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date: 02 December 2021



  • Jessica ToftJessica ToftUniversity of Minnesota Twin Cities


Neoliberalism is an international, transdisciplinary, and interdisciplinary concept with political, economic, and social dimensions. Neoliberalism is a governing rationality based on market logic that protects free markets by reducing business regulations, restricting citizen and resident welfare state protections, and increasing welfare state discipline. This entails three dimensions: First, neoliberalism consists of economic governing principles to benefit free markets both globally and domestically to the advantage of corporations and economic elites. Second, this includes concurrent state governing principles to limit welfare state protections and impose disciplinary governance so service users will be individually responsible and take up precarious work. A third component is neoliberal governmentalitythe ways neoliberalism shapes society’s members through the state to govern themselves as compliant market actors. Neoliberalism is at its core a political reasoning, organizing society around principles of market rationality, from governance structure to social institutions to individual behavior in which individuals should behave as responsible and accountable market actors. Among its central tenets are that individuals should behave as independent responsible market actors; the social welfare state should be downsized and delegated to lower levels of government; and public welfare should be privatized, marketized, and commodified. While neoliberal policy design sets public provision parameters, its signature tool is to govern through state public administration. New public managerialism is a common example, as is managerialism more generally; they both borrow business management principles and apply them to the management of all aspects of social services. Because of its prescriptive nature, there is concern that neoliberalism dictates practice, threatening professional authority of social workers and challenging the implicit trust the public puts in professions. Writ large, there are concerns about democracy itself as neoliberalism works against the will of the people and collective responses to social problems. Resistance to neoliberalism is growing and early examples are provided.


  • Administration and Management
  • Ethics and Values
  • Poverty
  • Social Justice and Human Rights
  • Social Work Profession


Despite its common appearance in the literature, neoliberalism has been described as a “weasel word, unruly signifier, and rascal concept” (Peck & Theodore, 2019, p. 255). Definition is indeed difficult. Neoliberalism is an international, transdisciplinary, and interdisciplinary concept (Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015). A single search in Google Scholar calls up studies in economics, geography, anthropology, cultural studies, education, public administration, political science, political philosophy, history, sociology, and social work. Because of its expansive reach, this article on neoliberalism limits its focus to those aspects that are germane for social work. As a global phenomenon spanning economic, political, and social dimensions, the article follows the advice of Peck et al. (2018), focusing on “actually existing neoliberalism” within the United States.

It is wise to first distinguish neoliberalism from “liberalism.” In the United States, liberalism has two connotations: Since the 1960s, liberalism has meant a left-leaning political ideology endorsing equality, access to civil rights, and individual development and autonomy supported by the state. The economy, including private and public interests, should be regulated by the state to limit inequality. This perspective contends that social change is desirable and a means to improve human well-being (Heywood, 2017; Knight, 2006). However, its older predecessor, “classical liberalism,” has a different connotation of liberty and individual freedom symbolized in the ability to engage in contracts typically for the buying and selling of labor or private property. Classical liberalism, embedded in economics, is argued to be a political right: economic freedom as political freedom (Gaus et al., 2018). Paradoxically, then, classical liberalism aligns with what is thought of in the 2020s as conservatism—a right-leaning political ideology which underscores free market economics, privatization, and limited government regulation (Heywood, 2017; Karger & Stoesz, 2018). Conservative ideology endorses the preservation of traditional institutions, a “natural” hierarchy of authority, individual responsibility through rational decision making, and tolerance for a degree of inequality (Heywood, 2017).

Neoliberalism comprises a combination of these political and economic ideologies and adds novel elements. Neoliberalism is a governing rationality based on market logic that protects free markets by reducing business regulations, restricting citizen and resident welfare state protections, and increasing welfare state discipline (Brown, 2015; Harvey, 2007; Slobodian, 2018; Wacquant, 2012). This rationality entails three dimensions: First, neoliberalism consists of economic governing principles to benefit free markets both globally and domestically to the advantage of corporations and economic elites (Harvey, 2007; Stiglitz, 2013; Wacquant, 2009). Second, this includes concurrent state governing principles to limit welfare state protections and impose disciplinary governance so that service users will be individually responsible and take up precarious work (Soss et al., 2011; Wacquant, 2009). A third component is neoliberal governmentalitythe ways neoliberalism shapes society’s members to govern themselves as compliant market actors (Schram et al., 2010). Brown contends neoliberalism consists of a powerful political rationality that imperils democracy itself as it “disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities—even where money is not at issue—and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors, always, only, and everywhere as homo oeconomicus” (p. 31, italics in original). Hence, while neoliberalism incorporates a classical liberalism and maybe more closely a contemporary conservatism, it also leverages the power of the state—not to regulate business and industry, but rather to regulate work and other behavior of citizens and residents, what Wacquant (2012, p. 72) calls a “re-regulation” of the state.

