Feral families, troubled families: The spectre of the underclass in New Zealand

Article (PDF Available)inNew Zealand Sociology 29(3):51-68 · December 2014with 1,359 Reads 
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This article reports on an investigation of media representations of ‘feral families’ and the ‘underclass’ over a period of intense welfare reform in New Zealand, which includes significant income maintenance reform and targeted interventions to reduce family violence. The use of emotionally charged and stigmatising language to characterise people and groups may be interpreted as media framing and reveals some elements of an enduring moral panic. While media stories engender a wide range of audience responses, analysis of the content of both news stories and commentary suggests some support for sanctions aimed at control of the poor. An unsympathetic focus on the struggles of poor parents and their children invokes stigma and fear of unruly populations. The portrayal of poor families, particularly Māori families, as a ‘feral’ underclass, is highly stigmatising and may reduce public empathy with advocacy about child welfare
Now published as: Beddoe, L. (2014). Feral families, troubled
families: The rise of the underclass in New Zealand 2011-2013. New
Zealand Sociology 29(3), 51-68.
Feral families, troubled families: The spectre of the underclass in New
Liz Beddoe
This article reports on an investigation of media representations of
‘feral families’ and the ‘underclass’ over a period of intense welfare
reform in New Zealand, which includes significant income
maintenance reform and targeted interventions to reduce family
violence. The use of emotionally charged and stigmatising language
to characterise people and groups may be interpreted as media
framing and reveals some elements of an enduring moral panic. While
media stories engender a wide range of audience responses, analysis
of the content of both news stories and commentary suggests some
support for sanctions aimed at control of the poor. An unsympathetic
focus on the struggles of poor parents and their children invokes
stigma and fear of unruly populations. The portrayal of poor families,
particularly Māori families, as a ‘feral’ underclass, is highly
stigmatising and may reduce public empathy with advocacy about
child welfare
Keywords: media framing; families; underclass; poverty; moral panics; stigma
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. 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. Public comment invokes the spectre of the underclass and an alarming
focus on beneficiaries’ reproduction and child-rearing. The moral framing
solidifies the debates around moral regulation and punishment, rather than
wellbeing and welfare. This is achieved by invoking stigmatising spectres of
problematic groups. Stigma, Tyler (2014) argues, is central in ‘producing
economic and social inequalities’ but she suggests that its role has been
obscured ‘because bodies of research pertaining to specific stigmatized statuses
have generally developed in separate domains’, citing Hatzenbuehler, Phelan
and Link (2013: 813). Stigma is well theorised in critical disability studies
(Soldatic & Meekosha, 2012), health inequalities (Link, Phelan, &
Hatzenbuehler, 2014) and mental health (Scambler, 2009, for example) but
Tyler suggests that stigmatising discourses contribute to the manufacture of
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” (2013a: 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. This present
article provides examples of 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). The aim
is to “get 120,000 troubled families in England turn their lives around by 2015
and in particular to get children back into school; reduce youth crime and anti-
social behaviour; put adults on a path back to work and reduce the high costs
these families place on the public sector each year” (GovtUk, np 2014). This
programme is 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 (New Zealand Government, 2012a). Keddell
(2014) notes that concurrently child welfare systems changes include the
creation of a new national information-sharing database for identifying and
tracking ‘vulnerable’ children, the creation of ‘Children’s teams’ which meet to
make plans for at-risk children, increased accountability for professionals
working with families to prevent abuse, and increased sanctions for people
found to either have not reported abuse, or been the perpetrators of abuse
(Ministry of Social Development, 2012). Keddell (2014) cites Brown in
exploring 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: 313). Families which face multiple challenges will often have
members labelled ‘hard to reach’ (Duvnjak & Fraser, 2013: 168) those with
“low (and devalued) social status” subject to many forms of social exclusion.
This article explores the relationship between the media role in helping to
bolster fear and anxiety about the presence and impact of ‘dangerous’ and
welfare-dependent families and communities. The social anxiety engendered is
contiguous with the neoliberal state project of cutting benefits to many
vulnerable people on quasi-moral grounds. The framing of an underclass
discourse aids the New Zealand government’s social policy direction by posing
an extreme image of a highly negatively portrayed and often racialised group in
the public consciousness. In introducing the ‘troubled families’ story to a New
Zealand audience columnist Dita De Boni wrote “where social services, the
police and many others are involved with a family, it doesn't seem to prevent a
big tragedy occurring - even when the family is known to be a wellspring of
trouble” . Furthermore she notes “an ex-crime reporter once told me that police
had told her that in any given community, there will be a handful of families
that cause the majority of trouble - and cost to the taxpayer” (De Boni,
12/12/11) . She then mentions five cases of child abuse, all involving Māori
families with the inevitable links to prison and welfare histories.
A possible consequence of the establishment of such framing is that it
then becomes more palatable to suggest more draconian measures to cut benefit
spending, leading to greater social exclusion and further stigmatisation.
