Social workers feel ‘powerless’ in face of poverty afflicting most families involved with services

Survey of practitioners on eve of coronavirus lockdown warns 'immense' stress on households is making meaningful social work more difficult

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

Increasing poverty is making it much harder for social workers to support families to make meaningful changes in their lives, a report has warned.

A survey of 129 practitioners – 117 of them social workers – between January and March 2020 found the “vast majority” of families receiving services were poor, with 94% saying the prevalence of this had increased.

Social workers who completed the survey, conducted by the Child Poverty Action Group, Association of Directors of Children’s Services and Child Welfare Inequalities Project, reported a range of factors that made working effectively with families under severe financial strain more difficult.

These included practical challenges, such as families being unable to afford travel to appointments, or being unable to attend them because of the irregular work patterns that are a feature of insecure employment.

Practitioners also reported emotional barriers, arising from the stress experienced by parents facing financial strain trying to meet their children’s needs with insufficient financial resources.

Poverty trends

In its 2020 report on living standard, poverty and inequality in the UK, think-tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that:

  • Relative child poverty after housing costs are taken into account had risen from 27% to 30% from 2011-12 to 2018-19.
  • Real incomes were stagnant for low-income households from 2013-14 to 2018-19 entirely as a result of falls in working-age benefits.
  • Workers whose livelihoods look most at risk during the Covid-19 crisis, such as those in hospitality and jobs such as cleaning or hairdressing, already tended to have relatively low incomes, and were relatively likely to be in poverty, prior to the onset of the crisis.

“It is hard to work with a family and support them to make meaningful and lasting change when their economic situation is going to remain the same,” one respondent said.

“Sometimes we are able to pay off some debt or apply to a charity which will do this,” they added. “However, the stress that some of our families are under is immense.”

Another social worker said they felt “powerless” in the face of structural issues around money, employment and housing.

‘Parents focused on survival’

Almost three-quarters of respondents reported that more than 50% of their caseload featured families struggling with debt and poor housing, with 41% saying that this was the case across more than 75% of their workload.

“Parents are so focused on survival that doing work to address deeper-rooted issues is so hard,” a third respondent said.

A guide issued in 2019 by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) urged social workers to bring a greater focus onto families’ socio-economic rights, arguing that poverty was too rarely taken into account in assessments or during interventions.

One social worker who responded to the recent survey drew attention to a local poverty strategy as having made a positive impact on work they were undertaking.

“We are fortunate as an authority that we do not ignore poverty as a significant issue for families and therefore tackling it is part of our children and young people plan and we have a tackling poverty strategy for the city,” they said. “We also have an active group of social workers and managers across the city working together to better understand the best resources we can access and how to ensure we support families and not blame families.”

Asked about the reasons families were facing increased hardship, 78% of respondents said that more than half of the children and families they work with had been hit by benefit changes, including the introduction of universal credit (UC), sanctions, the benefit cap, the two-child limit and the bedroom tax. Of this number, 41% reported more than three-quarters of children and families were affected.

Refresh your benefits knowledge


Community Care Inform users can brush up on their knowledge of the benefits system by accessing our welfare rights guides, written by Gary Vaux, head of money advice at Hertfordshire council, which are available for Inform Children and Inform Adults subscribers.

Social workers also cited cuts to other services – especially child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) – as having had a negative impact on their work with children and families.

Echoing the findings of many previous studies, a number of respondents noted that a lack of support and preventive services inevitably resulted in situations escalating before families accessed support.

‘Cold homes, overcrowding, hunger and stress’

Responding to the survey findings, Jenny Coles, the ADCS president, said: “One in three children in England are living in poverty today – their experiences can often be overlooked and their voices go unheard.”

Coles said ADCS had supported the exercise as a means of raising awareness of the pervasive impact of poverty, which damages childhoods and life chances.

“It means cold homes, overcrowding, hunger and stress, which can lead to family breakdown,” Coles said. “It means charities stepping in to fill the gaps left by the state and schools feeding pupils and their families over the summer.

“This is simply unacceptable,” she added. “We hope the findings of this survey will serve to strengthen our collective calls for action on child poverty by policy makers, sooner rather than later.”

8 Responses to Social workers feel ‘powerless’ in face of poverty afflicting most families involved with services

  1. Laura Baxter August 6, 2020 at 2:44 am #

    Oh so the powers that be are finally acknowledging the poverty crisis that has engulfed the UK in the past decade. However it is too late for the families who have already been separated because the parents could not afford to make the changes social services demanded. The lack of understanding and inclusion in the reports about why a family is struggling financially has led to an unfair portrayal. It’s time parents are no longer punished for being unable to survive on minimum wage zero hours jobs and state benefits.

  2. Tony August 6, 2020 at 7:09 am #

    Statistically it must be the case that some social workers voted for and will vote for the Conservative party again. Certainly the archives of Community Care are a record of the enthusiasm for the Coalition Government, and adulation for Nick Clegg in particular, by contributing social workers. I know social workers who agree with the bedroom tax and who believe food banks lead to fecklessness. Lets own social works own dismal history in tackling poverty and its support of policies that cause and perpetuate child poverty in particular. Tinkering at the edges, individualising responses to social deprivation, relying on charity makes social work impotent to really address the fundamentals of poverty. Sorry to be boring and political, but its called Capitalism. It thrives on poverty and enforces powerlessness to sustain itself. Who addresses that? And why no mention of racism fueling poverty? Furrowed brows, concerned expressions nor ’empathy’ alone can not tackle the fundamental economic inequalities in our country. It’s time to go beyond case work; re-claim real social work and embed it in the communities in which we work. Apologies, just got jolted out of fanciful thinking having remembered I have targets to meet, forms to fill, ‘notes’ to write and excuses to make about why I can’t make yet another of the pointless reflection meetings which apparently will make me a more “effective” social worker.

