This section is about models that engender anti-poverty practice for social workers and for practice leaders and managers, it explains the strategic policies and approaches that can address the social work issues arising from poverty within a locality. However, it is critical to note that the issues being addressed are driven by social policies, and individual practices alone are insufficient to change wider systemic patterns and the consequences of economic policies. National, and international, alliances are necessary to try to change the policies that result in communities with the least resources bearing the greatest burdens in terms of lack of hope, well-being and access to support (financial, practical and emotional).

The long history of social work as a profession concerned with rights and justice means that it is critical that professional bodies, social work agencies and advocates work with children, adults, families and communities to challenge the policies that generate such profound and damaging inequalities.

This section identifies how local social work policies and practices can assist in addressing poverty, including how specific casework approaches can pay attention to the everyday consequences of poverty. The CWIP research showed that whilst poverty is the ‘wallpaper of practice’ it is rarely discussed by social workers. It has become both unremarkable and unremarked upon; the CWIP research found most social workers accept that the people they work with are experiencing poverty, but they rarely take this into account in their assessments, care planning, and interventions.

As a starting point, this guide recommends that practitioners and managers develop mechanisms for provoking discussions about the poverty that the communities they serve are experiencing, how this impacts wellbeing and how it is addressed in individual work plans and local policies.

The Child Welfare Inequalities Project App has been designed to help strategic leaders, team managers, and social workers engage with some of the recommendations below. It provides data visualisations about levels of deprivation in local authority areas and trends in intervention and resources with the ability to compare different local authorities. The CWIP App can be accessed through the app portal here:

Policies and systems

  1. Using and understanding data

    The use of data about poverty and indicators of deprivation has an uneven history in social work. In some areas, often those more connected to health and therefore the study of health inequalities, we have seen growing awareness of unequal outcomes driven by socio-economic circumstances. In other areas, such as safeguarding children and/or adults, there is no data collected on the socioeconomic circumstances of the families involved, making it difficult to examine the relationship between deprivation and need for statutory services within localities. The development of robust data about patterns and relationships between poverty and social work involvement will ensure that routine awareness of the links is developed and can support the development of policies and practices (nationally and locally). Building social workers’ confidence in interpreting and using data helps ensure that poverty is not overlooked in the provision of services and the development of practice.

    The demographic profile of an area can become taken-for-granted knowledge for social workers, based on everyday practice. But there is enormous value in ensuring this knowledge matches reality – not least in order to ensure services and skills are relevant. Supporting the development of a working knowledge of the areas served, including deprivation, ethnicity, population density is critical for all practitioners, rather than restricted to strategic or planning staff. Therefore social workers should be assisted to understand the levels of poverty in their locality and they should also ensure that they reflect on this and include this in their decision-making about the people they work with.

  2. Knowing local communities

    The research by CWIP revealed that social workers and their managers struggled to access and use data and knowledge about their localities. This was partly caused by their location in remote parts of the communities – this meant that they had to drive rather than walk to home visits, missing the opportunities to interact and understand their areas.

    Some social workers in the CWIP study had developed a stigmatising narrative about streets and places, at odds with social work core values. In their narratives, they did not show understanding of the strengths within their localities of work. However, organisations and teams that prize knowledge of local income maximisation services, anti-poverty  organisations, relief services and community informal support, increase their capacity to recognise and respond effectively to local needs. Therefore, social workers should understand the local and organisational contexts that they work in, the third sector providers, the religious organisations and others that people draw on for support. This knowledge is most valuable when it’s based on direct relationships with the people involved rather than knowledge of a list of resources.

  3. Building and maintaining interagency

    The extent to which alliances have been formed with anti-poverty organisations varies considerably alliances with anti-poverty organisations varies considerably across teams and localities. There are examples of co-location of income maximisation staff in duty teams and social workers working closely with local food banks, but there is also evidence of lack of partnerships with housing, employment and poverty relief agencies. Attention is often given to partnerships with health, education and therapeutic services despite poverty often being the common experience of those needing services. Imaginative alliances connecting anti-poverty services with social work offer opportunities to ensure that the core priorities of people experiencing deprivation (for example, for food, warmth, housing and safety) remains the central objectives of social workers. Social workers should draw on their professional leadership skills and build alliances with individuals and organisations that can assist people experiencing poverty.