Interestingly, economic leaders and scholars have been slow to claim this moniker (Mirowski, 2018). However, the International Monetary Fund recognizes some gains through its neoliberal policies of greater efficiencies in government and access of poorer countries to capital and newer technologies (although it now acknowledges its effects on inequality [Ostry et al., 2016]). The Adam Smith Institute of the United Kingdom in 2018 penned a Neoliberal Manifesto in which they endorse individual freedom to ensure human flourishing over planned social programs (Lesh et al., 2018). As indicated here, the international community and scholars are well versed in the ideas of neoliberalism, while the United States is less so (Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015).

Neoliberal Ideology

Ideologies are systems of ideas and beliefs about how the world should work. They are usually associated with group interests and are employed to legitimize points of view. Ideology is conveyed through discourse—written and spoken language, including news media, entertainment, and social media, which maintain and reproduce ideological discourse (Van Dijk, 2000). Neoliberals were early proponents of think tanks, disseminating their ideas widely. In the 21st century, neoliberalism is “hegemonic” by Gramsci’s criteria, as it is widely accepted despite benefiting only a dominant group (Campbell & Pedersen, 2015; Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015). A strong discourse of neoliberalism has become the dominant ideology of Western democracies (Bourdieu, 1998; Peck et al., 2012). Hence, through discourse, neoliberal ideology has affected social provisioning and social work practice in particular (Schram & Silverman, 2012; Tuominen & Thompson, 2015).

A Brief Political-Economic and Sociopolitical History

Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776) launched an ideology of the self-regulating market in which markets alone determined labor compensation (Polanyi, 1957). Termed “economic liberalism,” these ideals insisted that individuals should be completely free to compete in markets based on self-interest, without state constraint. During the U.S. Industrial Revolution (1860–1900), factory workers grew to 5.5 million and industrialists’ annual value of manufactured products rose $11 billion (Trattner, 1999). Yet, markets could not self-regulate, as economic recessions, panics, and depressions from 1850 to 1893 revealed. Further, the market depended not just on free labor but also on substantial forced labor of enslaved persons of color.

A variety of social protections against market risks originated during the Industrial Revolution and prior to the Social Security Act in 1935. Civil society was teeming with fraternal benefit societies, civic associations, churches, and charities (Skocpol, 1995). Labor unions grew in the late 1890s as they began to support unemployed members (Katz, 1996). The establishment of the federal Freedmen’s Bureau, Civil War pensions, and policies to protect women as mothers and workers revealed the United States as a precocious welfare state. However, the conservative stance of the Supreme Court and state-level courts stalled the campaigns for workingmen’s unemployment insurance, national health insurance, child labor laws, and old-age pensions in the United States throughout the Progressive Era and even throughout the 1920s (Skocpol, 1995).

The crisis of the Great Depression in the 1930s necessitated large-scale emergency aid, which preceded permanent federal protections and entitlements of the Social Security Act (SSA), comprised of unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, and aid to mothers (Katz, 1996). While a monumental step forward, the SSA omitted agricultural and domestic workers, effectively excluding a large proportion of persons of color, and burdened caregiving mothers to continually demonstrate need to access citizenship benefits (Katz, 1996).

John Maynard Keynes, meanwhile, introduced a contrary economic idea: that government should reinforce the demand-side rather than the supply-side of the economy. He argued the economy worked best with high aggregate demand, requiring policies for full employment, an active economy, and deficit spending during recessions, buffering against capitalism’s booms and busts. These ideas influenced New Deal protective social policies and the next 40 years of governance. This brand of state intervention, coined “embedded liberalism,” reflected a class compromise allowing a degree of industry and corporate market competition while promoting a livable wage buoyed by welfare state programs (Harvey, 2007).

