Austerity campaigner Charlotte Hughes considers what social workers and other professionals should be be doing to challenge poverty, austerity and stigma.
More than a million people in the UK are so poor they cannot afford to eat properly, keep clean or stay warm and dry, and this figure is rising daily. A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found that 184,500 households experienced a level of poverty in a typical week last year that left them reliant on charities for essentials such as food, clothes, shelter and toiletries. More than three-quarters of these people reported going without meals, while more than half were unable to heat their home. This has affected their mental health, left them socially isolated and prone to acute feelings of shame and humiliation.
Many of these will need support from social workers, but many will either be afraid of asking for help, or will do their best to muddle through, not wanting the stigma of social service involvement. While many social workers want to tackle the immediate problem, little resources are available to them to tackle the underlying problems such as benefit sanctions, social isolation and the lack of public facilities.No judgement should be placed upon any person for having to live like this. It is not their fault that the government sees fit to introduce a harsh sanctioning system, nor is it their fault that this can isolate them from reaching out for any opportunities that come their way.
I feel that social workers need to understand poverty more, not only to understand the causes and effects of poverty and exclusion, but also know how to put this in practice without upsetting the family. They need to challenge the rhetoric that depicts poor people as undeserving scroungers, lazy and a burden on hardworking families. Social workers also need to develop methods which will improve poor people’s lives. Listening to the family and their issues, rather than pre-judging them and using a one- solution-fits-all system. Every person and family are individuals with their own problems and respect does need to be given to them. And this should never be dealt with in a judgemental way, nor should it be seen as an additional burden. Words such as "If you become homeless we will take your children away" do not help. Situations are far more complex than that, and rarely is an issue such as homelessness a parents fault. It, like other issues is a combination of many problems. Help and guidance is what is needed.
Social work, I feel, does need transforming, Social workers should be allowed to have the freedom and access to resources to work with service users tackling the brutal poverty and exclusion that austerity has imposed upon them. A friendly environment, outreach work, and someone that a family can trust to help and to guide them. It’s important to remember that people living in poverty are not hapless victims, they are people with an incredible intelligence and a drive to survive and to overcome the poverty that they are forced to live in. They form strength from the solidarity of others, and the networks in which they live are often very strong and supportive.
Social workers need to act inclusively and without judgement, they need to educate themselves as much as possible about what it is like in reality to live in poverty, and to also to see things from their perspective. It is not going to be easy, but due to more and more government cuts throwing people into poverty, the need for this new approach is urgent. It's also very important that proposed government legislation is challenged by those social workers that have the ability to do so. This opposition is important and it can prevent dangerous legislation being implemented. Ongoing lobbying can be a very effective tool and it needs to be used.
Austerity is a political choice not a necessity. No one should be forced to live in as extreme poverty as they are now. For every parent sanctioned, a child is too. Sanctions are inhumane and are devastating to an individual and a family. Too many people have died already as a result, how many more have to die? To leave a person without the basic necessities to sustain life is barbaric. This does not have to happen, why should the poorest and most vulnerable have to pay such a heavy price? They pay their taxes, often more than multinational businesses do. Their only crime it seems, and it's not a crime, is to be poor.