  4. Involving communities and families

    For social work to understand the impact of socioeconomic conditions on communities and families, and the extent to which social work services reinforce or help address these determinants, opportunities for meaningful conversations and feedback are essential. For many individuals and families the only means of providing feedback is largely negative and based on the complaints systems. 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. These can include involvement in designing, commissioning, and evaluating services. Social workers should therefore seek formal or informal feedback from people they work with and their colleagues, and through critical reflection, explore how they can improve their work with people experiencing poverty.

Practice models and skills

  1. Community social work practice

    Social workers should recognise themselves as part of the communities in which they work because they share the space with people who use services. This ‘co location’ provides social workers with the opportunities to know the area and understand resources available. Community social work is a generic term for multiple approaches, reflecting the fact that communities may be based on locality, faith, ethnicity or identity. It is, however, evident that established individual casework models can only achieve specific impact when people’s needs are driven by wider systematic patterns of poverty and socioeconomic hardships. Thinking more broadly about the community or communities that surround the individual needing services allows social work to acknowledge social and economic determinants of needs and harms. Opportunities to develop skills in community social work that are valued and respected by employing agencies increases the possibilities for fresh approaches that address socioeconomic conditions to be  built and sustained. To be effective, social workers should assist people to (re)connect to family members and community groups  who can provide additional support to them.

  2. Relationship-based approaches

    Relationship-based social work seeks to understand and address the psychological and emotional impact of past traumatic events on people. Starting from the position that the relationship between the professional and service user can be a conduit for change, the model(s) emphasise empathy, respect of people’s dignity, allowing them to tell their stories, and recognising their inner strengths. Practicing within a relationship-based framework enables social workers to understand people’s life histories and to hear their lived experiences, bringing together the wider societal analysis of the determinants of harm with individual support plans.

    As has already been discussed, living in poverty causes people to feel shame and loss of self-pride. Surviving acute socioeconomic hardship is traumatic and increases the risks of a range of harms. A relationship-based approach to anti-poverty practice is therefore important. A relationship-based approach enables practitioners to build trusting relationships with people, and, in the context of shame and trauma, enables practice to reflect the individual needs and experiences. This is critical to  anti-poverty practice. Social workers should anchor their practice in values, recognising that poverty violates peoples’ rights to justice and socio-economic wellbeing. Social workers should also draw on established social work skills such as listening, demonstrating empathy, and working alongside and with people experiencing poverty.

  3. Advocacy based practice

    Social work interventions with people living in poverty should start from the position that they have socio-economic rights.

    This implies focussing on:

    • Empowering people to obtain their legally entitled benefits and support
    • Assisting people to challenge any denials of their socio-economic, political, and human rights
    • Evidencing how poverty is contributing to the violations of people’s human rights –for example, people being unable to access or sustain a healthcare plan because of lack of money; how poverty is compounding their physical or mental impairments

    Income maximisation should be one of the core aims of the advocacy strand of anti-poverty approaches. This will involve social workers assisting families to access money and services that they are legally entitled to – for example welfare benefits, unpaid wages, and other payments in kind. Thus, one element is about increasing people’s income, but a second is ensuring that families do not wrongly pay for services that they are entitled to – for instance  domiciliary care or family support services.

    The implication of this discussion is that social workers should include conversations about income, money and poverty in their work with families, including assessments and care planning. However, the findings of the CWIP research indicate that social workers find it difficult to discuss poverty and finances, perceiving them as intrusive and potentially stigmatising. Yet, for individuals and families, not acknowledging their everyday reality is frustrating and can result in plans that are simply not feasible. Supporting social workers to become confident in talking about poverty, income and their consequences is a key organisational learning need. Social workers should develop their understanding of welfare benefits and the organisations that provide specialist support.

  4. The role of supervision

    Research has shown that the organisational and national policy context of social work can adversely impact on how social workers respond to people experiencing poverty. The social workers involved in the development of this Anti-poverty Practice Guide noted that high caseloads, tight timescales and lack of services affected their responses to people experiencing poverty. Given their narrow repertoires of choices, they prioritised safeguarding over provision of holistic support to families experiencing poverty. The CWIP study found that practitioners were experiencing a ‘moral muddle’; to identify poverty as a critical issue was felt to be stigmatising, yet to deny its impact was profoundly unhelpful to families.

    Managing this complex ethical and emotional territory requires supervisors to be confident in: understanding the relationship between poverty and harm, the impact of poverty on everyday experiences, and the role of social workers in addressing the consequences of socioeconomic hardship.

    Developing the knowledge and skills needed to support and supervise staff working with enduring socioeconomic hardship requires specific training, an understanding of the emotional and ethical demands and  clarity about the methods by which social work can avoid reinforcing the consequences of living in poverty.