Blame is a powerful weapon with which to empower political disengagement with causes and focus on characteristics of victims. Stigma leads and intensifies the othering of people who are poor, side-stepping structural explanations of violence and neglect
Since 2011 there has been a focus on intense welfare reform in New Zealand. At the same time child poverty and child welfare in general have been potent political issues, not just in New Zealand but in many developed countries [see Child Poverty Action for NZ reports and resources]. Over this time there has been a noticeable trend towards moral framing of poverty accompanied by public support for sanctions applied to those in receipt of state benefits. The prevailing discourse has invoked the spectre of the underclass and an alarming focus on beneficiaries’ reproduction and child-rearing [see for example Free Contraception for Beneficiaries] . This moral framing solidifies the debates around moral regulation and punishment, rather than wellbeing and welfare. Imogen Tyler (2013, 2014) argues that stigma is central in producing economic and social inequalities. Blame is a powerful weapon with which to empower political disengagement with causes and focus on characteristics of victims. Stigma leads and intensifies the othering of people who are poor, side-stepping structural explanations of violence and neglect. In Warner’s incisive exploration of media coverage of the case of the death of “Baby P” (2013,p. 225) for example, it is noted that in the furore that followed his tragic death “the newspapers, particularly right-leaning ones, were able to tap into powerful and familiar political discourses on poverty, dependency and the welfare state”, again leaving questions about family violence largely unaddressed.
We have seen a similar discourse in New Zealand where highly negative attitudes to welfare support, especially income maintenance, are promoted through a hostile discourse of ‘feral families’ and the ‘underclass’. Parallels can be drawn with the extreme class hostility discourse that accompanied welfare reform in the UK and the responses to the British riots in August 2011. The spectre of ‘ferals’ emerged during this period with a focus on blaming ‘problem families’ for society’s problems. The ‘Troubled Families’ programme was launched by the British government in November 2011 (for a detailed discussion see Crossley, 2014). This programme aims to change the repeating generational patterns of poor parenting, abuse, violence, drug use, anti-social behaviour and crime in the most troubled families in the UK with the main stated purpose being to reduce cost to the state: “Troubled families are defined as those that have problems and cause problems to the community around them, putting high costs on the public sector” (GovtUK, 2014). Such programmes are carried on against a backdrop of welfare reform including draconian new policies and sanctions.
In New Zealand a similar political environment prevails, with a shift from broad universal social welfare policies toward targeting and a more authoritarian approach. The mood is characterised by sharp changes in welfare provisions: a decreased the range of the types of benefit available, increased work-testing for both single parents and those with disabilities, the introduction of new ‘social obligations’ for parents who need benefits, along with financial sanctions for non-compliance. Brown has explored how the use of such language as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘troubled’ “shapes the ways in which we manage and classify people, justify state intervention in citizens’ lives, allocate resources in society and define our social obligations” ( Brown, 2011, p. 313). Families which face multiple challenges will often have members labelled ‘hard to reach’ (Duvnjak & Fraser, 2013, p. 168) those with “low (and devalued) social status” subject to many forms of social exclusion. Read more here:
Beddoe, L. (2014). Feral families, troubled families: The rise of the underclass in New Zealand 2011-2013. New Zealand Sociology 29(3), 51-68 Read here
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.
Brown, K. (2011). ‘Vulnerability’: Handle with Care. Ethics and Social Welfare, 5(3), 313-321. doi:10.1080/17496535.2011.597165
Crossley, S. (2014) (Mis) Understanding ‘troubled families’-A working paper. Read here.
Duvnjak, A., & Fraser, H. (2013). Targeting the ‘hard to reach’: re/producing stigma? Critical and Radical Social Work, 1(2), 167-182. doi:10.1332/204986013×673245
Tyler, I. (2013). The riots of the underclass?: Stigmatisation, mediation and the government of poverty and disadvantage in neoliberal Britain. Sociological Research Online, 18(4), 1-10. Read here
Tyler, I. (2014). From “The Shock Doctrine” to “The Stigma Doctrine”. Read here
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