Until the 1970s, such social policies were more the rule than the exception: Returning World War II veterans received generous 1944 GI benefits that funded education and low-interest home loans (significantly, mostly for White veterans) while unions surged to 20 million members by 1970 (Axinn & Levin, 1992). The middle class grew through the 1960s. The Medicare and Medicaid SSA amendments, permanent establishment of food stamps, the Economic Opportunity Act (1964), and other War on Poverty programs all supported a more egalitarian emphasis. The embedded liberalism compromise was curtailed in the late 1970s when neoliberalism emerged.

Brief Intellectual History

Early roots of neoliberalism harken back to post-World War I. Men had gained the right to vote across Europe and the United States and many were unionized. The treaties of Versailles and St. Germain advanced the idea that it was governments—not markets—that should be entrusted to allocate resources for the benefit of the people (Slobodian, 2018). This challenged capitalists’ creed of free trade, strong property rights, and contract laws upheld across borders.

Ludwig von Mises and his student, Friedrich von Hayek, advocated for reinstatement of laissez-faire, except to enforce property laws. In Paris in 1938, at the Colloque Walter Lippmann, pro-market thinkers coined the term “neoliberalism,” heralding a new vision: traditional economic liberalism in which the state intervened to assist the market (Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015). Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom (1944) in which he argued against governments planning economies and social interventions (Jones, 2012). Instead, economic liberalism based on individual interests would produce the most just and efficient government. Hayek convened the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) in 1947. Open to only pro-market economic liberals, over many decades MPS members developed an international neoliberal agenda (Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015). This organization, the seat of neoliberalism’s generative thought collective, connected to the United States through various thinkers, including Hayek (University of Chicago), Milton Friedman (University of Chicago), and James Buchanan (George Mason University), among others (Jones, 2012; Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015).

The post-World War II Chicago School of Economics was the first to advocate reengineering the state to assure the success of the market. Chicago-school economic liberalism was promoted in Friedman’s book, Capitalism and Freedom, in which he suggested all political and social decisions were best solved as if in a market (Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015).

As the neoliberal political-economic focus moved from macroeconomics to governance during the mid-20th century, Buchanan’s “public choice” theory, a branch of rational choice theory, emerged. Rational choice theory held that individuals were self-interested actors who were rational, based their decisions on all available information regarding options benefits and costs, and chose to optimize benefits. Market prices were more sensitive to individual liberty than governments or state bureaucracies (Fitzpatrick, 2011). Only individuals were able to assess their separate needs, as all actors aimed to maximize their benefits. Therefore, collective welfare overreached (Fitzpatrick, 2011). The best strategy was to privatize public goods and introduce competition in state welfare provisions.

New Public Management (NPM) imported public choice and principal–agent theory that insisted public sector performance improved with incentive-based contracts between purchasers and sellers of services (Hood, 2001; Waterman & Meier, 1998). Managerialism (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2015), or new managerialism (Brodkin, 2011), or neomanagerialism (Terry, 1998) were business management principles applied to social services by those who advocated neoliberalism. It combined liberation management (freeing managers from bureaucratic systems to effectively manage) and market-driven management in which competition between agencies was created (Terry, 1998). Hence, neoliberalism combined competition-driven management with incentives and sanctions and business management, which focused on closer monitoring to increase worker production and efficiency pressures, often at the expense of quality services provided by social workers and other professionals.

Contemporary Policy History

In the late 1970s, the United States experienced inflation and economic stagnation (stagflation) for the first time, leading many to interpret that Keynesianism was no longer working (Harvey, 2007). Milton Friedman’s version of macroeconomics popularized supply-side economics, corporate deregulation, and privatization that steered Reagan’s administration (LePore, 2018). Social conservatism ascended in reaction to the Civil Rights and women’s movements; leveraging stereotypes, poverty was reframed once again as an individual issue (Abramovitz, 1982; Murray, 1984). Graduates from the Chicago School of Economics exported neoliberalism to Chile; by the mid-1970s, it was the economic engine in Pinochet’s dictatorship. Pensions, health care systems, and social welfare benefits were privatized and of keen interest to U.S. neoliberals, who saw their chance with the election of Ronald Reagan.

