Book Review: Precarity: Uncertain, Insecure and Unequal Lives in Aotearoa New Zealand

Available in bookshops nationwide.

This book is from the newest university publisher in New Zealand, Massey University Press, and presents some new research from post-graduate students and academics, mostly from Massey and Waikato Universities. It is a reminder that there is substantive research being done in social science in a multi-disciplinary context, and this is a valid attempt to get a wider audience than that within the ivory towers. The term ‘Precarity’ is derived from the work of an English academic, Guy Standing, who has written about the ‘Precariat’ as an international phenomenon. Standing provides a brief foreword to the book which explains his version of the concept, and relates it to the idea of a ‘denizen’, being those people who are marginal in the labour market, and are therefore no longer treated as full citizens. In fact, Standing’s concept of a ‘precariat’ and this book do not highlight the labour market much at all, other than in how it relates to the welfare system. This inevitably means that most chapters look at the effect of welfare policies.

Precarity is a collection of mostly very specific chapters about aspects of the welfare system, and the specific experience of certain people within it. This highlights some rather difficult material based on marginalised ‘denizens’, often from particular ethnic groups or cultural perspectives. The troubling content is presented as sensitively as possible, and most of the substantive chapters are quite brief. In fact, given that most chapters have two or more authors it seems that there has been a form of cherry-picking of the potential content from much more in-depth research. Only the chapter on media depictions of precarious work provides a lengthy contextual positioning.

Indeed, the book does not really need to focus on one particular concept like ‘precarity’ at all. It is really a very focussed critique of welfare and social policy practice. All of the theoretical framing is stated early in the chapters by referring to the now familiar concept of ‘neo-liberalism’, and the position that sweeping new policies were imposed based on an economic theory that had inevitable consequences for vulnerable individuals in the labour market, or on the fringes of it. This works at a very general level, or is presented as an inevitable international trend, and creates a large gap between theory and practice. There is a chapter called ‘From working poverty to sustainable livelihood’, in which a group of psychologists refer to the United Nations ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs). The SDGs are intended to address the poverty trap within specific countries, and focus the use of international aid. The authors refer to critics of international aid, but reduce it to a binary choice.

Since there is effectively a consensus within the book, in which all of the social scientists accept the idea of neo-liberalism as the prevailing policy paradigm, the chapters examine its deleterious effects. There are important empirical critiques of policy here, and the sheer callousness of the Work & Income staff. One especially topical point refers to the so-called ‘social investment’ approach that the National Party has claimed is the answer to welfare dependency. The chapter on young Maori mothers on the Youth Parent Payment benefit highlights the way that the beneficiaries are obliged to undertake education and training. This is based on the financialisation of lifetime benefit costs, and utilises a Net Present Value calculation by officials that is obviously inappropriate, since there are no ‘investment returns’ to be made as an interest rate.

So there is some significant work here, but it is not an easy read, and the lack of an index does not help the reader look for specific concepts being discussed.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Precarity: Uncertain, Insecure and Unequal Lives in Aotearoa New Zealand
Edited by, Shiloh Groot, Natasha Tassell-Matamua, Clifford Van Ommen, and Bridgette Masters-Awatere
Published by Massey Texts
ISBN: 9780994141514


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