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Practice and poverty: 'Our silence on the issue can be deafening'

It is not enough to name poverty, express regret we can’t do more and return to a focus on the individual, writes Richard Lynch-Smith

'Accompanying a parent to the housing office or Job Centre has a practical value, but also much more.'

Published by Professional Social Work Magazine, November 4th

By Richard Lynch-Smith

The first family I met in social work were in poverty, but we didn’t talk about it. We talked around it, getting close to its presence. 

This was a presence that, the mother later told me, she felt in all aspects of her experience. Housing issues, insecure work, benefits delays. I could break it into these fragments, expressing my shame that I could not do more to help. All the while, there was little in my written and verbal assessments that suggested I saw this as a structural issue.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Statistics from the Department for Education show that low income is rarely used by practitioners when reporting categories of ‘need’ in a referral.

A demonstrable link

Studies such as the Child Welfare Inequalities Project show a demonstrable link. A child living in the most deprived decile of neighbourhoods nationally is 12 times more likely to be in care than a child growing up in the wealthiest decile.

The factors that lead to social care involvement often overlap, but poverty recurs the most amongst them.

I first encountered these statistics at a conference in 2017. I was a student then, and remember feeling a particular kind of tension.

My decision to enter social work had been rooted in my values, in wanting to be part of a profession where, as the IFSW asserts, “human rights and social justice serve as the motivation and justification for action”.

While I was aware that children’s social work was a statutory business, I hadn’t quite comprehended the challenge that this could create for me.

One of my early assignments involved trying out ‘motivational interviewing’ with a family. Developed in substance use services in the United States, this is a technique for building on the motivation that individuals have to change their behaviour.

Studies show it can be remarkably effective in the right context, particularly when someone is unclear about their reasons for wanting change. 

The family that I worked with were clear about their reasons. A combination of precarious social housing and low-paid work had left them struggling to make ends meet.

The mother, an exceptional parent, wanted to buy a new bed for her son. Her motivation was wanting him to have the dignity of his own space as he entered his teenage years.

The family finances could not stretch to it, and they were ineligible for any further government support. There was little more to it than this, and yet I found myself drawing out this conversation. 

We focus on fragments

In his book on his experiences as a social worker, future Prime Minister Clement Attlee wrote about the “touch of the patronising” that social workers were seen to hold in his day. Looking back on this piece of work, I would say that it would be a fair judgment of my practice. 

As students, we are taught to raise questions around privilege. How does my experience as a white, middle-class male relate to your experience? What can I do to better understand?

Doing so while avoiding the patronising touch is not easy, but it is nothing short of an essential skill. So why didn’t I try here? 

A feeling of powerlessness, perhaps. A frustration at saying no, at spending more time outlining what I couldn’t do than what I could. But here’s the crux of it: my concern with maintaining political neutrality rested on an assumption that I worked in an apolitical domain.

As the research of Nigel Parton and others shows, this is far from the truth. The recent history of child protection work – indeed the narrow focus on child protection itself – is rooted in a neoliberal drive to separate individuals from the contexts in which they live.

My focus on the fragments acted into this, drawing on a finite pool of ‘risks’ from which poverty was exempt. 

Determined to do better, I completed a piece of action research for my Masters dissertation, exploring this question of how I could better recognise and challenge poverty in my work.

The feedback I received from families was clear. I heard about the feeling of blame when a parenting programme is turned to before a conversation is held around benefits delays. I heard about the feeling of anger when being told to implement boundaries in a home so overcrowded that this idea could only ever be abstract.

Time and again, I heard about the experience of being spoken down to in benefits offices, housing offices, social services offices. After a while, I was told, you stop distinguishing – they’re just services. 

A new way forward

There is an emerging body of research which points to new ways forward. Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta, Kate Morris and Sue White have called for the application of a ‘social model’ to child protection.

Already present in disability and mental health work, this approach challenges the chasm that exists between child protection policy, and policies that perpetuate socioeconomic equality.

It is a dialogic approach, in which behaviours and values of individuals are understood in their economic, environmental and cultural context. Rather than applying a narrow polarity of risk and safety, it means working in a spirit of co-production: what does safety look like in your family, or community? What resources have been available to you to help you realise this? Have you been able to shape the services that support you?

This is more than a narrow politics of recognition. It is not enough to name poverty, express regret we can’t do more and return to a focus on the individual. If there isn’t the physical space or financial resources for a parenting intervention, that is clear feedback that this family is living, or resisting, in an economic system that has failed them.

Our role as frontline practitioners should be to explore that on a micro level, but also to loudly offer that feedback to those in power, and those who set the policy agenda. Rather than tacking poverty on to the list of risk indicators, we should challenge the worth of any such list.

I found that the impact of these ideas on my practice was powerful. Accompanying a parent to the housing office or Job Centre has a practical value, but also much more. You are being present in an area where that parent has felt isolation, understanding how and why they have experienced this.

This approach is collaborative, inviting you to consider the power that you wield in this situation. Rather than taking over, it may be about encouraging the other professional to speak directly with the parent, or to reconsider their approach. It is a display of solidarity, as much therapeutic as it is practical. 

I have felt, and continue to feel, a lack of power when it comes to addressing structural issues in my work. Real power exists though, and it is of the kind that can be felt most acutely by the families that we work with.

It is the power to name or disregard certain experiences, privileging our own narrative over all else. It is the power to place responsibility squarely at a family’s door, when clear evidence suggests that it very often has no place there.

Yes, of course, we are limited in what we can say, but our silence on this subject can be deafening.

This article is published by Professional Social Work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.