A New Day

Social workers, if we know anything, understand how systems – causes and consequences – are connected.  At times of increased economic and social pressure it is those with the least who suffer the most in our system. Anecdotally I hear of rising demand for refuge from intimate partner violence and of increasingly strained resources. The shortage and unaffordability of decent housing continues to be a major problem in Auckland. The demand for emergency housing has been further stressed by the needs of families displaced by the floods and land-slips experienced over the bizarre Summer. Practitioners tell me about problems that they have little capacity to address. This is the rub, is it not?

We don’t hear much talk of socialism anymore. Part of this is related to the gross human rights abuses associated with the state socialist regimes of the twentieth century. However, this does not mean that the Marxist critique of capitalism and the function of the capitalist state is without merit. The underlying structural drivers of social problems in countries like ours – why it is that many people don’t have enough money to access decent housing, health, nutrition – are embedded within the economic and social relations of liberal capitalism. These  systemic inequalities are a function of class relations – the outcome of a legally protected (sticks and carrots) divison between those who enjoy the right to own and profit from productive resources and those who have nothing but their labour power to exchange (Kelsey, 2022). This social arrangement is intersected by historic and contemporary inequities relating to race, colonisation and gender. None of this is a state secret – look around you, what do you see?

Social work organisations – here and globally – like to talk about commitments to social justice but the reality of social workers’ workloads and  job descriptions is a much different matter. State servant social workers in child protection and youth justice are required to stay on the allotted playing field. They are not even permitted to speak publicly about the radical inequalities that structure the lives of those whose ‘family problems’ they engage with. It is not that much different in the established NGO sector: high workloads, high whānau need and tight case-work expectations. Ours is not to reason why, ours is to keep our heads down and graft. Serious social problems are the realm of politicians, strategic managers, technocrats and accountants, or of academic researchers gazing earnestly at the grand challenges of our age without questioning the fundamental rules of the capitalist game.

This is where the current abolitionist argument gets its logical power from (Murray, Copeland & Detlaff, 2023).  Social work is too close to the state – the punitive racist carceral state in the U.S context. It punishes and cajoles the systemically disadvantaged, it re-inscribes classed, raced and gendered power relations: it smooths the troubled waters of structural oppression (Roberts, 2023). As Elizabeth Stanley graphically illustrates, we have our own extensive recent history of state brutalisation through a Care to Prison pipeline.

Those of us in social work who believe that we can (indeed ‘must’ from a global environmental perspective) come to live in better ways (Bozalek & Pease, 2021) face a range of challenges – and some critical questions. Is a new or different ‘for the people by the people’ social work possible? In Aotearoa does the continual demand for real autonomy and authority to hapū and iwi Māori mean that social services genuinely ‘outside’ of the liberal state apparatus can be formed? Can alternative community alliances of interest be forged and can progressive collective visions be built? Can new answers to overwhelming global crises be constructed in the context of local activism?

I think we need to be real about the limited capacity of social work as we know, and have known it, to generate social change but I also think we need to understand that history has not finished – that, in the beautiful and compelling lyrics of the Nina Simone song, a new dawn / a new day / a new life is possible. As ever, all comments and thoughts (at least relatively civil ones) are welcome!

Image Credit: GGupreet



Bozalek, V. and Pease. B (eds) (2021) Post-Anthropocentric Social Work – Critical Post-Human and New Materialist Perspectives. Routledge.

Murray, B. J., Copeland, V., & Dettlaff, A. J. (2023). Reflections on the Ethical Possibilities and Limitations of Abolitionist Praxis in Social Work. Affilia (0), 0.

Roberts, D. (2023). Why abolition. Family Court Review, 61(2), 229– 241.

7 replies on “A New Day”

Social work continues to be caught in a trap. The state will continue to perform such functions as child protection with or without us. We already see this in parts of Canada where the hiring of social workers to do the work has been diminished by the introduction of people with bachelor degree training in child and youth care, sociology and psychology. There can be a vibrant debate on the merits of that but increasingly the state is not committed to our profession. Indeed, in many parts of Canada, child protection social workers are not even required to be registered with a licensing authority.

A potential bright spot is the introduction of Canadian federal legislation creating pathways for Indigenous governing bodies to set up their own laws and child protection systems.

As well, the state continues to fail in commitment to the social determinants of health which, if done, could alter the life course for many avoiding child protection altogether. The neo liberal agenda resists that as this is not seen as people being responsible for “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps”.

I agree with Roberts stating that we are too close to the state yet if the state does not change the policy, law and practice, social work will just be replaced as I note.

Thanks for your comment Peter – good to hear from you. And yes, I think Garrett has also made this point re the ‘end of social work’ debate – if not social work in the state, what then? It is perhaps ‘the’ question in front of us.

I assume that any neoliberal devolution of services to iwi, hapuu or community will continue be via the vehicle of principal agency contracts requiring delivery of outcomes?
I am presently trying to envisage the model proposed by National of using Social Investment as proposed by Bill English. The novel approach proposed that philanthropic monies will be also used which puts individuals or corporate funders in the locus of the state.
My query is would such a proposal create wedges between the state and its workers such as social workers?

Hi Margaret – thanks for your comments. These policy questions pretty much always come down to whose interests are served and where does the power / authority sit. The state reflects a lot of contradictions and sometimes there is opportunity for significant reform. More radical structural change has to first begin with recognising that our problems are structural and won’t be resolved by charitable benevolence etc. We need more understanding / recognition of this … and more grappling with alternatives I think.

Kia ora Ian,

As usual great piece – one that brought out a range of emotions with each paragraph.

“Social workers, if we know anything, understand how systems – causes and consequences – are connected”. On the whole, I am yet to be convinced that this is true. I see very little evidence that social workers in Aotearoa understand how the system can hold our clients, whanau and communities in place. The majority of social workers I know and work with are perpetually stuck in the client to caseworker relationship without looking above the parapet – I know this won’t be a popular opening statement but hey – it is a reality in regards to what our practice looks like in this country.

“Ours is not to reason why, ours is to keep our heads down and graft”. Ok… but don’t associate this to social work or social worker because a true social change agent (we like to use that term) actually fights the high workloads, steps outside their lane, speaks publicly (there are ways of doing this without having your face / name on a billboard). To succumb to fight is not an option if we are social workers. We must forever move forward in the fight because if we don’t, God knows no other profession will. To succumb is to let the bastards win and the ones that lose out are the marginalised in society – the very people we go to work every day to help / work with.

“Is a new or different ‘for the people by the people’ social work possible?”.

Absolutely there is. It’s called Participatory Social Services – social services that meets the needs of the community (whatever that community may be) and delivering to those needs. It is about asking what is needed, really listening to the answer, finding funding and then building that service.

Delivering to their outcomes – not mine, not my agencies and definitely not the funders. We do it here and this philosophy of Participatory Social Services is embedded in every discussion we have.

I was about to apologies for being so emotive about this, but I will restrain myself. It is about time our profession stops talking about changing the system and starts really fighting the bloody thing!

Have a great weekend.

I appreciate your thoughts e hoa – the participatory social services thing sounds like a good foundation, and never apologise for a bit of passion – it is the driver of all efforts to achieve social justice, right? What did Guevara say? – ‘ A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ – or something close to that. Kia kaha!

Thanks Ian,
He also said “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” which is the only way to think about our mahi.
Take care, Luis

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