In this essay, I will be critically analysing a media report
by Andy McNicoll in the community care magazine titled: Is tackling poverty no
longer ‘core businesses’ for social workers?
The critical analysis will include the definition of poverty
and social work, exploring the welfare states, the roles of social workers in
tackling poverty will also be discussed and examining the limitations and
challenges social workers face in dealing with the issue of poverty among
family and children.
Peter Townsend 1979 defined ”Poverty as when an individual,
families and groups lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate
in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are
customary, or at least widely encouraged or approved, in the society which they
belong” (Townsend 1979). Poverty can be measured in two ways, it can be viewed
as an absolute concept, and a relative concept. These concepts are based on
different ways of seeing peoples need, which affects views about what resources
should be given to the poor.
Absolute concept of poverty refers to a condition where a person does not
have the minimum amount of income needed to meet the minimum requirements for
one or more basic living needs over an extended period. This includes things
like: food, shelter, health, education. Relative poverty is the condition in which people lack the
minimum amount of income needed to maintain the average standard of living in
the society in which they live. Relative poverty is considered the easiest way
to measure the level of poverty in an individual country. Relative poverty is
defined relative to the members of a society and, therefore, differs across
poverty can be used in three different ways. Every one of these raises
questions which every society should be prepared to answer. The first usages
raised a question about hardships, misery and destitution poverty- a situation
which is still occasionally to be found among low paid workers as well as
people out of work. The second usage raised questions about the incomes, wealth
and real living standards of different kinds of people. The third usage raised
questions about Inequality, exclusion, discrimination, injustice and ‘relative
Before the welfare states, Welfare was initially provided by
church and community – 1601 Poor Law stated paramountcy of family duty. Poor
Law Amendment Act 1834 established workhouses to provide for the poor, sick,
vulnerable and destitute. During
mediaeval times many hospitals were church run. Back then such places were
communities where the elderly and frail were taken care of. The Elizabethan
Poor Law expressed this right with the practice of strong and less strong
beggars being sent back to their parish of origin supposedly for help.
This system, while remodelled, remained largely intact until the
derogatory launched by the practical revolutionary. The new poor law of 1834
was the result of this campaign, and where the principle of ‘less eligibility’
was imposed- help in the new system would only be offered if a person came into
the ‘House’, as the poor law institution was known – a standard of living
awaited them which was below that on which the poorest labourer could survive.
There were charities for
poverty relief, the sick being treated, the housing of the working classes, the
education of deprived children, the assistance of the disabled, the training of
the unemployed, and so on. “For the diffusion of every blessing, there is
a committee,” (wrote Sir James Stephen in 1849).
“The welfare state is a concept of government in which the
state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the social and
economic well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality
of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility of
those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life. The
general term may cover a variety of forms of economic and social organization”
(Wikipedia). Marshall described the modern welfare state as a distinctive
combination of democracy, welfare and capitalism.
Welfare state was
initially used in Britain as an antonym for the totalitarian (which means
relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and
requires complete subservience to the state (Lowe 1998). This was rejected by
Beveridge who implied that it was an amoral ‘Santa Claus’ state where the
government was obliged to guarantee certain rights to all his citizens, without
being owed any duties in return.
R. Lowe argues that the definition of the welfare state
should be expanded from these five key services to three further policy areas
into which welfare historians and analyst have traditionally been more
reluctant to infiltrate. Firstly, is Employment policy. One of the three
assumption Beveridge based his plan for social security in 1942 was Full
employment, which is repeatedly taken as the blueprint for the British welfare
state. He also argues that where there is no full employment, how could a
claimant willingness to work be tested.
The global definition of social work from the International
Federation of Social Workers states that “Social work is a practice-based
profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and
development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.
Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and
respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by
theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge,
social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and
enhance wellbeing”. (IFSW 2014).
As a profession,
social work officially originated in the 19th century as a movement primarily
experienced within the United States and United Kingdom. After the demise of
feudalism, those in poverty were a direct threat to the social order, so the
government formed the Poor Law and created an organized system to provide care
to them. While the Industrial Revolution sparked great leaps in technological
and scientific advancements, the great migrations to urban areas throughout the
Western world led to increased social problems and in turn social activism.
During this time, rescue societies were initiated to provide support to resolve
the problems of poverty, disease, prostitution, mental illness, and other afflictions.
There are currently 91,001 social workers in England registered with the Health
& Care Professions Council (HCPC) (Health & Care Professions Council
2014b). This makes it a comparatively small profession compared with
teaching or nursing but by far the largest regulated by the HCPC.1(Moriarty et
In exploring the impact and experience of living in poverty,
the consequences of poverty stretch across areas of housing, employment,
relationship, physical and mental health, education, longevity and mortality.