  3. Tom J August 6, 2020 at 10:08 am #

    Great article. You can’t grow roses in concrete, and when there are ‘elephants in the room’ of impending eviction, broken fridge, overcrowding, recent benefit sanctions and so on, it makes it so much harder to focus on anything else.

    Sometimes we have a very narrow child protection focus that is only interested in set things with a prescribed approach that holds the parent responsible for everything, often without any meaningful support.

  4. Ruth Cartwright August 6, 2020 at 10:33 am #

    I agree with Tony. When I worked with children and families I often thought that bunging £50 through the letter box would be better than my earnest interventions, as poverty and the anxiety and pressure that engenders was at the root of many problems. It felt like families were being blamed for their own poverty and difficulties in obtaining regular reasonably paid work and negotiating an opaque, often punitive, Benefits system. I hope SWs are clued up about what their service users are entitled to and check they are receiving what they should be and are advocating alongside them for their rights. But of course we are part of shoring up and somehow rendering acceptable an unacceptable, unfair, judgmental system unless we are also campaigning for fair incomes for all.

  5. Kelly August 6, 2020 at 3:47 pm #

    So many of the families I work with are plagued by being stuck in the poverty trap. It affects their lives on a daily basis – a lack transport, a lack of access to essentials, no money to repair things when they break, debt, a lack of opportunity etc. I work with a lot of single parent families who recieve no child maintanence payments. One mum is owed over £30,000 in unpaid child maintanence, a life changing amount. Families are also needing to find money for school holiday activities, childcare, and new school uniform. Gone are the days when our section 17 budget could have help relieve at least some of these financial pressures.

  6. Phaedrus August 7, 2020 at 9:01 am #

    “British Association of Social Workers (BASW) urged social workers to bring a greater focus onto families’ socio-economic rights, arguing that poverty was too rarely taken into account in assessments or during interventions.”

    There are so many issues with this statement? How does focusing on ‘rights’ get people more money? Why not throw in some more Social Work buzz words whilst we’re at it? “I empathise with your poverty Ms Smith”, “I have critically reflected on my approach to the near-starvation of your family” etc etc. It just smacks of the old Victorian idea that the poor must better themselves to be worthy of our help, which many Social Workers still believe at heart.

    And then there’s the second half of the statement, which I actually agree with. Yes, we should very much acknowledge that many of the bad things our clients do are the result of being ground down by years of poverty and oppression. But where does the law give us that discretion?

  7. Doborah Straddon August 8, 2020 at 10:47 pm #

    Can we please have the evidence BASW has that “poverty is too rarely taken into account in assessments or during interventions”. I for one am getting fed up with BASW self defining a leadership role and lecturing us about our practice when they represent an insignificant number of social workers and seem to think surveys enable them to understand our practice. I and every social worker I know across several London local authorities are more than aware of the inequalities in our society. We are politically and professionally engaged in recognising the circumstances of the people we are engaged with. We try combat poverty by including it in our assessments, by trying to maximise income or engaging in social activism. If BASW truly understood these issues they would know that its not the ‘poverty’ of our assessments that perpetuate oppression but the social and political structures our society is based on. We don’t need lecturing about improving our understanding of poverty, we need real leadership that politically fights alongside social workers and people who use services. Sending letters to government ministers, issuing ‘guidance’ or self aggrandising tweets might feel good but it has zero impact on poverty. We are engaged in a daily struggle with our bosses, the inequities of our society, eroding of meaningful social work skills, sniping from the margins, meaningless homilies, hand wringing about privilege without any meaningful action to bring some quality to the experiences of citizens we work with. Some of us even manage to achieve something meaningful some of the time.

  8. Hanna Braithwaite August 11, 2020 at 10:34 am #

    I am 24 years old. I have never had secure employment and have been out of work for 17 months. I am unlikely to het a job given that unemployment will rocket because of Covid19 redundancies. What are my socio-economic rights? I have been ripped of by employers who have not paid me my full wages, I’ve been harassed and propositioned by disgusting bosses who know they have all the power and people in insecure employment like me have little choice. I friend who is training to be a social worker showed me this article and it makes me livid to be read that an organisation representing social workers regard me as an argument for income maximisation and all the other patronising drivel in their so called anti-poverty document. If you want to tackle poverty acknowledge class. Our struggles to merely exist in this society are caused by an economic system that relies on class exploitation however uncomfortable that make make you feel. We are not facts ro make policy arguments over or be patronised at dinner parties. No doubt there are social workers who understand that however much they secure the top benefits, the less horrible housing, the occasional food voucher, it’s just tinkering at the edges and actually barely makes a difference to an individual feel part of society. Capitalism is rotten and ot makes the lives of people like me horrible. Every day I feel disgusted and at times disgusting because I don’t have the basic choices to control my own life. Its not about benefits or having a few more crumbs when the cake is denied you by capitalism. Write a policy on that and stop seeing us as victims to be “helped”.