The 1980s

Reagan’s administration quickly implemented neoliberal policies. Under the logic of supply-side economics, the 1981 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) contained substantial cuts in taxes and public welfare spending (Ellwood, 1982). These were the largest cuts to government spending during peacetime and transitioned several universal welfare benefits to means-tested ones, as well as allowing states to experiment with workfare programs (Clayton & Pontusson, 1998). The 1980 Refugee and Resettlement Policy harbored the telltale signs of neoliberalism: privatization, devolution of authority, managerialism, and workfare (Benson, 2016). Meanwhile, the 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA) was passed representing the largest tax break ever passed for individuals and corporations (Akard, 1992). ERTA and OBRA provided an early U.S. example of the complementary nature of neoliberal economic and social welfare policy.

The amendment of Title XX of the Social Security Act into the Social Services Block Grant was one of the casualties of OBRA, bundling many programs into a single, state-administered program, with budget cuts of roughly 25% to programs such as child care assistance and child abuse prevention (Zinn, 1981). Block grants withdrew commitments to social rights by ending entitlements and limited citizens’ political voice in welfare state laws by transferring decision making to state administrations (Bruch et al., 2018).

Furthermore, the United States advanced neoliberalism internationally in the “Washington Consensus” of 1989—a list of 10 economic policies assembled by John Williamson from the Institute for International Economics. Among these were privatization of public enterprises, state deregulation of business, and the establishment and enforcement of property rights (Williamson, 2009). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank incorporated these neoliberal principles into the conditions of loan acceptance by poor and developing countries (Stiglitz, 2004). Through these policies, the IMF and World Bank limited countries’ ability to self-govern, garnering heavy criticism. Evidence was mounting in the United States and elsewhere that such policies increased economic inequality and led to financial crises (Stiglitz, 2004).

The 1990s

In 1994, the Republican “Contract with America” combined both welfare state withdrawals and work enforcement. Its “Personal Responsibility Act” proposed to deny economic assistance to teen mothers, deny additional benefits for families who had a child while receiving welfare, cut welfare spending, and “enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility” (Contract with America, 1994). Congress passed the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) that established the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) policy, replacing entitlement to public assistance with required paid work engagement for benefits. In the PRWORA, states were given more administrative control and work requirements were attached to receive food assistance.

The 2000s–2020

TANF reauthorization in 2008 was characterized as a “business as usual” approach to poverty governance. Those between the ages of 18 to 50 years without dependents now had to work 20 hours per week to receive food assistance (many states waived that requirement). The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (2010) was a major piece of social policy, expanding health care to 20 million people. However, neoliberalism’s footprint was evident here too; rather than a single payer national health care, subsidized markets were created and states elected to expand their Medicaid eligibility levels with the financial assistance of the federal government. Fourteen states elected not to opt in to the program (an example of the uneven impacts due to devolution to states) and uninsured rates increased again in 2019 (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2020). More recently, the Trump Administration in its FY2020 budget proposed a Medicaid block grant (with a per capita cap) and a number of states have attached or are trying to attach work requirements to Medicaid. Neoliberal governance continued to inform new policy domains. Under the new Biden and Harris administration, as of early 2021, it remains to be seen whether any of these policies will be reversed or mitigated.

Governing Rationalities of Neoliberalism

Foucault theorized that the state shaped its subjects through governing rationalities and the daily experiences under these regimes. This “governmentality” shifted power from a centralized power of command and diffused it throughout subjects, shaping their conduct from a distance (Brown, 2015). States molded individual self-government daily through tools of consensus, coercion, and guidance of conduct (Lemke, 2002). Thus, the image of the neoliberal marketized state shaped a neoliberal subject—a human capital subject—who must comport themselves as a firm to promote and in which to invest (Brown, 2015; Read, 2009). Abiding by neoliberal governance, this subject was an individual, and always an individual, locked in competition and personified in Thatcher’s proclamation that there was “no such thing as society, only individual men and women” (Harvey, 2007, p. 23).

Yet, humans tend to cooperate and organize collectively, so neoliberalism must continually work to reinforce the conditions for neoliberalism through ideological and political tools (Read, 2009). These efforts are evident in the current construction of the social work client and the governance structures of social provisioning in which social work operates.

Shaping the Subject: Individual Responsibility of Homo Economicus

Under 40 years of neoliberalism, the ways in which ideas of self-governance (freedom of choice, rationality of the individual, and self-interest) have shaped the national social welfare agenda are evident in privatization, individual savings strategies, voucher systems, and consumer-directed spending (Caplan & Ricciardelli, 2016). Individual responsibility in all realms of human functioning is a common expectation of clients and is a prominent social service aim (Seale, 2013; Soss et al., 2011).

