Why are we running around for these people?

workharderI am very critical of Work and Income in this blog. While I’m unapologetic about my criticism of the organisation, sometimes I feel that caseworkers disproportionately bear the brunt of disparaging comments that should be more appropriately directed towards their employer. While case managers are the face of Work and Income, they don’t make welfare policy. In many ways they are as powerless as their clients and I’m aware – as are many beneficiaries – that it isn’t an easy job.

There are reports of good caseworkers at Work and Income. Most of the women in my research mentioned that they had come across staff who treated them well. While they stressed that good case managers were a minority, they spoke of workers who were “helpful and understanding”, would advise clients of their entitlements, and view them as an individual with unique needs. Yet as I have talked about in previous posts, more often than not Work and Income clients describe their case managers as being disagreeable and lacking in compassion. Time and time again beneficiaries speak of being disparaged and demeaned in the process of claiming their entitlements.

Last week I read a news story from Britain about a message left in error on a client’s voice mail by a welfare caseworker. Thinking she had hung up the phone, the worker started berating her client to her colleague:

Why are we running around for these people? Do you know I resent even doing this work because if I had a person who said I really want a job … but not some scrounging bastard that’s popping out kids like pigs. I’m going to get very politically incorrect this afternoon.

Instead of pointing out how offensive she was being, her workmate replied, “you are, aren’t you? And I don’t blame you one bit”.

These women are in the United Kingdom, and it would be nice to think that Work and Income staff aren’t describing beneficiaries in New Zealand as “scrounging bastards”, but I’m not so sure.

When I was working on the Access to Justice for Beneficiaries research project we interviewed a Work and Income case manager and asked about the treatment of clients by Work and Income staff. She emphasised the demands of the job and suggested that this led to staff developing negative attitudes towards their clients. She also had this to say about her colleagues:

In the staff room they’re really critical … we once had a training day and it was like ‘a Ministry of Social Development employee is friendly, efficient and easy to deal with’. And a lot of people were outraged that they were expected to be friendly, efficient and easy to deal with clients. Because these clients are so difficult to deal with themselves. And I can see how that’s happened, like I can see how people have put a barrier up to protect themselves, because it is a really hard job.

The job of a case manager is undoubtedly a difficult one, but to be “outraged” at having to treat people kindly when you work in a customer service role seems outrageous in itself. There appears to be a remarkable lack of compassion for clients and the challenges they face. There is some very clear evidence that clients feel demeaned by staff at Work and Income and, while this is the feedback of one person, here is an indication that the staff don’t feel that they should act in any other way.

There hasn’t been a lot of research undertaken into what caseworkers think of welfare clients and why they think like that. Two studies carried out in the United States have noted the difficulty welfare workers face as caseloads have increased, and pointed out the negative consequences this can have for welfare recipients. A more recent American study suggested that caseworkers are often conflicted by a need to implement welfare policy and a recognition that such policy can harm their client’s wellbeing. The study concluded that caseworkers manage a conflict in their personal values by convincing themselves that policies are in the best interests of their clients and of society as a whole. These studies indicate that working as a case manager is a stressful job and that this stress can translate into less than optimum outcomes for their clients.

It’s difficult to imagine someone who describes clients as “popping out kids like pigs” thinking this is in the best interests of these clients, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the profound impact that comments like this have on welfare recipients. While I appreciate the stress that Work and Income case managers are under, they have the capacity to make their own choices. No matter how stressed they are, I can guarantee that they aren’t under as much stress as the vulnerable and marginalised clients they see.

The value conflict argument does have some plausibility however. As I wrote a few weeks ago, under neoliberalism we have come to accept that responsibility for welfare has shifted from the government to the individual and that those in poverty are to blame for their situation. Policy created under neoliberalism does not account for structural inequalities that lead to welfare dependency, but instead is based on blaming individuals for their refusal to participate in the market. The policy caseworkers implement has been developed within a neoliberal framework and can only be justified by adopting a neoliberal rationale. The Ministry of Social Development cannot expect staff to be easy to deal with when implementing such policy. The policy’s very existence demands a punitive approach to its implementation. This doesn’t excuse the harsh treatment of clients by Work and Income staff – of course caseworkers have a choice in how they act – but it explains how such behaviour is created and reinforced by welfare policy in this country.



Brodkin, E. (1997) Inside the Welfare Contract: Discretion and Accountability in State Welfare Administration. Social Service Review 71:1-33.

Kingfisher, C. (1996) Women in the American Welfare Trap. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Morgen, S. (2001). The Agency of Welfare Workers: Negotiating Devolution, Privatization, and the Meaning of Self‐Sufficiency. American Anthropologist, 103(3), 747-761.http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/683611.pdf

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