Two research procedures supported the development of this paper: first a
literature review was undertaken of recent research and conceptual theoretical
work on media framing and moral panics relating to poverty and poor
communities, and second, a qualitative textual analysis was undertaken of
material gathered on poverty in the New Zealand mass media and related
newspaper, radio and TV, letters to the editor and comments on line in media
outlets. The analysis then prompted a return to the literature to explore recent
theorisation of stigma which provides a useful frame for understanding the feral
families discourse.
The initial aim of the study had been to simply explore the media stories
related the ‘ferals’ discourse perpetuated by columnist Michael Laws over the
period 2008-2011. However an initial media scan of news stories, opinion
columns, editorials, features and some cartoons appearing during the period
2006-2012 revealed numerous references to the ‘underclass’ so an expanded
search was undertaken. A larger study was undertaken by (Beddoe & Toki,
2012) which explored the use of the term ‘underclass’ and found 721 media
items collected from the period 2006 – 2012 that included the term ‘underclass’.
Some material will be drawn from that larger study. Relevant items were
selected for analysis on the basis that they have tended to portray moral decline,
welfare-dependency, the fecundity of the poor and criminality as features of a
social underclass. The analysis of text items was conducted using NVivo10
(QSR) to store and code articles, including the sets of comments made by
members of the public. The analysis employed an approach to coding ‘moral
talk’ advocated by Lee and Ungar (1989) and used by Warner (2013a, b). Lee
and Ungar (1998: 691) outline three levels of analysis of moral discourse "(1)
by the sides taken in the dispute, topics introduced, the 'voice' of the moraliser,
and key words used, (2) by the 'stances' moral claims-makers take[....] , and (3)
by the claims-making appeal made by moral rhetoric, whether to logic, feeling
rules, or other claims”.
Discourse analysis differs from content analysis in that it explores and
attempts to explain the motivations underpinning a particular stance taken on a
issue (see for example, Proudfoot and Habibis, 2013). In this case, in relation to
articles and opinion pieces I was also interested in the on-line public comments
where these were available. Thus an original text is considered not just as an
isolated expression but one that invites social interactions. Of note of course is
the fact that in many cases communication is one way. The author's article is
fixed in the moment of publication; the comments however may be made for
some days after until closed off by the editor. It is rare for authors to wade in
and respond - rather the interactions take place between the commentators. Thus
the original claims have added voice, their stance is established and other often
anonymous voices will join the debate. In the case of the 'feral families'
discourse the claims maker set the moral tone, elicited the emotional reactions
desired. The comments which follow include rebuttals, appeals to logic or
empathy and, in some cases, an intensification of the original claims.
There are limitations to a study such as this. Insufficient time and
resource was available to adequately explore radio and television broadcasts, or
a broad range of journalistic blogs. It is also important to recognise the
limitations of textual analysis because it doesn’t always explain how audiences
engage with texts. We know from previous research (see Kitzinger, 2004 for
example) that such audiences do not engage uncritically with media stories.
Nevertheless media do shape the language and emotion in highly morally
charged discourses, provide the venue for claims-makers to set the tone and
Kitzinger has asserted: “We may not always be able to predict audience
responses, but it would be quite wrong to dismiss textual analysis as completely
out of touch with the real sites of meaning creation” (2004: 191). In the case of
many of the very polemical opinion pieces, readers were able to comment on
stories and these have been captured and coded.
Welfare reform in Aotearoa New Zealand
This is the beginning of what will be a complete overhaul of an
outdated welfare system that has for too long kept New Zealanders
and their children trapped in a life of limited choices. (Smith,
Manawatu Standard, 2-9-11. ‘Kids victims of 'brown underclass').
This article, which describes several responses to a child poverty report “Every
Child Counts” (Henare, Puckey & Nicholson, 2011), invokes the ‘underclass’
discourse and provides a useful example to herald a very brief discussion of
welfare reforms in New Zealand (see O’Brien, 2011 for a fuller discussion ).
While the report referred to drew attention to the growing disparities between
Māori and Pasifika and other groups across health, education and welfare, the
political message within claims that a “combination of high dependency on
welfare benefits, high rates of single parenthood” kept Māori and Pasifika
families trapped in poverty. ‘Children were not victims of structural oppression
but “of the brown underclass”. Thus the framing is there in the headline; and in
the body the immediate moral linking to ‘welfare dependency’ stakes the moral
claim firmly in the ground. “NZ's brown poverty ‘a timebomb' ” was the
headline in the New Zealand Herald on the same day (Tahana, 2/9/11, NZ
Herald). The report of course is a carefully constructed example of policy
advocacy, but many readers of the newspapers would be unlikely to read the
report especially since it is not properly named in the articles and typically in
New Zealand mass media there is no link to the website. In the other articles
which respond to this report the headlines are similar and the welfare discourse
emerges via an observable focus quoting percentages of Māori and Pasifika
people on benefits rather than addressing the economic issues.
Over the last six years a series of welfare reforms have promoted greater
state surveillance and control of those receiving welfare benefits while reducing
the safety-net afforded by both income maintenance and social housing. The
Future Focus policy introduced in 2010 is a welfare to work approach that
requires sole parents on the Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB) to be in part-time
work once the youngest child turns six (Ministry of Social Development, 2010).