Clients are shaped into homo economicus through discursive and everyday experience. Discursive tools keep workers on script, engaging, directing, monitoring, and evaluating client performance. Research has found in job seeking and financial literacy programs that workers leveraged self-reliance narratives and moral economies of selflessness to encourage clients to adhere to a sense of individual agency and responsibility (Purser & Hennigan, 2018; Tuominen & Thompson, 2015). It also required establishing the parameters in which clients and workers had to daily operate (Schram et al., 2010). For example, the requirement of continuous Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) paperwork, with sanctions for late submissions, reinforced the activity of constant tending to the economic concern under precarious conditions. Private social service agencies have been crucial sites of shaping the subjectivity to an individually responsible person who was not a burden on society (Trudeau & Veronis, 2009).

If clients’ performance of the role of homo economicus was the aim of social services, then workers’ role of neoliberal paternalist was its corollary. Mead (1997) argued that poor and unemployed persons needed support, guidance, and discipline to fulfill the obligation to work—the penultimate role of the citizen. The new paternalist used both disciplinary and supportive interventions to mold the economic actor (Soss et al., 2011). The penal state also regulated the poor, especially men of color, shaping them into compliant low-wage workers by winnowing their alternative life choices: Exiting low-wage insecure work for the informal economy led to severe punishment. There has been a disciplinary turn in governance, evident in suburban America (Butz, 2016), urban faith-based nonprofits (Purser & Hennigan, 2018), welfare-to-work offices (Taylor et al., 2018), housing-first programs (Willse, 2010), and drug treatment programs (Schram & Silverman, 2012).

Downsizing Public Provisioning Through Austerity and Devolution

When states’ budgets were unbalanced under neoliberal governance, public leaders often proposed cutting social service provisioning (Peck, 2012). The United States has experienced such “austerity politics” due to economic gambles by corporations and banks or through tax breaks (e.g., Trump’s 2017 corporate tax rates fell from 35% to 21%, increasing the federal deficit by 17% [Horsely, 2018]). Another tactic has been to send funding responsibilities to lower levels of government that by law cannot run a deficit budget or the ability (or will) to raise sufficient tax revenue. While these measures successfully set the field for limiting social costs, many studies have found that scarcity measures in social provisioning negatively affected service users (Hasenfeld, 1984; Krings et al., 2019; Seale, 2013).

With the rise of neoliberalism, calls to devolve or decentralize decision making from the federal to state government increased. Kincaid (1998) stated this was actually really a delegation that gave greater flexibility of design, implementation, and financing, while still being accountable to the federal authority. Its stated aim was to restore power in states for more locally tailored responses and improved efficiency, competition, innovation, and accountability. Calls for devolution ushered in privatized and management-oriented models of service delivery (Alexander, 2000; Austin, 2003; Butz, 2016; Garrow & Hasenfeld, 2014). Such state discretion appeared to lead to inequality where benefits and sanctions differed across states and grew over time, as found in the case of TANF (Bruch et al., 2018; Soss et al., 2011).

Privatization, Marketization, and Commodification of Public Services

Privatization of public services involves constructing market conditions of competition among providers of services as sellers and choice among funders and clients as buyers. The most common example of privatization mechanisms is contracts that set agreements among funders and providers about services to be rendered for set prices. Vouchers which required service users to choose among providers are another example (Gormley, 1994). These methods forced competition among social providers, driving service prices lower, a goal of neoliberalism (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2015). In theory, then, moving the provision of public services from the public to the private domain should have provided the most efficient disbursement of society’s goods, leading to the maximization of social welfare (Fitzpatrick, 2011). This assumption may be suspect.

In order for something to be marketized, it must first be transformed into a commodity to be bought or sold. Defining social work’s commodity has been an unceasing and worried project as it sells services comprised of intellectual knowledge and techniques that ostensibly assist the poor and marginalized. The other side of that coin is demand. In social work, demand looks like problems or needs as the purchaser constructs them—typically the state and sometimes the client. Due to neoliberal and professional pressures to commodify services, social and collective problems have been portrayed as individual depoliticized problems (Baines, 2010; Steffen, 2012). Several studies have shown that social work and social services engaged in this social construction (Esposito & Perez, 2014; Garrow & Hasenfeld, 2014; Searcy, 2018).

