A Policy Travelogue: Tracing Welfare Reform in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Canada

Kingfisher’s book is a theoretically productive account of how welfare reform policies develop and travel from New Zealand to Alberta, Canada and from the world of policy elites to the daily lives of poor single mothers.  Drawing on a range of theory about policy and on a range of data gathered in both locations, Kingfisher paints a compelling picture of policy as process that disrupts both mainstream accounts of policy production and implementation and overgeneralized descriptions of the global spread of neoliberal policy regimes.  In her nuanced and thoughtful travelogue, she traces the complex movement of policy across and through borders, sites, and actors, following lines of convergence and divergence.

An important strength of Kingfisher’s book is the range of data she uses from locations that are less discussed in the literature on policy and especially in the literature on welfare reform.  By focusing on New Zealand and Alberta, she is able to trace the ways in which policy is not simply created in core areas and then diffused outward.  In addition, she is able to show how policy is assembled and translated within states, among street-level bureaucrats, at NGO’s who take up some of the slack from welfare cuts, and in the daily lives of the poor single mothers who are the targets of welfare policies.

The related concepts of translation and assemblage are woven throughout Kingfisher’s account, providing an extremely useful theoretical framework for her ethnography.  The idea of translation allows for an understanding of the ways in which meaning is created as the ideas that make up policies travel. In this view, meaning is not prior to the process of translation but emerges within it and shifts as the process unfolds. In addition, and contrary to ideas of policy transfer, the people who carry these policies with them are conceptualized as “interested, invested actors with specific agendas who interact with similarly interested and invested actors on the ‘receiving’ end of policy travels” (p. 12). The process of translation is thus about power: “about meaning making in the interest of claims making” (p. 13).  Assemblage points to the fact that policy is not neatly received as a complete package by those who adopt, implement, or live with the policy.  Instead, there is a complex process of piecing together ideas and practices, reinterpreting them in light of what already exists, conceiving of ideas in new ways, and “cutting and pasting” new and old, global and local.  Kingfisher productively attends to the ways in which translation and assemblage are constrained by history, existing structures, bureaucracies, and previously held beliefs. In short, she lays out how these processes occur “within contexts that are simultaneously constraining and enabling” (p. 15).

Throughout the book Kingfisher demonstrates that policies are complex assemblages which emerge in practice and constantly shift and change—sometimes being translated and sometimes being lost in translation—as they move. She begins with New Zealand and the shift, driven by goals of smaller budgets and reduced debt, to the New Zealand Model which largely dismantled welfare through dramatic cuts and strict policies that forced women with young children into the paid workforce. Although these reforms drew on neoliberal ideas of personhood and citizenship, they were also grafted onto existing social democratic ideals and a strong belief that women are primarily mothers who should be in the home.  This model was then selectively taken up in Alberta.  For example, strict work tests were adopted in Alberta while policy-makers ignored that this reform had been rather quickly abandoned in New Zealand.  Thus, readers see not a rational adoption of policy as in mainstream accounts of policy transfer, but a process of translation and assemblage.

Next, Kingfisher turns to welfare offices and community service agencies, tracing the ways workers create policy rather than simply implement it.  In welfare offices in both locations, active society approaches (i.e. that individuals need to take control of their own lives and not be dependent on the state) and the focus on jobs as a primary route to self-sufficiency translated well and were readily incorporated by workers. However, providers rejected one-size-fits-all approaches that didn’t take into account the realities of their client’s lives.  Most interestingly, providers assembled explanations of poverty and its solutions that were downplayed in official policy.  In Alberta, although policy emphasized individual causes and solutions, providers focused on structural causes.  In contrast, in New Zealand, although changes in 2002 encouraged providers to take into account the complexity of recipient’s lives, providers continued to push jobs as the solution to poverty.  Community service providers in both locations assembled a view of poverty as having societal causes (although providers in New Zealand focused more on the role of racism than did providers in Alberta).  In both locations, community providers translated welfare policy strategically and attempted to help mothers get everything to which they were entitled.

Finally, Kingfisher turns to poor mothers and finds striking similarities which she attributes to the power of neoliberal ideals of personhood as well as to their similar experiences.  Women translated ideas of independence, seeing themselves as independent mothers (rather than workers) avoiding the pitfalls of low-wage work and relationships with men whom they viewed as needy and childlike.  They discussed wanting to have fulfilling careers, but that this would have to come after their children were grown.  They thus assembled a different vision of ideal personhood and translated welfare rules to further their own agendas.

Despite the richness of her data, analysis, and theoretical insights, there is one gap in Kingfisher’s account.  She effectively traces the convergences and divergences that arise as policy makes its complicated journey, but what remains less clear is how the views of providers are translated and assembled into daily practices in welfare offices and community organizations.  This is not a criticism of Kingfisher, however. She was simply unable to systematically observe daily practice.  It remains for other studies to build on the considerable theoretical insights in this book and trace that step in the travels of policy.

Tina Lee, University of Wisconsin-Stout

Kingfisher,Catherine. A Policy Travelogue: Tracing Welfare Reform in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Canada. Berghahn Books, 2013. Read more at Berghahn Books.


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