The process of returning to work is managed by WINZ staff and failure to
oblige incurs sanctions that are outlined in the Social Security (New Work
Tests, Incentives, and Obligations) Amendment Act 2010.
Further reforms in 2012 included the revamping of the benefit system
which involved the reduction of categories from 16 to 4 categories namely the
Jobseeker Support, Sole Parent Support, Supported Living Payment, and Youth
Payment and Young Parent Payment. Sole parents on the DPB who decide to
have another child while on DPB will be required to return to work after the
child’s first birthday (Ministry of Social Development, 2012). From July 2013,
beneficiaries will be required to enrol their early childhood children with a
general practitioner and must complete a core Well Child / Tamariki Ora health
check process, children aged three must attend 15 hours a week of early
childhood education and children aged from five years must attend school
(Ministry of Social Development, 2012). Failure to comply will result in three
warnings after which if not heeded, a 50 per cent cut to the benefit will incur
(Ministry of Social Development, 2012). Accompanying these changes is a raft
of policies designed to nudge claimants towards desirable behaviours, for
example mentoring, parenting and budgeting assistance. One policy that caused
much critical comment was that mothers on the benefit and their daughters will
be offered contraceptive help to prevent pregnancies that may lead to their
having to leave the work-force (Trevett, 2012; Radio New Zealand, 2012). Thus
attention is focused on greater surveillance on the private behaviours of welfare
Media framing of poverty and welfare
Van Gorp (2007: 73) describes the frame as a “persuasive invitation […] to read
a news story in a particular way, so that a specific definition of an event, the
causal and treatment responsibility for a societal topic, and a moral judgment of
a person come more easily across the receiver’s mind”. Framing thus enables
news media to emphasise particular perspectives in choosing to “manipulate
salience by directing people’s attention to certain ideas while ignoring others”
(Kendall, 2011: 5). Iyengar (1990: 21) identified two distinct types of news
stories of poverty in the US: one in which poverty is presented primarily as a
social outcome and a second type where poverty is explored via a presentation
of the personal experiences of individuals. Episodic reporting reports a
particular incident in a specific time frame, whereas in thematic reporting, the
author/presenter attempts to link the incident to broader issues and problems.
Episodic reporting is most frequent and tends to frame incidents in terms of
individual agency or localised responsibility and can thus promote a moral
explanation of behaviour (Entman, 1993). Thematic frames are less common
and tend to locate a story in some kind of explanatory structural framework of
wider social concerns and responsibilities. In this way stories of child poverty or
family violence can be framed as individual incidents with a basis in morality
/criminality or linked to poverty and alienation. This is not a recent
phenomenon, for example Kendall (2011) reports a newspaper story from 1872
where a child’s death at the hands of her mother was linked to poverty and her
husband’s alcohol abuse (pp.85-86). Poverty is often framed in ways that
represent it as being an individualised rather than a structural, collective issue;
presenting the poor as responsible for their own problems (Bullock, Fraser
Wyche & Williams 2001; Sotirovic, 2009). In New Zealand stories about child
poverty for example can attribute responsibility to individual actions or
attributes or they can make structural links to phenomena which affect many
people and communities, for example family violence, child abuse and neglect,
unemployment and affordable housing shortages.
Representation of poverty in the news media has long encouraged a moral
discourse. Welfare panics for many decades have focused on women, as ‘lone’
or single mothers, feeding into concerns about illegitimacy as a source of social
dysfunction (Thompson, 1998: 89). Welfare ‘cheats’ are often seen as the
‘unworthy poor’ and beneficiaries in general are subject to far greater levels of
social and institutional surveillance (Henman & Marston, 2008: 193-195). In
addition there are frequent calls to examine the workless families who “are
culpable for fostering and passing on to their working age children cultures of
worklessness” where three generations might have never worked, an idea
frequently promulgated by the architects of welfare reform despite the lack of
empirical evidence (Macdonald, Shildrick & Furlong, 2014; Wiggan, 2012).
Rhetorical devices like the ‘three generations in one family who have never
worked’ employ “reasoning devices that draw on causal attributions” (Bullock
et al., 2001: 233) and the in “a quest for a catchy phrase, welfare mothers
became ‘welfare queens’…welfare recipients became ‘welfare freeloaders’
hiding the reality of illiteracy, abuse, illnesses, and addictions” (Sotirovic, 2000:
The ability of the public to comment on stories in media means that those
engaged in reading and viewing media stories are perhaps even less passive
recipients (Kitzinger, 2004) and may apply their own filters. Gamson’s (1992)
constructionist approach stresses the importance of the audience’s engagement
in interpreting the discourses present in media texts and staking their own
position. Gamson suggested that where the received wisdom, the cultural
strategies employed by audiences, are comprised of for example ‘common
knowledge’ and ‘common sense’ may be more impacted by framing, while
those with ‘personal or vicarious experiential knowledge’ are more likely to
discount or ignore frames (Sotirovic, 2000: 274). This is significant in the
application of moral claims to explanations of poverty and family violence and
is nowhere more apparent than when reading the public commentary on
newspaper websites.