Once marketization had entered the field of social provisioning, its calculus simply became a matter of increasing service distribution. Efficiency and productivity are central concerns of administering and managing social welfare, but several studies found that privatization and marketization did not lead to efficiency and may have led to poorer quality and availability of services (Horton, 2006; Hubel et al., 2013; Matarese & Caswell, 2018).

One of the strategies of private enterprises is to manage the exposure to risk. In social services, risk includes service users with complex or long-standing problems who are less likely to demonstrate measurable improvement or are more likely to miss appointments. This becomes problematic: Research has shown that agencies have avoided working with these clients or have terminated services to protect performance metrics (Gordon, 2013; Horton, 2006; Smith & Lipsky, 1992). Many studies have found that resource competition led to mission drift (Campbell & McCarthy, 2000; Cordes et al., 2001), deemphasis on need and emphasis on services that pay (Esbenshade et al., 2016; Garrow & Hasenfeld, 2014), and decreased service quality and working conditions (Esbenshade et al., 2016; Smith & Lipsky, 1992).

The Emphasis on “Science” in Neoliberal Social Provisioning

In its drive to shape entrepreneurial and competitive subjects, neoliberalism must also attend to individuals’ problems that interfere with their ability to become proper subjects (Soss et al., 2011). Social serving agencies have developed and incorporated outcome benchmarks that ostensibly demonstrated client improvement required in service contracts such as in child welfare (Kearney et al., 2010; Lamothe, 2004), public assistance (Schram et al., 2010), substance use treatment (Schram & Silverman, 2012), mental health services (Bransford & Bakken, 2003; Farone, 2003; Horton, 2006), housing (Moynihan & Pandey, 2006), and general social services. Yet, some researchers found such measures, especially positivistic and quantified representations of problems, unable to capture their true nature and provide tools or levers of neoliberalism (Blau, 2017; Horton, 2006; Lamothe, 2004; Schram & Silverman, 2012). The science of improving the self and increasing functionality, what critics of neoliberalism have seen as the “therapeutic state,” has abetted neoliberalism by shaping “maladapted” subjects into those who will govern themselves (Nolan, 1998). The emphasis of social work as a science, which produced evidence-based, standardized, and manualized practices, has been critiqued as decontextualized, apolitical, and limiting the professional authority of the social worker (Blau, 2017; Dustin, 2007; LaRose, 2016; Matarese & Caswell, 2018; Smith & Lipsky, 1992).

If the principle is that improvement on outcome measures equates with overall betterment or improvement, then simply more of it (higher productivity of workers) will mean broader societal improvement, a problematic claim (Schram et al., 2010).

Neoliberal State Technologies for Population Management

Recent literature on neoliberal political rationality has drawn attention to the technologies of population management, or what Foucault (1990) called “biopolitics.” Rather than the state addressing causes of social problems or providing active social services, it simply managed people with these problems, such as Housing First initiatives (Willse, 2010). Other examples include aforementioned risk management for social service agencies to control outcomes, including risk assessment and general risk management approaches in practice, especially evident in child protection (Cummins, 2016; Roberts, 2014). Surveillance and monitoring are another example. There are several studies that highlight the state’s monitoring and surveillance of groups of people in order to manage and control them, especially poor persons of color, as Roberts (2014) pointed out in the child protection system’s surveillance of Black families (Steffen, 2012; Wacquant, 2009).

Policy Design and Public Administration

Neoliberal Policy Design

Peck et al. (2018) warned about drafting a list of neoliberal policy provisions. As an ever-changing and flexible phenomenon, it adapted to its time, place, and attendant political economics. The United States has been a unique case as it represented the most marketized of the Western liberal welfare state regimes (Somers, 2008), and its versions of neoliberalism reflected its predilection for pro-markets and pro-corporate policies (Peck et al., 2018). Paradoxically, because the United States seemed to be the least familiar with the concept of neoliberalism, its social workers may not have seen the profession’s investment in the paradigm (Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015).

