Social work: Putting out fires for those who “deserve” it

By Lauren Bartley

The centuries-old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor that dictated who was deserving of charity and social assistance, and who was not, seems to be making a crafty comeback in New Zealand. Developed during the reign of Elizabeth I, the Poor Law differentiated between those who were poor as a result of circumstances beyond their control, and those who were poor due to laziness, idleness or immorality. Though arguably not as explicit, New Zealand social policy, social work practice, and the media are doing an exemplary job at creating that same distinction of the deserving and undeserving poor, by separating the notions of child poverty and adult poverty. This apparent disconnect allows policymakers and those who implement it to aspire to lift children out of poverty without publicly recognising that to do so will require addressing the poverty of the adults with whom those children live. 

The focus on child poverty is at once a noble cause, and, somewhat less nobly, a buzzword that politicians use to curry favour and pander to public opinion. Children are ubiquitously regarded as the future and deserving of the best possible start in life. A hungry, shoeless adult may not cause a second glance (or if they do, it is usually one of self-righteous distaste), while the poverty of a child is met with empathetic outrage, arguably directed at the child’s parents. The relentless neoliberal focus on individual responsibility has not helped much, as the systemic causes of poverty are replaced with individual explanations and an unhealthy obsession with the morality of those who are undeservingly poor and receiving welfare: they have too many children to too many different fathers, they smoke, they drink, and they are unwilling to work (Linkon, 2015). Children are then painted as the deserving poor, innocent victims of their parent’s immorality and poor decision-making.

Social work has always been concerned with issues of poverty. Since social work’s inception, poverty has been a central characteristic of people with whom social workers work. Itself a largely passive consumer of neoliberal politics, social work has become a reliable evangelist for the state’s agenda, tending to overlook the systemic explanations of poverty and its consequences, such as abuse, addictions and mental health issues. In fact, it seems we are moving into a time where poverty is disregarded altogether, as evidenced by the lone mention of it in the final report of the “Expert” Advisory Panel  (Kenkel, 2016) . Practice has become “child-centred”, which itself is not a bad thing, but in doing so, the child is isolated from their whānau context, and the poverty they experience is separated from that of their adults.

The distinction between child and adult poverty, the deserving and undeserving poor, is a momentous misnomer. You simply cannot lift children out of poverty without also bringing their adults . That’s like putting out a fire in just the child’s room when the whole house is alight.

The work of political groups like Child Poverty Action Group is invaluable and does a phenomenal job at bringing conversations about the reality of poverty to the forefront of public attention. However, the conversation cannot stop at child poverty. Given their unique view into the reality of lives lived in poverty, it is social workers who must become far more active in dispelling the myths about the “undeserving adults” and start fighting fires throughout the whole house, not just in the rooms of children.


Office of the Children’s Commissioner. (2017). Budget 2017 good news for Kiwi kids. Retrieved from on 27/05/17.

Linkon, S. (2015, April 6). The return of the underserving poor. [Blogpost]. Retreived from on 27/05/17.

Kenkel, D. (2016, April 23). The absent elephant in the 2016 ‘Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel Report’. [Blogpost]. Retreived from on 27/05/17.

Russell, A. (2017, May 23). [video, no title]. Retrieved from on 27/05/17.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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