"Poverty is a very real problem. The people experiencing it, are not"
SASW National Committee Chair, Jude Currie, shares her views on how social workers can support those living in poverty
Poverty is a very real problem. The people experiencing it are not. I believe social work is well positioned to listen, to act, and to ally with others to help end it.
I am a social worker in Edinburgh, the wealthiest city in Scotland. This week, a Poverty Commission Report called the city to action, estimating that 15% of the population and as many as 1 in 5 children live in relative poverty. As the Covid recession begins to bite, they go on to estimate that this number could rise significantly by spring 2021 unless significant action is taken now.
As social workers, our very code of ethics, values, and our law in Scotland, requires us to act. We are called on and compelled to recognise and respond to the raw and hidden needs in front of us and also to engage with the upstream issues that cause them. It’s important to point out the wonderful work social workers, as key workers, do across the country to mitigate the impacts of poverty. During Covid I have seen, heard, and remain inspired by wide-ranging acts of duty and compassion of social work teams, third sector partners, community groups and kind individuals.
A million tiny miracles have and continue to be made on isolated doorsteps and screens every day. In practice this can look like making sure a strong but struggling parent has enough milk in the fridge and money in the prepayment meter at the end of a long month of long hours and low pay; ensuring isolated adults struggling with their mental health have internet and access to friendly faces and support; that children don’t go back to school after lockdown with big worries and empty stomachs. It is not rocket science but love, care, humanity.
Personally, the dilapidation of many community greenspaces in areas of deprivation was particularly striking during some of my own distanced visits. Garden envy is real – I have felt it myself like never before. Yet this fresh look at my surroundings served to remind me of the basic human right of all of us to a safe, secure family life. In everyday terms this is often simply a safe home with enough food and warmth and local outdoor space free of broken glass, rubbish and overgrown grass. Who among us would not want this?
As social workers we are positioned to see, to recognise and to listen to the many lived experiences of poverty. Many of us, across sectors work with vulnerable people, and can see how poverty slowly grinds and isolates, how it can suddenly and unexpectedly sweep families into crisis, how it sees people fall into gaps in support. The Edinburgh Commission Report reminded me that every locality in my city has at least one area of high poverty and that almost any one of us can experience it in our lives. We need to keep listening to what poverty can look like, feel like - in every town, city, village, suburb or island where work and live. Poverty can be found all around us if we look hard enough.
Recent analysis into the poverty data tells us that the majority of the population in relative poverty are in working households (59% in 2014-17 compared to 48% in 1996-99). There is no room for the problem of poverty to feed disparate ‘us and them’ or ‘have and have not’ debates. It is a reality for a rapidly growing proportion of the population. The Social Worker’s Benevolent Trust reminds us of the existence of hardship in our own profession, as they continue to support social workers struggling with rent arrears, mounting debts and warn of poverty in work becoming ‘normal’ .
In an article on food insecurity in the October edition of Professional Social Work social work student and single dad, Dominic Watters, speaks to the profession’s commitment to create a diverse next generation of social workers. We all live together in a diverse society and our profession should reflect this gift of experience. This way we move towards deeper understanding of the disproportionate burden of poverty and inequality on black and minority communities and colleagues. We better instil and inspire practice and influence policy that is actively anti-racist. Only together can we beat back the intersectional tide of poverty with a greater sense of connection to, understanding of, and compassion for its impacts.
While these lockdown snapshots of need and response can point us to the realities of underfunded public services, often frozen in crisis, I firmly believe they shine a helpful light on what we can do and change. Our practice experiences point us to those very areas where investment and growth can create powerful opportunities to build self-esteem and self-worth. If we can redesign our days to deliver shopping, ensure kids have lunch, and that our neighbouring flat has their garden mowed, surely, we are reminded of our capacity to redesign our systems and services, so they work for everyone?
I’ll finish on one more reflection. I am heartened that as social workers we are part of the solution. In the face of diminishing services and 10 years of austerity I have at times felt overwhelmed. It is understandable to feel this way and that a solution for poverty is impossible. I firmly believe it isn’t but that we can’t do it alone.
As social workers we are regularly reminded that safe practice means never working in isolation. We are in a fantastic position to ally with others, harnessing the skill of fellow key workers, the flexibility of the third sector, the aptitude of researchers, and the heartbeat of local communities.
We are also part of an international profession and have a strong association to help us come together, to collect these experiences, start conversations and campaign for change.
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Find out more on:
- BASW's Poverty Practice Guide, here.
- BASW's campaign work on Anti-austerity and aunti-poverty, here.
- SASW's Communities of Practice for social workers, here.
 PSW, October 2020 p.7
 PSW, October 202 p. 19