For discussion’s sake, one example of neoliberal legislative policy provisions is presented. While neoliberal governance through administration is its most effective, legislative policy design sets the parameters and provides certain rules. The policy design of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) exemplified four common components of neoliberal poverty design and governance (Benson, 2016): The first component has been devolution of authority from higher levels of government to more local ones (Soss et al., 2011). The second has been privatization of public services through contracting with private providers under conditions of competition; purchase of service contracting was the central means of delivering the welfare state services (Gormley, 1994; Hasenfeld, 1984). The third was mandated managerialism in social service governance (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2015); and the fourth was paid work required for social welfare benefits (Soss et al., 2011). These prescriptions have been neatly accomplished through the legislative provision of block granting. The Trump Administration and Republican Congress members have promoted cutting and block-granting SNAP and adding work requirements to Medicaid, too (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2020).

Neoliberal Governance

Neoliberalism, as a purely political and economic experiment, has not performed well. Thus, it has turned to state governance as a secondary method of promoting markets and market mechanisms. Its use of the state in this manner has been in effect not a deregulation of state power, but rather a re-regulation of its use (Peck, 2010; Wacquant, 2009).

Through neoliberal public administration methods, such as New Public Management (NPM) and managerialism, social services are an integral partner in neoliberal governance. NPM is a U.K. and U.S. public administrative model that emerged in the 1970s and altered public governance to more closely resemble business management approaches. By emphasizing outcomes and managerial authority within social services, services have been instructed to focus on outcomes and improve efficiency, aligning the aims of public welfare and economics (Alexander, 2000; Hood, 2001; Moynihan & Pandey, 2006).

Similarly, managerialism is the “importing [of] business principles into the management of human service agencies” (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2015, p. 285). Its locus is within organizations, but its study has much overlap with NPM (Matarese & Caswell, 2018; Seale, 2013). The literature showed that managerialism has been problematic for social work practice. Expectations to increase productivity and efficiency negatively impacted practice, including larger caseloads, diminished service variety, and work speed-up (Close et al., 1994; LaRose, 2016). Efficiency measures involved constricted intake forms, benchmarks and billable hour goals, paperwork, and time-monitored sessions with clients (Matarese & Caswell, 2018). In some cases, workers have been expected to sanction and even terminate clients for poor performance, missing appointments, or lack of insurance (Gordon, 2013; Horton, 2006; Seale, 2013), but have been provided bonuses or incentives if productivity goals were reached (Schram & Silverman, 2012). Providers were held responsible and accountable for client outcomes (Close et al., 1994), despite clients’ complex social and economic positioning. Management could even circulate workers’ “performance measures” within units to increase competition (Horton, 2006).

The limited research on supervisors’ role within managerialism has found that some supervisors communicated well and built purpose legitimizing management’s approach (Moynihan & Pandey, 2006; Tuominen & Thompson, 2015). However, social workers were increasingly less likely to have licensed social work supervisors (Berger & Mizrahi, 2001) and supervisors reported increased surveillance expectations and mission drift due to funders’ preferences (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2010; Gordon, 2013). Most researchers reported compromised practice associated with pressures to speed up, complete paperwork, and limit client time (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2010). In fact, the methods through which managers extracted efforts from their workers mirrored those methods the workers themselves were expected to apply to their clients (Schram & Silverman, 2012). Under managerialism, supervisor and worker attempted to abide by distinct authorities—business and profession; supervisors were to navigate these directives, making them a key, yet less considered agent in delivering neoliberal social programs.

Social Work and Social Service Practice and Professional Authority

In theory, the public grants professions substantial autonomy and discretion because the work is complex. It requires specialized, theoretical knowledge, adherence to professional ethics, and early supervision by a licensed professional. Because of this, the public tacitly agrees that the work requires substantial professional autonomy and discretion (Freidson, 2001; Hamilton, 2008). Under New Public Management (NPM) and managerialism, social work professional autonomy suffers. While NPM’s management mantra had been to “steer and not row” (Brodkin, 2011), scholars who study the effects of NPM on professions have found that NPM not only has dictated practice ends, it also often prescribed practice methods, countering a crucial aspect of professional autonomy (Broadbent & Laughlin, 2005; Dustin, 2007; Siltala, 2013).