Feral families and the “brown underclass” in New Zealand
We know them when we see them – hoods up, trousers halfway down
to their knees, swaggering along the pavement in small groups,
playing loud music on their phones, swearing, spitting. These are the
children Michael Gove described in September as the “educational
underclass” (Taylor, 2012).
Taylor’s article from the Telegraph in the UK discusses the political response to
the riots of 2011 in English cities but could be written anywhere. The
underclass is a “class of unemployed, unemployables, and underemployed who
are more and more hopelessly set apart from the nation at large and do not share
in its life, its ambitions and its achievements” (Myrdal, 1963: 10). The
underclass discourse can evoke both sympathy for those socially excluded from
the pleasures and abundance of the nation’s life that the rest of society shares
and fear and disgust for those ‘othered’ by social exclusion. It has been noted in
the UK as elsewhere that in the ‘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). A tendency to
look for "identifiable victims and blameable villains" is a prominent theme in
the search for the means to impose social order in times of anxiety and
uncertainty (Holloway & Jefferson 1997: 265) and splits in the interests of the
working poor and those in receipt of benefits. Impoverishment is the source of
many recurring moral panics around the ‘dysfunctional poor’, and frequently
over time the ‘underclass’ concept (Macnicol, 1987) emerges which is then used
to separate the ‘working class’ from the very poor and to distinguish the
deserving from the undeserving poor (p. 299).
The roots of the underclass discourse, are in the 18
century and periodic
revival of the concept has been on-going for the past 100 years or more
(Macnicol, 1987). Macnicol (1987) notes that the term underclass has been
used by both the left and right to denote the impact of prolonged structural
inequality over this entire period. Macnicol explains that the term was very
strongly linked to more biological explanations of poverty-low intelligence, bad
genetic history and so forth and the rise of the eugenics movement. The
common elements of the usage of the term ‘underclass’ across time are: firstly,
an artificial administrative (and moral) distinction between those who have
contact with state agencies such as social welfare and those who do not;
secondly an association with the matter of intergenerational transmission (either
by heredity or socialisation), and third, an identification of certain behavioural
traits as ‘anti-social,’ grouping together very different behaviours and
characteristics into the same category . Its use as a framing device tends to
support the claims of those who want to reduce welfare spending (p. 316). In
New Zealand a columnist and former politician Michael Laws has led the
charge for the underclass discourse, with this passage where the staccato listing
of verbs generates emotional intensity:
The children of welfare are now legion, and they are destined for the
same lifestyle as their, usually, solo parent. They smoke, drink, drug,
crime, victim, bash like no other group in the country. And then they
breed some more. (Laws, 27/12/08)
The simultaneous development of social policy addressing welfare reform and
child abuse has brought the issue of child poverty and neglect into significant
public attention over the past five years. The Every Child Counts report referred
to above reveals some highly disturbing statistics: New Zealand ranked 28th
out of 30 OECD nations for child outcomes and just over half of the 200000
New Zealand children living below the poverty line are Māori (59,651) and
Pasifika (44,120). Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett said she was
"acutely aware" of the problem of vulnerable New Zealand children growing in
deprived areas. "Children who live in poverty are likely to come from benefit
dependent homes," she said. (Tahana, NZ Herald 2-9-11). Unfortunately it is a
short leap from a sympathetic portrayal of Māori children as disproportionately
poor to the “feral families” discourse. Numerous examples can be found of the
linking of articles and opinion pieces on either welfare reform or child abuse to
the idea of the feckless, intergenerational work-shy and morally deviant
underclass. In a comment piece entitled, ‘Inevitable boy born bad’ Michael
Laws (2012) establishes his special role as a significant claims-maker for the
underclass argument:
It has been an especial task of mine over the past decade to introduce
readers, listeners and TV viewers to that sub-species of humanity with
which we co-exist - the ferals. These evolutionary antisocials have
created their own nihilist culture and provide 90 per cent of this
country's social problems. They have core characteristics that
distinguish them: poor education, transience, a dependence upon
drink and/or drugs, a criminal history, a welfare lifestyle and they are
disproportionately Māori. The latter is important to note because that
culture does provide a tolerance other cultures do not
One of the major mechanisms which facilitates the leap from a sympathetic
portrayal of social inequalities to the trope of feral families is the sanitised
device of ‘troubled families’ where the framing of the political discourse links
poverty to moral issues of child well-being and fecundity. It has its roots in the
old moral panic about ‘welfare mothers’ who are perceived to have children
simply to collect more money from the state and thus posing a threat to the
future of the nuclear family (Cohen, 2002), Lone motherhood (especially
racialised lone motherhood) is also framed occasionally as ‘the way it works in
those families,’ or in ‘black communities’ (Duncan et al, 1999; Bullock et al,
The social policy direction in New Zealand clearly demonstrates this
association of child abuse and welfare beneficiary status (rather than gendered
family violence and structural inequalities), and is often focused on Māori as
this article reports, where the Minister of Social Development apparently goes
straight from child abuse to welfare claimant status in a single bound:
Bennett [Minister of Social Development] said around 55 per cent of
substantiated child abuse cases were in Māori families. "If we only
thought it was a Māori problem, we wouldn't be addressing the other
50 (sic) per cent," she told TV3's Firstline programme. "So it's not just
a Māori problem, it's a New Zealand problem, and they are not the
only ones that abuse their children but they are disproportionately
high for the percentage of the population." Teenage parents were the
most vulnerable group, Bennett said. About 4500 babies were born
every year to teenagers receiving a benefit and 45 per cent would
have another child while still on a benefit, she said (Chapman &
Levy, Stuff, 26/7/11).
