Social work in austere times

March 2, 2018

 By John Harris and Vicky White

Anti-austerity flag in Quebec

Image credit: Anti-austerity flag in Quebec, 2016. (c) Exile on Ontario St / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

The crisis in the financial system in 2007-8, originally located in the banking and financial sectors of the USA and UK, rapidly became global in scope. For many social workers, it seemed a remote set of events, located in the obscure world of economics. However, the austerity politics and policies that followed have had long-lasting effects on social work in many parts of the world. While the initial focus was on how to rescue the banks from disaster and restore financial stability, the economics and politics of austerity quickly shifted to a concern with government debt, which had increased because of the phenomenal amounts involved in saving the banks.  In the process, the cause of and blame for the crisis shifted from the high-risk strategies employed by the banks to allegedly wasteful and expensive welfare regimes.  In many countries, ‘austerity’ became the dominant discourse, which, following Foucault, we can understand as the linguistic system through which the social world is experienced and understood and power is sustained; a way of describing and explaining the social world and social work’s place in it. Put simply, for many social workers, austerity has determined what is knowable, sayable and doable, though many are unaware of this because of their location within its power structures and assumptions. 

Austerity has amplified existing neo-liberal themes in which public spending, public debt, and public benefits and services are viewed as problematic and as obstructing growth and enterprise. Cuts in benefits and services are justified by the argument that this is both economically necessary and morally desirable, as the actions of citizens are called upon to replace the activities of the state. A key component of austerity has been reforms to welfare regimes that have involved reducing or removing services and benefits, with such developments often presented as opportunities for ‘modernisation’. This has resulted in workers in the public sector and recipients of its benefits and services bearing the brunt of austerity. For example, workers have experienced wage cuts or freezes, and as women predominate in public sector employment, these measures have affected them disproportionately. Women have also been disproportionately affected by cuts in public services because the gendered roles in caring for children, older, and disabled people mean that women rely on public services and related aspects of benefit systems more than men. Given that services and benefits are already targeted on vulnerable and financially impoverished citizens, cutting them increases suffering still further. What this suggests is that while at first sight austerity may seem to belong to the far-off realm of economics and to have little to do with social work, its impact has been far-reaching in shaping the politics, policies, and practice of social work since the financial crash. 

These developments illustrate key aspects of social work. It isn’t fixed and isn’t constructed primarily through its own preoccupations. Rather, it is contingent on context; the form social work takes is shaped by specific conjunctures (combinations of circumstances and events) at particular historical moments. The developments have, understandably, been greeted by deep pessimism on the part of some writers who see neo-liberal austerity as indelibly inscribed in the consciousness of service users, social workers, and managers so that it is the only form of social work with which it is possible to identify. An alternative is to see service users, social workers, and managers as interpellated (being “called”) by neo-liberal austerity. From this perspective, social workers (and others) may be called by austerity but may not respond to the call or may respond to it in ways that were not anticipated. This potential gap between austerity’s intentions and accomplishments needs to be exploited not only by individual social workers struggling to work in the interests of service users in their day-to-day practice but also through collective challenges (see Social Work Action Network). The political theorist and activist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), who had every reason to feel pessimistic as he languished in jail after being imprisoned by Mussolini, coined the phrase: "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will". Faced with the discourse of austerity, this is a useful slogan for social workers. Pessimism of the intellect means seeing the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Optimism of the will means questioning the world as it is, adopting a sceptical (but not cynical) stance towards it and having critical hope in the human capacity to engage in struggles and meet challenges. The ways in which the slogan can be played out will vary from country to country but it offers glimpses of alternatives in social work to the dead-end offered by austerity.

A Dictionary of Social Work and Social Care (2 ed.)

 John Harris is Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. He was a social worker, training officer, and manager prior to moving into social work education.

Vicky White is a Practice Educator in the Children, Learning and Young People’s Directorate, Coventry City Council. She was previously Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and, in addition to substantial experience in qualifying and post-qualifying social work education, she has worked as a social worker in field and residential settings in the statutory sector.

Professors Harris and White are the authors of A Dictionary of Social Work and Social Care, the 2nd edition of which was recently published online.

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