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date: 21 July 2018


A Dictionary of Social Work and Social Care

John Harris,

Vicky White


Used as shorthand for the principle that underpins policies and programmes that have been put in place following the crisis in the financial system in 2007–8. The crisis was originally located in the banking and financial sectors of the USA and UK but rapidly became global in scope. 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 included the phenomenal amounts involved in saving the banks. In the process, the cause of and blame for the crisis shifted from the private sector (the high-risk strategies employed by the banks) to the public sector (the ‘wasteful’ and ‘expensive’ welfare state). As a consequence, 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. In this view, fiscal constraint is seen as having the potential to expand economic growth through greater private consumption and investment. If this does not happen, rather than being questioned, austerity is restated and asserted more strongly. The UK has cut public benefits and services more deeply than most European countries, 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 (see big society.) A key component of austerity has been welfare state reform, reducing or removing altogether public services and benefits (for example, youth services and/or education social work have been disbanded by some local authorities), with such developments often presented as opportunities for modernization. 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 the social security system 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 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 following the financial crash.