In the local manifestation of moral framing of the poor, ‘welfare-dependent
families’ have been labelled ‘feral’ and while I do not claim this thinking is
widespread beyond the indignant denizens of the comment threads and
talkback radio, the use of these devices in major newspapers and online
comments on articles suggests an underclass discourse remains potent. An odd
example of this appearing in ordinary reportage is found in an article published
only two weeks after the death of the Kahui twins, under the heading
“Taxpayers shell out for Kahuis” in which residents of two family homes were
listed along with their occupations and the reporter’s estimate of the value of
benefits and subsidies for which the family was eligible (NZ Herald,
The solicitation of unsympathetic opinions and invocation of the spectre
of eugenics, the companion of the underclass claims is documented by Macnicol
(1987) and present in New Zealand in the present decade. Laws (3/6/12)
makes this explicit here in an article entitled “Laws: Pay them, sterilise them,
but don't let them have kids”:
They are an untamed, untrained underclass that manage to combine
transience, welfare dependence, criminal activity, violence – and a
remarkable reliance upon alcohol and/or drugs. …Ferals are
disproportionately Māori but they are not exclusively so …The fact so
many ferals are also Māori deeply unsettles the politically correct and
policy-makers. It seems there is something within the culture that
creates them, other than socio-economic consideration.
This was sustained for over a year:
Sterilise them. Failing that, pay them not to breed. Stop them from
ever having children. The truth is that hundreds and very possibly
thousands of New Zealand women are not equipped to be mothers.
They have neither the intellect, the empathy nor the responsibility to
ever be anything other than they are. But we let them. And if they
have no firm prospects in life neither ambition nor aspiration we
financially entice them into maternity (Laws, 22/4/12).
The moral rhetoric was often repeated in comments on other stories,
When is something going to be done about this feral breed?
(Comment on Coddington, 4/3/12)
Such commentary is also found on articles which attempt to engender a positive
discussion of how to address child poverty. Allen Freeth wrote sympathetically
in the New Zealand Herald about ‘[t]he sad business of child poverty’ (Freeth,
6/5/13). Freeth, a corporate leader, argued that “Kiwi business leaders will be
forced to get involved in the affairs of their communities, nation and its people.
We will not be able to ignore coming generations who will seek to influence
through their internet power”. A storm of comments followed:
Stop rewarding people at 15 and 16 for getting pregnant. A benefit for
life and they pop out kids with no idea how to care for them or feed
them….these little kids are often seen as an income stream by way of
benefit for the lazy (Comment on Freeth, 6/5/13).
The above comment is typical of a raft of similar examples which draw on
themes of infestation and the need to address via draconian eradication
A quarter of all Kiwi children are raised in families…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…Is it time for a few draconian laws to
clean the gutters and reduce the pests? (Comment on De Boni, 2012).
Why were these so called parents not charged with failing to provide
the necessaries of life? I suppose they will continue to breed like
rabbits. If they ill-treated an animal they can be prohibited from
owning another for sometimes years. What price human life?
(Comment on Coddington, 4/3/12).
While the anonymity of the comment features in on-line news encourages wild
assertions and intemperate language there is some evidence of a split in views
about the causes of child poverty in New Zealand. In a study of public attitudes
in 80% percent of those surveyed agreed child poverty is a problem (MMR
Research, 2014). The study found that opinion was evenly divided on the
primary cause of child poverty in New Zealand with 40% attributing it to
economic factors including unemployment, low wages and rising living costs
while 40% attributed it to bad parenting. Other causes were systemic failures
and lack of government support (12%), uneducated parents (9%) and people
having too many children for them to support (8%) (MMR Research, 2014: 1).
There are moderate views found in the commentary on stories, typified by this
Yes, parents should be responsible. If you can't afford to have
children don't. …But not all parents are irresponsible and many things
can go wrong in a person's life: redundancy, greedy finance
companies, sickness or injury, divorce, insurance companies that
won't pay up what was expected, problems with addictions, the list is
endless (Comment on Freeth, 6/5/13).
Finally views were located that utilised a class perspective avoiding the blaming
and shaming ascription to ‘poor parenting’ which typify responses to article on
child poverty, in this case reapplying ‘feral’ to a different target:
The main problem is that over the last generation we have returned to
a feral system of deregulated capitalism, in other words a dog eats dog
society….The sole purpose of the moralizing is to bolster up the
prejudices and misdirected anger of the middle class, who are also
under increasing pressure, to turn on the less well off (Comment on
Freeth, 6/5/13).
