Focus on socio-economic rights and avoid stigma to tackle poverty, BASW guide urges social workers

Document aims to ensure social workers tackle issues of poverty head-on including through focus on helping families maximise incomes

Image of empty wallet signifying poverty(Credit: vegefox / Adobe Stock)
Credit: vegefox / Adobe Stock

Social workers have been urged to focus their practice on socio-economic rights, and avoid stigmatising the families they work with, in order to tackle poverty, in a new guide.

The Anti-Poverty Practice Guide for Social Work, launched this week by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), is designed to provide practitioners with practical suggestions to address poverty in their casework.

The document, developed by BASW with the Child Welfare Inequalities Project (CWIP), which is researching the impact of deprivation on children’s social care interventions, drew on focus groups with BASW members and the views of people with experience of poverty from advocacy group ATD Fourth World.

‘Wallpaper of practice’

Previous CWIP research had found social workers saw poverty as ‘the wallpaper of practice’, something that most people they worked with experienced but which was rarely taken into account in assessments, care planning and interventions.

And social workers interviewed for the guide said cuts to the provision of services that provide practical monetary support to families, the lack of a shared understanding of what poverty was, high caseloads and the prioritisation of statutory responsibilities were significant barriers to anti-poverty practice.

The document acknowledged the limits of social workers’ ability to tackle poverty, when set against the wider social and economic policies of recent years, but said doing so was integral to social work values and practitioners could make a difference.

Moral muddle

Social work with people experiencing poverty should maintain a strong focus on socio-economic rights, the guide said. This should involve promoting income maximisation by ensuring families receive all the benefits they are entitled to and secure unpaid wages, and also do not wrongly pay for services, such as domiciliary care.

Practitioners also needed to evidence how poverty was leading to a denial of people’s rights, for example not being able to sustain or access a healthcare plan because of lack of money.

To achieve this, social workers needed to become confident about talking about poverty with families when carrying out assessments and care planning

However, CWIP research had found that social workers felt in a ‘moral muddle’ about this, feeling that to identify poverty as a critical issue was felt to be stigmatising, yet to deny its impact was profoundly unhelpful to families. This was reflected in the focus groups with BASW members.

Stigma trap

Conversely, the guide’s authors found social workers were not immune to placing blame for people’s poverty on their personal choices or characters.

“Social workers need to reflect on the chains of events and types of disadvantage that might result in a ‘cycle of poverty’,” the document said. “To do this, time for reflexive practice, supervision, and training from experts with lived experience is necessary.”

Mind your language

Shaeda Croft, a family support work and advocate with ATD Fourth World, which worked with BASW on its new guide, said social workers needed to be more aware of the language they use in assessments.

“The words you write impact on parents and how they are seen,” she said. “Don’t exaggerate for effect. [Phrases] like ‘the kids were grubby looking’, or ‘the parent looked unkempt and had smelly body odour’ hurt and stay with people for a long time afterwards, even years down the line.”

Croft added that one mother she had worked with had almost been evicted for rent arrears after buying clothes she could not afford for court, after repeatedly seeing “hurtful” words in reports about her.

“I know of parents whose children have been forcibly adopted by the local authority that worry their children won’t come and look for them when they are older, if they look into their social services file and see reports written like this,” she said.

Community participation

In terms of developing anti-poverty practice, the guide suggested a number of routes via which social workers could better engage with the communities they served, noting that many professionals were located at a distance from families they work with.

It said social workers should be better supported to understand neighbourhoods, in terms of being familiar with data, nurturing alliances with anti-poverty organisations and building on-the-ground knowledge.

There were good examples of duty teams co-locating with income maximisation staff and working closely with local food banks – but elsewhere partnerships were too weak, the guide said.

“Developing routine practices that enable feedback from families and communities about the role of social work services in addressing poverty, that are not based on individual complaints, opens up opportunities to create fresh approaches to community participation,” it added.

Alongside promoting relationship- and advocacy-based approaches, the guide stressed the need for supervisors to be given specialist training to help practitioners out of the “moral muddle” around addressing poverty directly.

Social work role ‘pushed towards narrower focus’

Responding to the guide, Joe Hanley, a social work lecturer at Brunel University, said: “Social workers have historically been active in challenging the systems that create and cause poverty and inequality.

“However, at the very time that poverty, in particular child poverty, is rapidly rising in the UK, the social work role has been gradually pushed towards a narrower focus that can prevent this type of active engagement with poverty,” he added.

Hanley said the “concise and practical” guide would immediately be useful to social workers, managers and educators. One of the most important aspects of the new guide, he said, was its highlighting of social work values as they relate to poverty, including the importance of challenging unjust policies and practices.

“Considering the absence of any mention of poverty in the new Social Work England professional standards, this guide will be particularly significant in ensuring that social workers do not lose sight this important area of practice,” Hanley said.

“I firmly believe a comprehensive understanding of poverty needs to be central to all social work practice from the very start.”

This year’s Community Care Live 2019 boasts over 30 free learning sessions to equip you to face the key challenges in social work practice today. You can also sign up to any of our eight legal learning sessions to help ensure you have the legal literacy your role requires. Register now to ensure you don’t miss out. 

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