When people find themselves in one of the categories linked to social work
intervention like being old, having a disability, homelessness, being an asylum
seeker or a child in need makes you more vulnerable to the unwanted consequences
of relative poverty. “The report on living with poverty by (Hooper et al. 2007)
for the Frank Buttle Trust showed that children that has reached age five were
worried and stressed while in some instances they were anxious about the
situation confronting their families, and for some this made them unwilling to
look to their parents for support”.
It is noted that poverty cannot be omitted when talking about
inequality and marginalisation, therefore social workers need to focus more on
tackling inequality. This will help in fighting against poverty while working
within tight budgets and ongoing cuts from the government towards welfare.
In the institute for fiscal studies commentary on poverty and
inequality (brewer et al. 2011) in 2010, foresees that child poverty would have
risen from 17 percent in 2010 to 23 percent 2020. They further stipulated that
6.5m adults will be in poverty by 2013(2.5 million with children and 4 million
without). Also, most of the population
will experience the most severe drop in median income in 35 years.
Present day increases in poverty were most obvious in the
years of the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher from 1979 to 1990, when
figures in poverty rose from 5 million to 14 million during a period of drastic
change towards the welfare state and the role of government (Alcock 2006).
Poverty impacts on the lives of individuals and it is
associated with just about every social incompetent one can ponder on and with
social workers struggles (Mantle and Backwith 2010:3). Most of the service
user’s social workers deal with are in poverty and nine out of ten are
receiving state benefits (Becker 1997).
Trevithick (2012) pointed out the fact that most of the works
of a social worker is exclusively in areas of urban deprivation, neglect and
with most disadvantaged part of the population. The Realisation of this is an initial step to
devising practice which fits the fact and reflects the social work desire of
accomplishing social justice.
Social workers walk the tightrope between supporting and
advocating on behalf of the marginalised individual, whilst being employed by
the social economic and political environment that may have contributed to
their marginalisation. Social workers have been trained as part of their
professional development to advocate and take the leading role in promoting
social justice, human dignity, human rights, personal independence and
self-determination. To achieve these, all roles, tasks, conducts and practices
of social workers must be based on the code of ethics and professional
capabilities framework for social workers (British Association of Social
Workers, 2012; The College of Social Work, 2012). These guidelines and
principles serve as instruments and a point of reflection when performing any
The Code of Ethics for Social Work
is binding on all social workers in the United Kingdom and as such all
practitioners are expected to follow and work in line with these ethical
principles and guidelines. These are put together by an independent body made
up of professional social workers without any political interference. This
means that social workers are expected to challenge inequality, discrimination,
oppression, unjust practices and policies, and empower people as part of their roles
(British Association of Social Workers, 2012).
The tasks and responsibility of social workers according to
different academics. According to Dominelli (2009) the following are the task and
responsibility of social workers: Facilitators, Gatekeepers, Regulators, Upholders, Advocacy.
Asquith et al (2005) also states the task and responsibility of social workers as: Counsellor or caseworker, Advocate, Partner, Assessor
of risk and of need, Care Manager, Agent of
While College of Social Work (2014) states the roles and responsibility
of social workers as: Responding to Complex Needs,
Effective Safeguarding and risk
management, addressing adversity and social exclusion, Promoting independence and autonomy, Prevention
and early intervention.
Social workers walk that tightrope between supporting and advocating on
behalf of the marginalised individual, whilst being employed by the social
economic and political environment that may have contributed to their
marginalisation. (Horner (2003)). Social
workers are one of the first professional groups to be directly confronted by
the aftermath of poverty. Poverty has a traumatic outcome where the
underprivileged frequently convey a sense of hopelessness, indignity,
powerlessness and marginalisation (Narayan et al. 2000:32).
Ridge (20090 argues that the definition, measurements and
theories of poverty only represents a partial picture of what poverty really
mean to people. The direct impact of poverty on people’s everyday life needs to
know to effectively tackle poverty.
It can be argued that for social
work to be able to survive and thrive as a recognisable professional practice,
the profession must redefine and re-establish its roles, functions and
objectives clearly within the society. In
the midst of all the challenges social workers encounter in the performance of
their mandatory roles, practitioners must employ on the theories that are
established in human development, human behaviour and the social system when
examining varied and complex situations (British Association of Social workers
The use of Policies such as Sure
start (which aims to elevate educational achievement in poor areas), compulsory
internship and youth empowerment are all aimed at interceding at key points in people’s
lives. This will channel them towards a new way of thinking and conducting
themselves which aims to enable them to be elevated out of poverty. This
conscious act will have an increasing effect of progressively ending poverty as
people will no longer conduct themselves in a poverty promulgating way. They will alternatively grasp the
opportunities provided to them by the society in a context of equality of
opportunity (Sheedy 2013).