However the overwhelming story was one of blame and shame; there are
damaged children and welfare cheats and “[t]hese tropes located poverty as an
outcome of a certain kind of childhood and parenting, and hence were able to
discount economic, political, and institutional structures as causal” (Ortiz &
Briggs, 2003: 41). What stands out in these local responses to very sad stories of
child poverty and even child abuse and neglect is the manifestation of bitterness
and the failure to see families from the broad collectivist perspective that has
traditionally underpinned the welfare state. The very nature of such response
suggests a breakdown in the civilising processes of the post-war social contract
and a decrease in mutual identification of need and support. Rohloff and Wright
(2010: 412) draw on Elias (2000) to explain the
decrease in mutual identification between the ‘folk devils’ and the
‘rest of us’ […] During such times of crisis (moral panics), we may
also witness changes in modes of knowledge: a shift from increasing
levels of detachment towards increasing levels of involvement, with a
corresponding increasing susceptibility to ‘wish fantasies’ about
means to alleviate the ‘crisis’
While it would be reasonable to assume that most citizens would not support
extreme forms of eugenics in response to a child welfare ‘crisis’, there is
significant divide between explanations for poverty despite the broad
understanding of the role of economic factors reported above (MMR Research,
2014). The feral families claim may assist the role played by stigma in
underpinning social policy direction. Hatzenbuehler et al. (2013) for example
discuss the relationship between stigmatising discourses and health and social
policy leverage –the use of rewards and sanctions to enforce behaviours.
Stigma both underpins this and reinforces it. So in the case of poverty and
multiple ‘spoiled’ statuses - race, low SES, low educational achievement ,
sanctions and other coercive reward / punishment schemes both play on the
stereotyping ( an individual has ABC characteristics therefore they will likely
not exhibit positive behaviours XYZ) and reinforce stigma via the surveillance
and judgment applied in the application of such leverage. Thus the motivations
underlying stigma, to suppress, exclude and punish are all neatly assuaged.
Nowhere better illustrates this than the policy to offer free contraception to
beneficiary women and their daughters, a nudge of epic Victorian era moralistic
proportions (Trevett, 2012; Radio New Zealand, 2012). A woman who claims
benefits is assumed to have problems managing her fertility (moralising stigma)
and must be controlled. The stigmatising nudge applies also to her daughters
who are automatically assigned with a status of troublesome fecundity. The
punishment element is awaiting any future pregnancies with the threat of
increasing sanctions. That some public sentiment supports this directly as
desirable is indicates in many references to ‘breeding like rabbits’ and the like
in the comments sections explored above.
In pursuing policies such as these governments completely ignore what is
known from the growing empirical knowledge of the intensive impacts of
stigma as contributing and even producing inequality (Hatzenbeuler, 2013).
Policy advisors and politicians, influenced by a low level of understanding of
human behaviour, do appear to favour the 'nudge' in the current environment.
Human behaviour is believed to be able to be controlled with simple reward and
punishment regimes. Not only do such approaches deepen and extend stigma
but they add heft to increased intensities of blaming and shaming when people
don't simply acquiesce.
Taylor-Gooby (2013: 40) exploring the stigmatisation of the poor argues
that welfare reform works with “the grain of public opinion by defining
claimants primarily as dependents and deepening the moral division between
claimants and those in paid work”. Approaches to shift public opinion may need
to stress reciprocity between those on benefits and others; recognition of the
actual or potential contributions to society of stigmatised groups; reducing
divisions between those seen as dependent and low paid workers and examining
the role of institutions that can help to prevent the intensification of social
divisions. In this latter approach, news media might take a more balanced view
and avoid the ‘clickbait’ stories that promote stigma, racism and intense
vilification of parts of our society.
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Many thanks are due to Ofa Toki who received a University of Auckland
Summer Scholarship (summer 2012-13) to undertake the media search for the
underclass discourse and Caitlin Merriman who assisted with a literature review
on media framing and moral panics over the same period.
Liz Beddoe is Associate Professor of Social Work in the School of Counselling,
Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland. Liz’s teaching
and research interests include critical perspectives on social work education,
professional supervision, and the media framing of social problems. Liz has
published articles on professional issues in New Zealand and international
journals. E-Mail: e.beddoe@auckland.ac.nz
  • ... Several researchers have investigated and critiqued how conventional social problems become defined and maintained over time (O'Grady, Parnaby et al. 2010, Beddoe 2014, Jensen and Tyler 2015. Searching for such common understandings, Macdonald, Shildrick and Furlong (2014) highlight two dominant explanations concerning socially excluded groups; the 'welfare dependency story' and the 'deprivation story'. ...
    ... The term was popularised in the US in the 1980s and the ideas started gaining traction in UK in the 1990s, in particular within popular media and tabloid outlets generating a common-sensual representation of poverty (Lister 1996). The discourse of the 'underclass', together with that of 'welfare dependency' and 'lifters and leaners', has been, and continues to be, influential in terms of defining a particular construction of poverty and welfare, in both the US and the United Kingdom, and has gained considerable currency in Australia (Bullen and Kenway 2006, Marston, McDonald et al. 2013, Mendes 2014) and New Zealand ( Nolan 2007, Brown 2011, Beddoe 2014). ...
