Book Review: Welfare Words by Paul Michael Garrett

Review by Ian Cummins

Paul Michael Garrett works at NUI Galway in the Republic of Ireland. In 2018 he was Visiting Professor at the City University of New York (CUNY). Contemporary neoliberalism and historical practices of marginalisation and domination are some of his key scholarly concerns. For over ten years, he has been a member of the editorial collective of Critical Social PolicyWelfare Words by Paul Michael Garrett was published by Sage in 2018.

Raymond Williams and Keywords

This excellent volume is inspired and heavily influenced by the work of Raymond Williams. Williams alongside such other luminaries as Stuart Hall was a key figure in the development of the New Left in the UK from the late 1950s onwards. Williams published Culture and Society in 1958 and The Long Revolution in 1961. Keywords (Williams, 1976) is an exploration of the changing meanings of the words and terms that are used in discussions of culture and cultural ideas. It consists of a hundred and ten short essays on terms including bourgeois, culture and hegemony. He published a revised version in 1983 and added twenty-one new words. These works emphasised not only the importance of the development of popular culture but also that this is an area that needs to be critically examined.

Welfare Words

Garrett uses an approach influenced by Williams to examine and critically explore the roots of seven “keywords” in the area of social work and social welfare. In his introductory chapters, the author outlines the development of his ideas and the conceptual lens that he applies. These two chapters set out the ground for the analysis of the “welfare words” that will follow. Garrett is immersed in the intricacies of modern political theory. His discussion of key thinkers such as Gramsci, Bourdieu and Fraser is impressive. In these early chapters, he examines the way that particular terms or phrases come into popular usage and form the basis for a “common sense” understanding of complex social issues and problems. Each chapter provides an introduction and an analysis of the development of the use of the term. The conclusion of each chapter includes a reflection and talk box section which are designed to provoke classroom debate. The chapters are of a consistently high standard. The chapters can be read individually depending the reader’s particular areas of interests. However, I think that it is important that the introduction and conceptual sections are read to understand the author’s philosophical approach. Having set out his theoretical ground and conceptual lens, Garrett then goes on to examine his “keywords”: welfare dependency, underclass, social exclusion, resilience, early intervention, care and adoption in individual chapters. The shifts and changes in the usage of these terms are explored. The work of Wacquant (2009) is a key text in outlining the nexus of academics, think tanks and media organisations that have played a key role in promoting an anti-welfarist discourse. A key element of this is the representation of those as living in poverty as feckless, work shy and immoral (Jensen and Tyler, 2015).

In his discussion of the term welfare dependency Garrrett highlights the fact that the term “social security” which was in common usage for the administration of state benefits has disappeared from public discourse. The Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) became the Department of Social Security before being replaced by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2001. These are not simply cosmetic changes. They reflect a shift, as Garrett noted “welfare – is now purposely configured in and often experienced by claimants as a heavily surveilled system of social insecurity “ (Garrett 2018 p3). Welfare was one of Williams original keywords. In the 14th century it was used to indicate happiness or prosperity. It is only in the 20th century that it came to be used to mean organised care. Following Labour’s post World War II reforms, the term “welfare state” entered the political lexicon. Garrett then goes on to outline the shifts in the use of the term welfare and the way that it has become linked with dependency. Welfare, as a racially coded pejorative term has its roots in US political discourse. Welfare is seen to create dependency. It has, thus, become a key term in the broader neoliberal attack on public services.

Another excellent example of his approach is Garrett’s analysis of the use of the term resilience. It is used of individuals, families, communities and organisations. In my field of social work, practitioners and students have to demonstrate that they have the resilience required to carry out the professional role. Garret shows that resilience is everywhere in the academic social work literature. He also outlines the way that the term is linked to military thinking and ideas – it is seen as a necessary quality of modern soldiers and by extension all citizens. The difficulty here is that resilience is presented as an individual quality. The implication that those who do not demonstrate the necessary resilience are weak or lack the required strength of character to carry out the role. This individualised approach gives the organisation a free pass and ignores structural issues and working conditions that have such profound impact. This leads to the depoliticising of debates around such issues. It also means that the focus is removed from those powerful actors such as state and local institutions who have the power to intervene to tackle the root causes.

This is a significant new work. It highlights the crucial importance of the power of “welfare words”. It maps the development and use of these terms against a backdrop of welfare retrenchment, increasing inequality and austerity. It provides a clear insight into the way that a neoliberal vocabulary of welfare has played a powerful role in structuring debates in these fields. It is a well written and argued text, which is superbly researched. It is essential reading for all those interested in developing a critical social work mode of practice but also those with an interest in critical social policy. There is clearly scope for a second volume that examines a further series of keywords.

Review by Dr Ian Cummins, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Salford. Ian qualified as a probation officer and subsequently worked as a mental health social worker. His research interests in the criminal justice system and the history of mental health services reflect his practice experience. He published Poverty, inequality and social work: The impact of neo-liberalism and austerity politics on welfare provision with Policy Press in 2018.

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