Is tackling poverty no longer ‘core business’ for social workers?

A leading social work academic discusses some ‘uncomfortable’ findings from a research study into social work interventions and poverty

Last month a pioneering study of inequalities in children’s social care hit the headlines. One finding grabbed the spotlight – children in the most deprived communities were more than 10 times more likely to enter care than those in the richest areas.

Yet the study, carried out by 11 academics from seven UK universities, also contained an in-depth analysis of social work practice with families. Led by Kate Morris, Professor of Social Work at the University of Sheffield, this section of the research involved indepth fieldwork with social workers and managers at fourteen sites in six councils.

The authorities were a carefully selected mix of services working in both more and less deprived areas. Morris and her team wanted to find out: what was the interplay between children’s services decisions to intervene and the poverty facing a family?

Morris says some of the messages that came back are “helpful” for social workers, but others raise “uncomfortable” questions about the way the profession engages with wider issues facing the children and families they support.

Rationing and restructures

Firstly, there was the context social workers were operating in. Researchers found practitioners were dealing with “chronic unmet need” among families. However, a shortage of resources meant all of the councils had a working culture governed by eligibility and restricting care to those with the highest needs.

“For the sites, the rationing was at times an overwhelming preoccupation. The dispersal of families across other services – the infamous signposting – was no longer a matter for lower levels of need,” says Morris.

“Instead early help services had become a substitute for social work rather than a precursor to social work involvement.”

On top of this staff faced “endemic” restructuring of their services, often on cost grounds. The result of this “turbulence” was a breaking up of social workers’ knowledge about the communities they worked in.

Against this backdrop, the researchers found social workers felt the systemic nature of poverty in families was “either too big to tackle, or invisible because of familiarity”. Social workers across the sites talked about the impact of poverty on families if prompted but this rarely played out in their responses to cases.

Focus on risk

Strikingly, says Morris, poverty and its consequences was simply no longer seen as “core business” for children’s social workers. Instead a focus on risk dominated. Practitioners felt “so overwhelmed” by the wider issues facing families, that they focused on individual harms detached from their wider causes.

There were few practice tools that included addressing poverty or inequalities as a core concern. Worse still, the researchers found examples of systems and processes that caused further shame and hardship to families.

“For example, we saw plans that were testing family cooperation but without providing necessary funding, and bureaucracy that sent families on trips to multiple offices to claim reimbursement, despite evident severe financial hardships.”

Morris says there is much more analysis to do of the findings. Over the coming months the team will be completing fieldwork with families to bring their experiences into the research. They will also be undertaking feedback sessions with practitioners. However, she feels there are already important lessons from the research.


First, she argues, social work should refamiliarise itself with the relationship between poverty and child abuse and neglect.

The profession has become “muddled” in considering this link, she says, and too often avoids talking about it out of fear of being seen to be “oppressive”. This “denies the realities for many families and means we fail to tackle the issues that make family life tough”.

Secondly, practice frameworks should be created that create a “clear expectation” of assessing the consequences of poverty on a family. Doing so will help services reconnect with the “core business of families” – food, shelter and dignity – rather than what Morris labels the “core business of agencies” – rationing, resource management and performance management.

Ultimately, Morris argues, social work practice has to be set within an understanding of the wider environment if child welfare inequalities are to be tackled.

“I know, from many years in practice and management there are no easy answers – social work has always struggled with these concerns. But we also have a proud history of challenging injustices, and I hope our research can make a positive contribution to this tradition.”

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12 Responses to Is tackling poverty no longer ‘core business’ for social workers?

  1. lilybright March 15, 2017 at 11:32 am #

    “Core business” – says it all…. but if addressing poverty is not what we’re about, then we really are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

    • John McDermott March 15, 2017 at 7:30 pm #

      It beggars belief and is worrying that whatever the reasons the core value of social justice is either absent or has been eroded. Social Justice is central to Social Work. I cannot fathom how it cannot be so. I see it as a product of individualising and managerialism. More Radical Social Work please.

  2. A Man Called Horse March 15, 2017 at 12:59 pm #

    Poverty is now widespread and normal and Social Workers are exposed to deprivation day in and day out. Many are angry about Austerity and cuts and the impact that this has on vulnerable families but are powerless in the face of a sea of unmet needs. Welfare reform or cuts more accurately just make the situation worse and for the Tories cutting the budget deficit is far more important than the impact these cuts have on the poorest in society. One way Social workers can help is to stop voting for a Tory Government that despises Social workers and poor people and implements vicious cuts in the interest of the 1% Austerity is a political choice, Social workers should not look the other way they should speak up about what is happening. The UK is the 6th largest economy on the planet yet we have food banks. All social Workers need to watch I Daniel Blake which gives an insight into what can only be described as state sanctioned murder. First they came for the Trade Unionists then the jews now the poor and disabled, soon there will be no one left to speak for you.

    • Emmvie March 16, 2017 at 9:52 pm #

      Actually it was the Jews first. Just saying.