    This study is concerned with the question of how youth policy and programs can better support and care for young people who face disadvantage. It poses the question of whether there is a disjunction between disadvantaged young people’s priorities and life experiences, and the assumptions made about young people in policies and programs relating to youth education and employment. Further, this study asked if youth policies and programs have lost sight of what disadvantaged young people need. To gain a better understanding of processes of preferences and aspirations, three contrasting case studies were conducted with groups of young people as well as workers from the youth programs frequented by these young people. This study first explores what young people say about how they create meaningful lives, and how they hope to engage in society in the future. Secondly, the arenas where these aspirations become developed, shaped and stunted are analysed. Finally, the study investigates how these aspects were engaged with and recognised, within youth work settings. The study examines the difference disadvantage makes to the development of social citizenship aspirations. I argue in this thesis that the ways people long to be a part of society (social citizenship aspirations) is developed through feelings of belonging and recognition. Through this framework, it becomes possible to conduct a different type of social criticism, where the focus is not only on the material conditions structuring aspirations, but also the mental conditions that facilitate self‐realisation and the fostering of social citizenship aspirations. Further, the study maintains that aspirations are more than cognitive, but instead embedded in the material and social context, and made up of young people’s embodied and emotional longing to find a valorised place among their peers. The concepts of recognition and belonging allow for a richer understanding of young people’s lives that go beyond their transitions and their cultural embeddedness. This thesis starts by arguing that the ways young people’s aspirations are conceptualised in both government policy and some academic research often rely on restrictive, individualistic definitions. Instead, by situating young people’s social citizenship aspirations, empirically represented as young people’s longing for safety, connection, respect and visibility, within processes of marginalisation across different arenas (i.e. school, local communities and youth programs) a type of ‘de‐objectification’ results, which broadens our understanding of disadvantaged young people’s agency and capabilities in several ways. Firstly, the thesis demonstrates that the possibilities for exercising agency are always in relation to the specific local and social context and the broader socio‐structural factors, which determine that environment. This understanding of aspirations breaks with the habitual way of understanding aspirations for disadvantaged groups; as the enactment of preference within constraint. Instead, I argue that recognition and belonging both enable and constrain aspirational horizons. Secondly, I suggest that analyses that seek to comprehend the structures that delimit and define horizons for actions such as gender, class and place should best be contextualised within young people’s active labour to find a valorised role for themselves. Thirdly, the focus on relationships and belonging in young people’s lives may provide a more holistic and sensitive account of the social and cultural reproduction of problematic social practices, so often avoided due to its ambivalent and uncomfortable connotations. Seen from this perspective, the type of social citizenship subjectivities encouraged within youth programs, or how young people are encouraged to see their place in society, becomes a matter of social justice. This study argues that narrowly designed youth programs aimed purely at educational transitions are in danger of reproducing further misrecognition and social exclusion. By neglecting to address young people’s social embeddedness and the foundation upon which young people create their social citizenship aspirations, low expectations are in danger of being reinforced. The concept of social citizenship provides a lens which may assist the sector to direct activities towards addressing this, by providing a holistic understanding of what creates young people’s self‐ understanding, values and attitudes, and how these go on to shape aspirations in all facets of life, including education, employment, personal relationships and social citizenship aspirations.
  • ... Similarly, in Aotearoa New Zealand, beneficiaries who are not white have long been vilified in the popular imagination (Ministerial Advisory Committee, 1986). Beddoe (2014) has argued that the New Zealand media rely upon stigmatising and often highly racialised stereotypes of the poor, and particularly the welfare poor. Such depictions work to overshadow the structural inequalities that have led to disproportionate numbers of Māori and Pasifika claiming welfare (Beddoe, 2014). ...
    ... Beddoe (2014) has argued that the New Zealand media rely upon stigmatising and often highly racialised stereotypes of the poor, and particularly the welfare poor. Such depictions work to overshadow the structural inequalities that have led to disproportionate numbers of Māori and Pasifika claiming welfare (Beddoe, 2014). The welfare state has been re-imagined as nurturing welfare dependency, particularly amongst those who are not white. ...
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    INTRODUCTION: Based on empirical research with Māori and Pasifika lone mothers, this article considers the way that discourses of ethnicity and welfare combine to shape the lived experience of welfare receipt. METHOD: Drawing from 16 focus groups and interviews conducted in 2014 throughout Aotearoa New Zealand with women receiving Sole Parent Support, we analyse the way participants spoke of their experiences with Work and Income New Zealand.FINDINGS: Our findings indicate that the negative experiences related to the receipt of welfare in New Zealand are intensified for women who identify ethnically as Māori or Pasifika. Many of the women who took part in the research attributed poor treatment, including the denial of access to welfare entitlements, to their ethnicity. Participants spoke of avoiding visits to welfare offices because of the racism they anticipated experiencing in these spaces. CONCLUSIONS: There are significant implications for these findings. We argue that identifying as Māori or Pasifika can have consequences in relation to accessing welfare entitlements and that ethnicity may negatively influence interactions within welfare offices in Aotearoa New Zealand.
  • ... At the same time politicians and media commentators will mask the structural inequalities by promoting an individualist perspective that suggests poverty stems from personal lifestyle choices. These stigmatising perspectives disproportionately impact on indigenous and minority ethnicity communities (Beddoe, 2014). An example from the columnist Michael Laws (Sunday Star Times, 3 June, 2012): ...
