by Simon Haworth
Poverty is an increasingly dominant context for social work in times of austerity. In a recent article I touched upon how children and families social work is increasingly faced with children and families living in poverty while working within systems that can be risk averse and heavily bureaucratic.
These are undeniably human rights issues. There is a wide body of research that shows that austerity has had the greatest impacts on those living in poverty, including access to the basics of food, housing and heating.
Poverty involves not just material deprivation but also corrosive feelings, social judgements and societal representations. Meanwhile, children and families social work is being practiced within a wider political context where poverty is individualised, stigmatised and the issues of poverty and parenting are being disaggregated.
Bywaters et al have found significant differences in proportions of children looked after or subject to child protection plans between local authorities, identifying deprivation as the primary explanatory factor.
Children whose families live in the most deprived 10% of local authorities are ten times more likely to be looked after or subject to a child protection plan than those living in the lease deprived 10%.
I have been fortunate to have recently been put in contact with a wonderful organisation called ATD Fourth World.
ATD Fourth World is an international human-rights and anti-poverty organisation who work closely and collaboratively with people living in poverty.
Its Social Worker Training Programme aims to reflect the needs and concerns of those working in the field while also finding new ways of addressing the issues that service users wish to tackle. It does this by encouraging dialogue around the role of social work, the reality of poverty, its impact upon social work, the shame of such interventions and the ways in which power imbalances undercut the very relationships social work strives to build.
We as a social work profession could learn from and with them. Maybe in the process we can also go some way to addressing the challenges of explaining and justifying why and how we support disadvantaged children and their families and improve the experiences of social work involvement in families’ lives.
We need to find collective solutions to the struggles of parenting in poverty, while collectively holding the state to its responsibilities. ATD Fourth World brings people together: academics, practitioners and people living in poverty to discuss, collaborate and build relationships. My experiences have been that the skilled facilitation has supported enlightening and productive conversations that would likely have otherwise not occurred.
This has included deep and genuine conversations on topics as sensitive and delicate as adoption, contact and support for birth families.
At events, small group discussions are held on important and live topics relating to poverty. These group discussions, comprising professionals and service users, could be so useful for social work more widely and its oft stated commitment to service user involvement influencing service design and delivery.
One parent provided an account of being harshly judged by professionals, when the real issue was that it was such a complicated struggle to get zip-cards for bus travel to and from school for her children. This chimed with some of my practice experiences and reminded me of the importance of building relationships and listening in social work; as this is vital in starting to understand what is actually happening for families.
From my perspective, the work of ATD Fourth World is deeply relevant for social work practice and education. I have been impressed by the work, the passion, the stories of hope and agency. However, at the same time, I have felt that we in social work should be challenging poverty in ways that ATD Fourth World is, but that as a profession we have unfortunately somewhat disengaged from this.
As a human rights issue and a social problem, poverty is the domain of social work. Social work identifies itself with human rights, social justice and building relationships to work in partnership with people. Poverty has become more individualised and child protection systems more authoritarian.
However, there remain examples of great social work practice in challenging times. I believe that greater involvement with organisations such as ATD Fourth World may support such excellent practice and support us as a profession and as individual practitioners to relocate our practice within the wider socio-political contexts of poverty and disadvantage. This can only support our profession to act in supportive and protective, not punitive or repressive ways.