Making a moral panic—welfare reform, racism and ‘feral families’ in New Zealand: Doing the work of the state?

 Liz Beddoe

In a comment on story NZ Herald, 6-3-13 an Auckland resident said:

“A quarter of all Kiwi children are raised in families/whanau/fanau where cigarettes, alcohol, gambling and drugs come first. Three generations of state sponsored dysfunction has made these families a costly blight on the working/middle class. We as a nation have made a system of exceptions and enabled the criminal underclass to prosper and grow. Is it time for a few draconian laws to clean the gutters and reduce the pests? And before you get all uppity with your idealist sensibilities regarding my harsh comments, think about this. Even a female crocodile cares for her offspring, putting her hatchlings’ safety before her own”.

New Zealand is in the midst of a campaign to cut welfare spending. Welfare is being rolled back.  The New Zealand Herald reported recently the case of a Burmese mother, who came to New Zealand as a refugee in 2010, who was ordered to attend a seminar about a “boot-camp” scheme despite having only very basic English, a 2-year-old son and a 5-month-old daughter (Collins, 2013).  In the same story an advocate reports that the new benefit scheme, in which all sickness beneficiaries were transferred to a new Jobseeker Support benefit, has traumatised recipients who are addressing serious mental health issues, causing intense distress.

Over the period 2011- 2013 two significant government projects have developed side by side: a programme of welfare reforms  that have led to  the renewed intensification of draconian system changes and related sanctions (Welfare Working Group, 2011) and the development of a new programme of interventions aimed at reducing the incidence of child abuse (Ministry of Social Development, 2012). Both projects emanate from the same arm of government, the Ministry of Social Development, under the same minister. Both projects naturally generate significant public interest and are imbued with ideological content.

While the article referred to above presented the circumstances of the beneficiaries in a sympathetic light, columnists in the major newspapers frequently frame those who require social assistance as lazy, feckless, immoral and prone to violence (Hide, 2012). Comments like that quoted above suggest they tap a nasty vein in New Zealand society. The framing of the poor and expressions of class disgust amidst the on-going neoliberal programme of welfare reform is not at all unique to New Zealand and is explored in depth by others (Tyler, 2013).  Links in the coverage of child maltreatment and social class are not uncommon and have been noted by other observers (Warner, 2013). A media content analysis underway on the media discourse on welfare families in NZ currently underway finds significant linking of child abuse and family violence to poverty, gender and ethnicity thus vilifying the poor, especially poor Māori women (Beddoe, 2013).  A battle of words rages between advocacy groups (Wynd, 2013) and those who would bring these together, linking ‘welfare families’, not poverty, to child abuse and neglect. In this so-called ‘age of austerity’ a common element of the discourse is the labelling of ‘feral’ families and feckless parents “as scapegoats for moral and economic decline” (Jensen & Tyler, 2012, np).

In a local manifestation ‘welfare families’ are referred to as ‘feral’ and an emerging underclass discourse is revealed, that is highly racialised. While child maltreatment is recognised as a major challenge, Maori appear to be targeted for particular vilification. This is not new and has been noted for many years. Keenan (2000, p.5) argued that press reporting of family violence in Māori families reinforces “simplistic racial dichotomies” that preserve the racist colonial discourse. Merchant (2010, 2012) has researched reporting of child abuse in New Zealand and found disproportionate focus on Maori families.  Provan’s (2012) excellent recent PhD thesis explores how the vilified and folkloric figure of the ‘bad Maori mother’ reflects colonial discourse about disturbance of the ideals of a perfect nation. This can be found manifest in the alarming number of references in articles, comments like the one at the head of this post, and letters to the editor which frame this disturbance in calls for “spaying” of the poor who don’t have children but breed like ‘pests’.

Using the  study of moral panics I am currently exploring how news media frames bolster fear and social anxiety about the presence and impact of ‘dangerous’ welfare-dependent families and communities creates a unique folk-devil, tapping into a vein of racism. The social anxieties thus exposed can be explored alongside the neoliberal state project of cutting benefits to many vulnerable people on quasi-moral grounds. The framing of a racialised underclass discourse linked to child maltreatment may bolster the NZ government’s social policy direction by posing an extreme image of a highly negatively portrayed group in the public consciousness. A possible consequence of the establishment of an extreme right framing is that it then becomes more palatable to suggest more draconian measures to control benefit spending. However this must be examined critically against some evidence that New Zealanders resist extreme forms of welfare reform (Humpage, 2011) finding for example that many participants did not consider welfare –to-work appropriate for single parents, the sick and or disabled. Is there hope than that the New Zealand public has limited stomach for the most draconian reforms, despite the potent imagery of evil, feral, dysfunctional ‘welfare families?

Read more here free:  Beddoe , L. (2015). Making a moral panic – ‘Feral families’, family violence and welfare reforms in New Zealand: Doing the work of the state? . In V. E. Cree (Ed.), Moral panics in theory and practice: Gender and family (pp. 31-42). Bristol Policy Press.


Beddoe, L. (2013). Violence and the media. In A. Taylor & M. Connolly (Eds.), Understanding violence: Developing effective professional responses. Christchurch NZ: Canterbury University Press.

Collins, S (2013). ‘Winz orders refugee to ‘boot-camp’, New Zealand Herald. 30-8-13. Retrieved from

Hide, R. (2012). ‘Government is keeping abusive parents afloat’. New Zealand Herald, 24-11-12. Retrieved from:

Humpage, L. (2011). What do New Zealanders think about welfare?  Policy Quarterly 7(2), 8-13.

Jensen, T., & Tyler, I. (2012). Austerity Parenting: new economies of parent-citizenship. Studies in the Maternal, (4), 2. Np.

Keenan, D. (2000). ‘Hine’s Once Were Warriors’ Hell’: The reporting and racialising of child abuse Social Work Review: Te Komako 12(4), 5-8.

Merchant, R. (2010). ‘Who are abusing our children? An exploratory study on reflections of child abuse by media commentators’ Massey University, Auckland.  Retrieved from

Merchant, R. (2012). ‘Reframing child abuse: Changing media and public perceptions of the perpetrators of physical child abuse’. Interdisciplinary.Net:  Probing the boundaries.  Retrieved from

Ministry of Social Development (2012). White Paper on Vulnerable Children. Wellington: NZ Govt.

Provan, S. (2012). The Uncanny Place of the Bad Mother and the Innocent Child at the Heart of New Zealand’s ‘Cultural Identity’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Canterbury Christchurch, NZ. Retrieved from

Tyler, I. (2013). Revolting Subjects: Social abjection and resistance in neoliberal Britain. London: Zed Books

Warner, J. (2013). Social work, class politics and risk in the moral panic over Baby P. Health, Risk & Society, 1-17.

Welfare Working Group (2011).  Reducing Long-Term Benefit Dependency: Recommendations, Wellington: Institute of Policy Studies

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

About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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1 Response to Making a moral panic—welfare reform, racism and ‘feral families’ in New Zealand: Doing the work of the state?

  1. Pingback: Feral families, troubled families: The spectre of the underclass in New Zealand | Social Work Research in New Zealand

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