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  • ... In Aotearoa New Zealand one particular child abuse tragedy (the death of twin babies in a Māori family) led to a series of political events (Beddoe, 2014;Hackell, 2016) in which welfare austerity policies came together with a demand for a more authoritarian and surveillant approach to child protection. This demand resulted in shifts to a more individualised approach which privileges personal responsibility and psychological dysfunction over structural accounts of cycles of poverty and historical trauma (Pihama et al., 2014). ...
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  • ... 21-22). These discourses are not unique to England: Beddoe (2014) recently drew parallels between the UK and Aotearoa New Zealand in her analysis of negative media framing of people in poverty, including its permeation of welfare policy reform and approaches to child welfare. Social workers, as members of society, can be influenced by these discourses and may unconsciously deliver services in prejudiced or discriminatory ways (ATD, 2005): "with contemporary politics and attitudes being as damning as they are, we have to live with a lot of very bad attitudes that seriously affect how people are perceived and treated by those in positions of authority" (ATD & Sajovic, 2014, p. 114). ...
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  • Chapter
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    Since the publication in 1963 of Goffman’s book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity the use of stigma concepts has grown enormously. For scores of stigmatizing circumstances the stigma concept provides a way to give expression to the social predicaments people encounter. As stigma encompasses devaluation, degradation, and discrimination it is intimately connected to processes of social inequality. In this chapter we provide reflections on the origins of social scientific attention to stigma and then provide concepts related to (1) what stigma is, (2) how stigmatizing circumstances differ one from the other, (3) why people stigmatize, (4) how stigma produces social inequality, and (5) how people seek to resist stigma. We end with a consideration of how broadly stigma affects inequality when we consider its affects for multiple stigmatized groups and for multiple social, personal and economic outcomes.
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    This paper explores the role of disgust in mediating disabled women's experience of workfare in the Australian state. As global social policy has been restructured along neoliberal lines in Western nations, the notion of ‘workfare’ has been widely promulgated. This paper draws on nine case studies from across Australia to explore how this has resulted in disabled women being coerced to participate in a range of workfare programs that are highly bureaucratised, sanitised and moralised. The findings suggest that with the advent of Australian neoliberal welfare reform, some disabled women are increasingly framed in negative affective terms. A primary emotion that appears to govern disabled women forced to participate in Australian neoliberal workfare programs is disgust. The experience of the participants interviewed for this study suggests that the naming of them in negative emotional terms requires disabled women to perform a respectable unruly corporeality to ensure that they gain and maintain access to a range of services and supports, which are vital to their wellbeing.
  • Article
    In the major reforms and reviews of social work in the UK that followed the death of Baby P in 2007, significant attention has been paid to the relationship between social work and the media. The College of Social Work, established in 2012, has created a media centre, commissioned and published research into media ethics, and produced a media guide for social workers. Whilst The Munro Review of Child Protection explicitly addressed the responsibilities of politicians in relation to media stories about social work, there has been little detailed analysis of their role. This paper presents findings from research undertaken by the author involving the analysis of ‘moral talk’ in political and press accounts of the death of Baby P. I argue that politicians, in conjunction with the press, actively mobilised public anger towards social work through their responses. The paper further suggests that politicians and the press have a shared mutual interest in the co-authorship of ‘bad’ stories about social work. This paper is timely given the continuing impact of the social work reform agenda and the potential implications of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press in Britain.
  • Article
    The idea of ‘intergenerational cultures of worklessness’ has become influential in UK politics and policy, and been used to explain contemporary worklessness and to justify welfare reforms. Workless parents are said to pass on to their children attitudes and behaviours which inculcate ‘welfare dependency’. In its strongest version, politicians and welfare practitioners talk confidently of ‘three generations of families where no-one has ever worked’; even though no study, bar this one, has investigated whether such families actually exist. Solid evidence for intergenerational cultures of worklessness is elusive so this study tested the idea via interviews with twenty families in Glasgow and Middlesbrough that had been long-term workless. Theories of intergenerational cultures of worklessness feel like ‘zombie arguments’ – resistant to evidence and social scientific efforts to kill them off. Regardless, the findings of this critical case study are offered as a fresh batch of ammunition with which to try to do so.
  • Article
    The White Paper on Vulnerable Children before the Aotearoa/New Zealand parliament proposes changes that will significantly reconstruct the child welfare systems in this country, including the use of a predictive risk model (PRM). This article explores the ethics of this strategy in a child welfare context. Tensions exist, including significant ethical problems such as use of information without consent, breaches of privacy and stigmatisation, without clear evidence of the benefits outweighing these costs. Broader implicit assumptions about the causes of child abuse and risk and their intersections with wider discursive, political and systems design contexts are discussed. Drawing on Houston et al. (2010) this paper highlights the potential for a PRM to contribute to a neo-liberal agenda that individualises social problems, reifies risk and abuse, and narrowly prescribes service provision. However, with reference to child welfare and child protection orientations, the paper suggests more ethical ways of using the model.