Port in the storm: poverty aware social work in the pandemic
Mark Hardy is a children and families social worker and PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, researching poverty and social work decision-making.
Port in the storm: a person, group, or place where one can find comfort, refuge, or help during particularly difficult or trying times.
Over the past decade there has been a renewed focus upon social work’s role in relation to poverty. Despite the profession’s core mandate to alleviate poverty, recent research describes poverty as being the wallpaper of practice, ‘too big to tackle and too familiar to notice’. Coronavirus has led to a growth in poverty, and those experiencing it have been disproportionality affected: we may be in the same storm, but we are in different boats. Furthermore, the parameters of social work have shifted, with risk of transmitting the virus now a primary concern. Given this, what can social workers do to develop poverty-aware practice during this turbulent time?
Supporting individuals and families through the crisis
One of the biggest challenges has been the limitations imposed around seeing individuals and families in person. For social workers this has meant that a principal means of building relationships, assessing family circumstances, and supporting people has been curtailed. That we are largely unable to see people within their own homes (or indeed our offices) does not however stop us from ensuring that we continue to listen to people, take them seriously, treat them with dignity and respect, and work in partnership. These are all cornerstones of poverty-aware practice, none of which are dependent on a home visit.
Since the start of lockdown, practice has increasingly pivoted towards providing individuals and families with material support. We are more routinely enquiring about whether people have enough food in the fridge, money on the meter, and data on their phone. We can no longer hide behind the fear that to ask such questions is stigmatising. By speaking about it, we learn how to ask in more sensitive and shame-reducing ways.
We have been busy delivering food parcels, i-pads, books, toys, bikes, and activities to families in need. By doing so we are not only meeting material needs, but also social and emotional needs. We are providing human connection, demonstrating care, and respecting people’s dignity. This shifts the ground upon which relationships are built and maintained, away from a foundation centred on risk and mistrust, and more towards recognising and supporting people’s struggle to live fulfilling lives.
It is also crucial that when we encounter barriers to realising this, we advocate on behalf of people on the basis that poverty is both a violation of human rights and a social injustice. People are not struggling to access these basic means of living because of a lack of motivation or competence, but due to being in an incredibly difficult situation that they are actively trying to resist.
Relationships during a time of ‘social’ distancing
For some social workers, there has been a frustration at feeling like we are doing social work with one hand tied behind our back, and that we should be doing more. Working from home has emphasised for many how detached we have become from the communities in which we work. Being physically distant from others does not necessitate that we have to remain socially distant from them. Social workers have been learning and developing creative alternatives for engaging with individuals and families. Not visiting people at home has meant visiting them in other places, such as going for socially distanced walks, or meeting in cafes and the local hang-outs that are open. There are opportunities here to get out and meet people within their local communities, their ‘real-life contexts’. This needs remembered when the hoped-for normality returns.
Social distance can also be reduced, and solidarity promoted, by recognising commonalities in the shared struggle against the current crisis. We can share strategies for relieving boredom at home, activities to do with the children, the best Youtube exercise videos. A colleague of mine has been having a weekly online yoga and mindfulness session with a parent she works with.
The impact of macro factors on the individuals and families we work with is now more obvious than ever. We need to incorporate the impact of coronavirus, and its intersection with other inequalities, into our understanding of individual and family difficulties, and bear witness to this within our assessments. We are in a position, alongside colleagues in agencies and disciplines with which we work closely, to make these issues visible more widely in order to challenge the dominant individualist narrative of poverty. Nobody chooses to live in poverty, they are kept there by a system that is stacked against them.
As social workers, we’ve seen coronavirus have a largely detrimental impact on the families we work with, and on our practice. However, I see some silver linings emerging that give direction to how we can develop poverty-aware practice. Social workers can play a key role in supporting vulnerable individuals, families and communities who are experiencing poverty. We can be their port in the storm.
 See Krumer-Nevo, M. (2020). Radical Hope: Poverty-aware practice for social work. Bristol: Policy Press.
 Morris, K., Mason, W., Bywaters, P., Featherstone, B., Brigid, D., Brady, G., Bunting, L., Hooper, J., Mirza, N., Scourfield, J. and C. Webb (2018). Social work, poverty and child welfare interventions. British Journal of Social Work, vol.23(3), pp.364-372.
 Saar-Heimann, Y., Krumer-Nevo, M. and M. Lavie-Ajayi (2018). Intervention in a Realf-Life Context: Therapeutic Space in Poverty-Aware Social Work. British Journal of Social Work, vol.48(2), pp.321-338.