  3. Marion wood March 15, 2017 at 2:11 pm #

    I think the concern about managing risk and the possibility of getting it wrong is so overwhelming for social workers that they are unable to think about wider issues such as poverty and it’s impact.

  4. Ruth Cartwright March 15, 2017 at 2:21 pm #

    Do Social Workers have a role in advocating for families caught in various poverty traps and/or unfairly denied benefits and support to which they are entitled? I used to visit with the CPAG handbook in my hand and with service user’s consent do a quick benefits check. This was discouraged by employers as time went by and SWs were told to refer people to the Council’s in house Welfare Rights office. Fine, but now these offices and other support agencies like CAB have gone and the linking of Welfare and words like rights or entitlements is rarely seen – even though people have paid in for many years their benefits are deemed to be undeserved and can be arbitrarily withdrawn at the behest of a Jobcentre employee with sanctions targets to fulfil. If poverty, however caused, is preventing families offering an appropriate standard of care to their children we should be stating that unequivocally and doing our best to ensure families get the help they need.

    • Allan Orrick March 16, 2017 at 8:18 pm #

      Well said Ruth

  5. Ben Cheney March 16, 2017 at 1:07 pm #

    Excellent article and piece of research. Sums up very well the battle social workers have to fight to preserve a profession that is based on core values of dignity, human rights and social justice, versus the managerialist view of social work as a technical, bureaucratic task based on the needs of the agencies involved. This is not a battle that Social Workers can win on their own, and there are some allies amongst service users and their families, for example those involved with human rights charity ATD Fourth World. A wider question for everyone is how has poverty and inequality been allowed to continue to grow so fast with all of its consequences for families and communities around the UK?

  6. Graham March 16, 2017 at 1:10 pm #

    The idea that social work has ever, of could ever ‘tackle poverty’ is about as about realistic as us tackling climate change and comes under what one academic called ‘fantasising and wishlisting’. The most we ever did, as Ruth says above, was to help people access benefits to which they were entitled – many years ago we could actually talk to someone in the local DSS office about a client’s needs. Now the benefits are gone and the system is oppressive there is little we can do to alleviate someone’s poverty, except to help access the odd small charitable grant, and we should not feel bad about this. Social workers are good at feeling guilty about not changing the world. By the way Man called Horse I have very rarely met a social worker who voted Tory!

  7. Spotty Dog's mum March 18, 2017 at 9:41 am #

    Social Workers also shouldn’t shy away from encouraging families to help themselves out of poverty. As someone who comes from a deprived background, the reality is that the only way to escape the poverty trap is through work. I have held 3 jobs at one time, often low skilled and low paid. I have studied and trained. I know that the the chances of me winning the lottery are virtually non existent. Yes, life is tough for many, many people. Yes, life is unfair. Yes, many people are disadvantaged by society. But it is very doubtful that things will change anytime soon and we need to be honest about that with ourselves and our Service Users. I accept and have the deepest compassion for those who through health needs, disabilities, caring responsibilites, are not able to work and as a society we must protect and provide for the most vulnerable. But those who can work should and they have a responsibility to themselves, their children and society to do so.

    I expect to receive criticism about this view. But sometimes the unpalatable has to be said.

    • Tom J March 20, 2017 at 12:03 pm #

      Spotty Dog’s mum- You state ”the only way to escape the poverty trap is through work”

      The good news for you is that since 2010 the government have been on a wild spree to pushing parents off benefits and into work. There is now a record high of 31.42 million people in work*.

      However, the bad news is; it hasn’t worked at reducing child poverty! And we now know that not all work cures poverty*. For many parents work is often poorly paid, sporadic, not enough hours and fails to get them out of poverty* The research doesn’t actually show that ‘any job will solve poverty’. Some work can even make things worse*.

      Just shoving a parent off benefits and into any old job regardless of the pay, consistency of hours or suitability to childcare arrangements will not necessarily benefit their children.

      I worked with a father who was a security guard on a zero hours contact. His hours went up and down like a yo-yo from week to week and he found the DWP to be very unhelpful on the months he went with hardly any work. He depended on foodbanks.

      I knew another mother who neglected her children through juggling three jobs.

      So if Spotty Dog’s mum advice is ‘push parents to get into employment regardless of child care commitments, pay, hours etc’- I strongly advise social workers against adopting this attitude. There is no evidence that if every parent was forced into work tomorrow that child poverty would even reduce!

      Yes parents should be encouraged to get into work but not at all costs and not without thought to the likely impact upon their child/ren.





  8. Spotty Dog's mum March 21, 2017 at 7:47 pm #

    Hi Tom,

    Thank you for your response and taking the time to attach the links, which I will read with interest.

    I am not suggesting we push all parents into work at any cost. But as the Government will not be changing things any time soon, I guess what I’m saying is that we have a responsibility to help people improve their social and economic wellbeing and at the moment I do not see any other way of doing so.