Managerialism has limited practice choice, permitting only approved methods (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2010, 2015; Bransford & Bakken, 2003). Professional authority has not been recognized (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2010; Caplan & Ricciardelli, 2016), perhaps despite licensure. There has been a trend of increasing non-social work supervisors, contradicting professional recommendations (Berger & Mizrahi, 2001) and this lack of practice authority may lead to poor service provision and outcomes (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2010). Workers have been encouraged to structure services for reimbursement, while there has been less time and ability to provide complete services (Seale, 2013). A predictable conflict has existed between building trusting client relationships and productivity (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2015; Schram & Silverman, 2012). Under such neoliberal conditions, the social work workforce has been deskilled (Hubel et al., 2013).

Neoliberalism’s Threat to Democracy and Social Work Ethics

Because neoliberalism is based on the conviction that “the market is in human nature” (Read, 2009, p. 26), its corresponding government is a marketized one. Some scholars maintain that this ideology based on innate human nature as individualistic and competitive eliminates the conception of a government dedicated to the public good, social justice, and public deliberation (Brown, 2015). However, people naturally coalesce in families, neighborhoods, associations, unions, and political campaigns. Many and diverse scholars have contended that cooperation, not competition, is the natural human predisposition (Jaggar, 1983; Polanyi, 1957).

Neoliberalism’s government through management is a threat to democratic rule by the people. Neoliberal governance does not attend to justice, equality, human dignity, moral contemplation of the other, and social responsibility (Brown, 2015; Toft, 2020). Social solidarity—which challenges the neoliberal market and state—is exactly what neoliberalism has worked against, from Hayekian-inspired discourse to policies that limit unions’ bargaining power (i.e., Right to Work policies), disentitle public assistance to poor families, and roll back the Affordable Care Act.

Neoliberalism likewise threatens citizenship rights by reducing them to fleeting transactional exchanges for performance rather than an enduring and inherent condition for every member (Somers, 2008). Workfare, therefore, has threatened the social rights of citizenship (Garrow & Hasenfeld, 2014). Neoliberalism even threatens civil and political rights of citizenship of communities of color who are exposed to aggressive surveillance and intervention, leading to higher incarceration rates and involvement in child welfare systems (Alexander, 2012; Roberts, 2014; Toft & Reierson, 2017; Wacquant, 2009). Researchers interested in race, gender, and class have demonstrated how portrayals of historically oppressed groups have used pejorative labels (e.g., “welfare queens,” “super predators,” “anchor babies”) to legitimize unequal and punitive treatment through the neoliberal order (Cassiman, 2008; Shafer, 2017; Winnbust, 2019). Also, the consistent denial of the value of caregiving work, primarily by women, to the nation and economy has allowed for the rescinding of social rights, as in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) (Toft, 2010).

Because neoliberalism endorses greater stability achieved under conditions of inequality, both its aims and methods contradict social work ethics and social justice.

Resistance to Neoliberalism

Most social service professionals who work with citizens and residents regarding problems in living are representatives of the welfare state. Typically positioned and funded in some manner through state policy, they provide the social rights of citizenship (Hasenfeld & Garrow, 2012). Unfortunately, private agencies contracted with the state act as a crucial site of reinterpreting people from citizen-subjects to entrepreneurial subjects under the neoliberal regime (Trudeau & Veronis, 2009).

However, several researchers and scholars have called for social workers and social service providers to become self-conscious resistors to neoliberal directives embedded in interactions with clients (Abramovitz & Zelnick, 2010; 2015; Bransford & Bakken, 2003; Farone, 2003) in their agencies (LaRose, 2016; Lobao et al., 2014) and through macrolevel transformative and radical challenges (Caplan & Ricciardelli, 2016; Cummins, 2016; Van DenBerk & Pyles, 2012). The Voting Is Social Work campaign, begun after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, was a professional movement by macrolevel social workers to mobilize social workers to register their clients to vote for the 2020 presidential election (Abramovitz et al., 2019). Its purpose was nonpartisan, its message to engage clients in the affairs of electoral politics to resist the neoliberal ideology of persons as mere market actors. The American Academy for Social Work and Social Welfare initiative, The Grand Challenges for Social Work, lays out 13 major aims “to champion social progress powered by science” (Grand Challenges for Social Work, 2021). These efforts highlight tension within social work activism in response to neoliberalism: Address social problems through political mobilization or science. It is yet to be determined whether the neoliberal order can withstand the collective political challenges set in motion by nationwide protests due to George Floyd’s murder in 2020 at the hands of police and the Covid-19 pandemic. It also remains to be seen if social workers and their allies can elevate these issues and their effects on social work to a policy debate.


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