In this section, the themes from the consultations with BASW members around the UK and focus groups with people with lived experience are discussed. These are strikingly similar to findings from the Child Welfare Inequalities Project research. One strand of that study explored if and how social workers talk about poverty, and why they might not (Morris et al. 2018). While social workers recognised the relationship between poverty and child welfare interventions, they felt it was stigmatising to discuss it, as not all families in poverty have children at risk of harm. However, sometimes this reluctance to engage in conversations about poverty would result in social workers moving deprivation into the background, meaning that the impact tended to go unexamined. Similar themes were found in the consultation with BASW members to develop this Anti-poverty Practice Guide even though they were a self-selected group with interest in poverty and social work practice.

We also spoke to experts with lived experience of poverty at ATD Fourth World about their interactions with social workers. They talked about the stigmatising or narrow-sighted views of some social workers alongside their claims that poverty was caused by cultural or systemic pressures above professionals’ control.

Thus, when poverty is a factor in risk, how can social workers talk about it in a non-stigmatising way in the foreground of practice? How can social work practice be poverty-aware?

In the next section, the themes from the consultations with BASW members are presented.

Consultations with social workers: key themes

“We’re poor too.”

  • Economic resources are required to be able to work in an anti-poverty way. Even the most empathetic and poverty-aware social worker still needed the financial resources to assist families with pressing needs and the necessary autonomy to use these resources. In places     where social workers were able to do this, even      the smallest amounts of financial support were      able to stop problems caused by financial strain      from spiralling out of control.
  • Non-specialised support services, like family centres, have been defunded so rapidly with no equivalent replacement. While social workers could previously refer people to services for, say, benefits maximisation or general support, these services no longer exist. Many of the services that have taken their place are designed around psychological or parenting interventions, and do not provide the kind of practical monetary support needed to address poverty. They deal with the consequences, not the causes.

“We need to know what we’re talking about.”

  • Social workers have no single agreed upon definition of poverty to organise efforts around. While each social worker has their own tacit understanding of poverty, there is very little commonly agreed shared understanding, which makes it difficult to confidently say ‘yes, this family is in poverty’ without it being easily dismissed. If social workers can say ‘yes, this family is in poverty’ and be confident that this sentiment will be shared by all, acting with poverty in the forefront of their concerns is much easier.

“We know how to help people in poverty, but we have no time.”

  • Social workers with high caseloads have statutory responsibilities that they are required to prioritise before they can even think about helping with a family’s poverty. They feel they therefore have to ‘offload’ the problem of poverty onto either charity or faith-based organisations. This is problematic because these organisations and projects, despite doing important work, are often transitory due to precarious funding or have been set up to deal with very specific types of poverty only, and thus can leave people feeling passed ‘from pillar to post’.

“We have no time to think about poverty, let alone help.”

  • Heavy caseloads and strained services mean that social workers, in practice, often get very little time for reflexive practice and supervision. When faced with hostility from families, caseload stress, and the emotional strain of the job, this lack of space for reflection can contribute to building up a negative, stigmatised, dehumanised perspective of people in poverty. Reflexive practice is crucial. This is especially a concern with social workers who have no lived experience of poverty in their own lives.

“It’s overwhelming, and we feel helpless to stop it.”

  • Similar to above, anti-poverty practice often feels like a moral imperative taken up by social workers individually, not a core goal of the profession. For many, this individual responsibility places a great burden on them and can lead to In places where anti-poverty practice was routinized and normalised, social workers felt much more supported by the overall goals of the organisation and able to continue working in a poverty aware way without falling into despair.

Focus group of Experts by Experience: key themes

“You are not an expert on my poverty. I am the expert on my poverty.”

  • If social workers cannot spend time recognising the strengths and coping strategies of people living in poverty, anti-poverty practice can be highly patronising. Poverty alone is a stigmatising condition, leaving people with heightened feelings of shame. Add to that the stigma and fear of having been referred to, or subject to an investigation by, child protective services, and people are very likely to  be on the back foot. Good relationship-based approaches are still essential for anti-poverty practice, even if they may not, on their own, change the structural factors that cause poverty.

“I am asking for help and now you’re investigating me?”

  • Social workers are often unaware of the context in which families in poverty come into contact with children and family services in the first place; desperation for help often leads to a referral. Many times, things have got so bad financially – usually from being rebuffed by administrative procedures for benefits - that parents will approach  professionals for help because they are at crisis point. Imagine a person whose medical symptoms have got worse and worse over time and, although their general practitioner has tried to help them, the help has not been intensive enough and the appointments have been too far spread out. It is not unusual to expect a person in this condition  to, out of frustration or desperation, turn up to an Accident & Emergency department despite being told that their condition is not something that fits their remit. The same thing happens      when someone in chronic poverty, in desperation, contacts or speaks to someone who then  contacts children’s social services. Imagine how you would feel if you were this person who, after doing so, has a social worker appear at their door who is not interested in talking about the problem, poverty, that they feel they desperately need support for.

“Budgeting in poverty doesn’t look pretty.”

  • People in poverty are often better at budgeting their resources than any budgeting coach. However, social workers need to recognise that living on a shoestring causes shame and makes life difficult to manage. It’s easy to forget that many things are taken for granted because they are bought so infrequently. Curtains, for example, are not essential when you only have enough money to buy school uniform and food. Cupboard and fridges becoming empty right before a scheduled shopping trip is a sign of good budgeting, not bad budgeting. When families feel judged or looked down upon for having old furniture, sparse decoration, chipped paint, empty cupboards with no chance to provide context, they are being shamed for making the correct decisions for their family. They become judged on their appearance and not on their actions. Thus social workers need to be non-judgemental.

“Report who I am and what I’m doing; not who you think I am and what you think I’m doing. I am not my case notes.”

  • Families describe the painful feelings associated with reading the case notes that have been written about them that were full of character judgements. Such notes often made no attempt to describe the structural problems and challenges they faced: problems in their community, domestic abuse, the inadequacy of local housing or the impact of poor administration of benefits. They focused almost entirely on the person’s perceived limitations, and not their strengths. Past notes were often seen as being accepted uncritically by new social workers.

“You are in a position of power over me. This might be your everyday, but this is my past, present, and future.”

  • What might be routine to social workers is terrifying to people living in poverty. People in poverty are accustomed to being stigmatised: people think the worst of them. Small acts of kindness and respect are of benefit in at least two ways: they stop social workers dehumanising people, and they help people in poverty see social workers are human. In the absence of such actions, both end up being perceived by the other in distorted and unhelpful ways.