Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Feral Families, Troubled Families: The Spectre of the Underclass in New Zealand

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Feral Families, Troubled Families: The Spectre of the Underclass in New Zealand

Article excerpt


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 M?ori 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). …

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