Social work profession needs to
rediscover its community-oriented tradition and support its practitioners so
that their loyalty and focus will always be on the people they work with
(service users) instead of the organisations they work for. The importance of practitioners becoming
voices of dissent as described in the article cannot be overlooked. However,
choosing personal values and wishes over professional or societal values is not
the solution to the challenges social workers are facing now. A case can also
be made for the role that local authorities and other state institution play in
social work profession. The ideology and the social policies of the government,
for instance, have a huge impact on what social workers can or cannot do. Meeting
individual or social needs sometimes becomes a matter of policies, welfare and
the political ideology of the ruling government (Gilson, 2002).
The current cut in government
spending, for example, is deeply rooted in the Conservative Government ideology
of individuality and radical change. The cuts in spending are not only having a
huge impact on the level of personnel required in the social work profession
but also the amount of resources needed for social workers to perform their
functions effectively and efficiently. This has also led to a massive funding
gap for most social work interventions, which has also resulted in reductions
in service provision and cuts in care packages.
It will be advisable for social workers not to
work in isolation but rather in partnership with all stakeholders in their
service delivery. Finally, the role of
practitioners in finding solutions to individual, family and social problems
cannot be underestimated. It has to be stressed that carrying out such roles
requires a good understanding of the interplay and relationship between social
work roles, government social policies, service users, other professionals and
the society in general.
Social work has an inbuilt social perspective,
exploring personal and professional values for social work practice does not
relate to the individual ways in which service users are being treated. This is
an appreciation that opportunities and life chances are also influenced by
wider factors than personal qualities of, for example, motivation or
intelligence. For further example, a person born into a poor family is more
likely to remain poor and die earlier (Marmot, 2008). A young black or disabled
person in their early twenties in the UK are twice as more likely not to be unemployment,
uneducated or training (NEET) as young white and non-disabled people (EHRC,
2010). There are no straightforward explanations for these statistics; however,
should social workers work with people that are largely disadvantaged by such
societal forces, understanding how these forces may affect individuals becomes
a key concern for social workers. This understanding then becomes integral to
an approach that seeks to be anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive.
With regards to the value base
of McNicoll, he strongly
believes that there should be a restructuring of the social work profession for
them to be able to tackle poverty. He was pointing out ongoing tension in
practice and prolonged discrepancy on how social work should address social
problems. He acknowledged the challenges social workers encounter while
carrying out their roles and pointed out the key factors why social workers
cannot carry out their role effectively such as: Shortage of resources, endemic
restructuring of their services often on cost ground (which breaks up the
knowledge of social workers about the communities they worked in).
McNicoll is a social care journalist, a member of the British
association of social workers. He is a journalist with the community care
magazine, particularly interested in substance misuse, domestic violence,
social work, mental illness and homelessness. It is believed that he portrayed
a fair representation of issues happening in the social work field.
The community care is an online magazine that
In conclusion, my view
is that social workers are working within the code of conduct of the social
work profession in tackling poverty, however more can still be done to help
families get out of poverty. Preventing poverty is clearly better than dealing with
its consequences. The current social work practice is focused on legal and
procedural concerns, this could result to social workers ignoring actions to tackle
the effects of poverty in service user’s lives.
It is important for
social workers to realise that differences in policy can be achieved by human
intervention at all levels. Practitioners will need to develop their own
understanding of why people continue to live in poverty through Theory informed
For social work
profession to continue, it is under obligation to recognise that the social
remains the focus of concern in understanding and combatting poverty.
personalize the situation of the poor and that inevitably lead to the
accusation and scapegoating of the poor will not provide the theoretical and
explanatory tools necessary for practitioners to work persuasively to eradicate
poverty. Social workers must continue to work in an anti-oppressive way, they
also need to collaborate with other agencies to empower service users, the use
of statutory invention as a last result is very paramount (Parrot, 2010)
Another theory that can
be useful to practitioners in understanding how people who are living in
poverty can build on their strengths and value their achievement is the Resilience
“Working with service
users to see how they can develop and build such attributes provides a sense of
hope and control that are important in building resilience” (Parrot et al 2008).
Advocacy is one of the key skills of social worker. Research shows that when practitioners advocate
appropriately for service users, the result can be more successful than if they
had not done so (Wilks, 2012). Service users can be remarkably enhanced
practitioners may face problems in having to work effectively under the rules
of the social bureaucracy.
Practitioners needs to
focus their attention on three level in working to combat poverty, which are:
individual, organisation and social.