there is no essence, of social work.
What does give me some hope is the way in which the social work encounter with people struggling under oppressive and unfair structural systems can (at least some of the time) lead to some sense of solidarity on the part of social workers with those who struggle. It is hard not to see the system as being unfair when working with families who struggle every week to feed their children and have to rely on food banks because WINZ is so miserly.
Of course, this sort of radicalisation by personal encounter is not inevitable and does not happen all the time by any means.
One of my concerns about the increasing professionalisation of social work and the continual push to re-responsibilise individuals via the pushing of things like trauma informed social work and evidence-based social work is the very real likelihood that that capacity to feel empathy for people, and that sense of recognising unfairness can get squeezed out and replaced by a distancing professionality.
I have seen quite a lot of interesting research about what increasing is understood as the innate capacity for many mammals (including ourselves) to recognise fairness and unfairness. The problem is is that it is also quite easy to quash and dull that capacity.

Well said! Re” One of my concerns about the increasing professionalisation of social work and the continual push to re-responsibilise individuals via the pushing of things like trauma informed social work and evidence-based social work is the very real likelihood that that capacity to feel empathy for people, and that sense of recognising unfairness can get squeezed out and replaced by a distancing professionality.”
The definition for this feeling is “compassion fatigue”.

Yes, compassion fatigue, or what Max Rashbrooke calls the empathy gap accompanying the wealth gap as the different New Zealand’s increasingly don’t make sense to each other / don’t see each other as people like them.

“All the differing waves of risk focus, strengths, evidence, trauma we have seen in recent decades are mostly about individualized practice – getting people back up and running on the bottom rung of the capitalist race.”
Although I lament the lack of social justice focus in social work, I do take issue with the above statement. My last job before retirement was as an intake social worker in a family-focused NGO. I was reluctantly amazed how useful the individual practice methods I had picked up over the years were for the families I worked with. And it didn’t matter what their position in life was, it helped. Of course, being the agency it was, there was a lot of parenting stuff, but the parents are people too, so it was the relationship, communication, safety, and, yes, trauma information that was helpful to them and gave them a better chance of happiness.
Interestingly, my replacement was an occupational therapist, which just goes to show that social work is an amorphous mess. The same agency employed Family Start workers who could have an education, health or social work background, all doing the same work. It doesn’t say much about social work as discreet ‘profession’ if anyone can do the job.

Thanks Jackie, Interesting point. I know for myself that a long time before I had a SW Qual I worked with non-qualified people with skills and attributes that I learnt greatly from and still admire. The capacity for skillful empathy and ability to work in solidarity with people is not confined to SW and we would be foolish to claim so. When SW professionality tries to define / claim empathic solidarity we might then guess we are into problem areas in terms of how SW defines itself.

David – loved it all!
Apologies for my belated reply

One of the challenges with things like trauma informed practices is our penchant to universalise (and often over medicalise) what can be normal human experiences. Or the term gets usurped from its original intent.

I think of our ChCh experience with EQ and the misnomer of the term ‘resilience’ – which moved away from a term to describe the individuals state to a term to describe buildings and ‘communities’. The assumptions that followed were that resilient buildings (and infrastructure) meant that communities were now more resilient – and therefore the individuals in those communities were now more resilient.

I also wonder if the absence of poverty informed practice reflects the broader absence of social justice social work practices. Interestingly the writing and literature on ‘class’ over the past several years has become increasingly silent – with a focus on the exploration of other cultural identities around age, gender, etc. Of the various cultural identities ‘class’ is something that is directly linked to poverty informed practices.

Again, great thoughts!
Nga mihi

Thanks Jimi,
you make some great points. My observation is that neoliberalism and late modern capitalism more generally is incredibly good at co-opting ideas into supporting its own ideologies and worldview.

Hence, an aspect of practice such as being trauma informed instead of just becoming another part of the necessary armoury of good practice, becomes instead an ideological device for individualising fault.
I particularly liked your paragraph: “I also wonder if the absence of poverty informed practice reflects the broader absence of social justice social work practices. Interestingly the writing and literature on ‘class’ over the past several years has become increasingly silent – with a focus on the exploration of other cultural identities around age, gender, etc. Of the various cultural identities ‘class’ is something that is directly linked to poverty informed practices”.

I completely agree, one of the things about work on the terrain of identity politics is it has tended to, (again), becoming an ideological device to silence the critical questions of class and resource distribution.
Thanks again for your comments. Much appreciated

Thank you for this interesting and insightful article @David Kenkel. I read it, and all the comments, with a great deal of interest at the time of publication. It has been the topic of several conversations I’ve had in recent months, including with the author of the impactful report ‘Punishing Abuse’ (Dr Alex Chard). We have both been interested in how we can bring research, ideas and meaningful learning to frontline practitioners. The culmination of all those conversations is a CareKnowledge Live! webinar that is taking place on 16th November: “Learning the lessons from Punishing Abuse: Poverty, deprivation and empowering rich social work practice”. Full details and registration here:
It’s a free event and we’d love to see some of you there if you can make it. Feel free to share with colleagues.

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