Social work has become so disengaged from the issue of poverty it is almost as if society has become hardened to its effects, writes Mark Ivory
From time to time the government likes to boast that it has taken a million pensioners out of poverty. And, with only the faintest of blushes, it tells us that 600,000 children have been plucked out of it too, a worthy achievement if considerably short of the target the government set itself when Tony Blair promised to abolish child poverty in a generation.
What the headline figures conceal is that Labour has had little effect on the soaring overall poverty levels inherited from the Thatcher era with the numbers of people on less than 60% of median income still riding at more than 12 million. The days of deprived children walking barefoot to school may be over, but as every social worker knows, relative poverty, the stubborn inequalities between rich and poor, and stalling social mobility continue to have an enormous impact on the lives of service users. Lone parents, about three million children and a growing army of working poor swell the poverty figures despite the advent of tax credits and the minimum wage.
Practitioners confront the living reality of these obstinate facts every day, yet precisely because poverty is so prevalent in the communities where they work, it is easy to take for granted. At the same time the struggle for survival has become more intense: a recent poll by the charity Contact a Family, for example, found that rapidly rising prices had caused 16% of families with disabled children to have gone without food and heating at some point in the past year.
While poverty continues to hold one-fifth of the population in its grip, the topic appears to have fallen out of the social work curriculum as meriting practitioners’ attention in its own right. Gary Vaux, a social worker who made his career in welfare rights, says that his sector is often seen by colleagues as the Cinderella service.
“There’s an idea that dealing with being poor isn’t real social work, that family dynamics and child protection are the name of the game rather than engaging with the mucky bit which is true of most of our clients, namely that they don’t have much money,” says Vaux, Community Care columnist and head of Hertfordshire’s money advice unit. “If 95% of children in care were black or disabled, you’d want to know why. But when 95% are poor, we’re so used to that being a fact of life that we don’t do anything about it.”
Duty to speak up
Social work as a profession has not always been so disengaged from the issue of poverty. In the period of post-second world war optimism about the welfare state as a force for good, social workers often regarded it as a professional duty to speak up for the poor. In the late 1960s the government set up community development projects whose role was to counter the deprived and demoralised conditions in many parts of Britain.
As late as 1982, the Barclay report on the role and tasks of social work commended community social workers as champions of the most disadvantaged members of society in the competition for resources. But the Thatcher government had come in three years earlier and it had little time for this style of social work. Robert Pinker, professor of social administration at the London School of Economics, wrote a dissenting contribution to Barclay in which he conjured up a vision of a “captainless crew” of community social workers flying the red flag and “all with a licence and some with a disposition to mutiny”. He added that they were heading “straight for the reefs of public incredulity”.
Before then it was common for social workers to be involved in campaigns against poverty, including the Child Poverty Action Group where under its director Frank Field they had a significant influence. Bob Holman, who as a social worker during the 1960s successfully fought for legislation for preventive work “to stop the children of families in poverty coming into care”, argues that social work now is more about policing families than supporting them.
“There’s an emphasis on improving family behaviour rather than on families having a liveable, decent wage to begin with,” Holman says. “Back then politicians were very open to the arguments of social workers and others about poverty and a proper wage. Now you get government ministers who blame the poor for their plight, as is evidenced by the pressure on the long-term sick to prove that they are sick even though half of them have a mental illness.”
Deserving and undeserving
Post-war hopes of replacing the poor law distinction between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor with a more enlightened universalism have been dashed, Holman thinks. “The deserving and undeserving poor appear to be back – in fact, they never really went away – and it seems that society always needs to have a class which it can kick. But it’s not the people who need kicking, it’s their circumstances.”
Social work values of empathy and fairness suggest that practitioners should adopt a more robust approach to poverty. Graeme Simpson, co-author of a book which urges social workers to take the problem more seriously, blames workplace regulation and specialisation in social work for the lack of interest. As a former social worker and senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University, Simpson tells his post-qualifying course students that they can’t claim to have values they never act on. A few social workers of his generation may have headed for the barricades, but now they are less ambitious.
“We ask them what they are going to do to demonstrate their values and we point them towards pressure groups that they can be involved in,” Simpson says. “Some write to their MPs about social injustice and they think that’s quite a bold thing to do, which speaks volumes about the effect of workplace control and regulation.”
The rot sets in
His book takes issue with social work’s focus on the individual at the expense of “structural factors”, the bad schools, the scarce, low-paid jobs, and inadequate housing that blight communities. For him the rot sets in with the social work degree.
“There was a time when you could open any social work textbook and the question of poverty would be there,” Simpson says. “Textbooks now are notable for the absence of anything on the subject, preferring to talk about building good character in a way that would have been surprising even in the 19th century when belief in individual responsibility for poverty was common. I like to quote the Scottish churchman of that period who said ‘for every person who’s poor because of drinking, I’ll show you a person who drinks because they’re poor’.”
He is suspicious of the consumer-oriented individualism that has begun to make such an impression on public services and which he sees as undermining social work. “The language of government and of social work is all about the individual and whoever suggests that a collective approach might be beneficial is usually dismissed,” Simpson argues. “If you personalise everything, you run the risk of blaming people for their own mistakes if it all goes wrong for them.”
Nor is it obvious to him that opposition politicians have the answers either, regardless of shadow chancellor George Osborne’s recent grandstanding about the 900,000 people whose poverty he claims has worsened under this government. “The Conservatives talk about addressing poverty by having a vibrant third sector as if the solution is to divert money into tax cuts and shrink the welfare state. But the fact is that you can’t leave it to the third sector and a silly notion that if only people were more moral, less feckless and ate the right sort of food, there would be less poverty.”
Transforming Society? Social Work and Sociology, Vicky Price and Graeme Simpson, published by Policy Press/BASW www.policypress.org.uk
This article is published in the 11 September edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Poverty: Just a fact of modern life?