Historically, social work has been concerned with poverty not only because of its psychological and physical impact, but also because of the ethical and value base of the profession. As long ago as the 1970s, BASW collaborated with the Child Poverty Action Group to increase awareness and campaign for social policies to tackle poverty.In the last decade fiscal policies, with the introduction of austerity and the drive to reduce central and local government expenditure have again raised concerns about poverty and its consequences for those that need or use social work services.

Repeatedly social workers have reported their concerns about reducing resources and rising needs, fuelled by cuts to local government welfare and social security support.

Within BASW, members formed an Anti-Austerity Action Group (AAG) to campaign against the government’s programme of cuts, arguing that these caused harm to children, adults and families with care and support needs. The AAG argued that austerity exacerbated existing social inequalities and led to increasing poverty, which has strong links with other problems such as rising numbers of children in the care system, mental illness, homelessness, and addiction.

Having been commissioned by the AAG, because BASW is a four-nation organisation represented in all the UK countries, members were consulted about what the Guide should contain. The consultations were held in Cardiff (twice), Belfast, Edinburgh, London (twice) and Plymouth. Attendees at these workshops included social workers employed in the third sector, academics, and policymakers.

Each workshop was attended by a minimum of eight and a maximum of 16 professionals. There was also consultation with people with lived experience of poverty and involuntary involvement with social workers. The issues raised by these groups are discussed later in Section Three.

Overview of contents

The contents of the Guide reflect the findings from the UK-wide consultations within BASW, which have been analysed within the context of existing literature on poverty and social work.

The Guide has a practice-focus and is organised in a manner which social workers can adopt and incorporate into their everyday work.

Section 2 addresses theories of poverty and how the lived experience of deprivation impacts on peoples’ sense of worth, with knock-on effects on their mental health, their parenting, and participation in society. The key message of this section is that while poverty can be operationalised through ‘ objective’ data and examination of peoples’ access to material resources, social workers should adopt a multi-dimensional approach, which emphasises equal rights to participation in society.

Section 3 discusses themes from the consultations with BASW members and activists, identifying the effects of on-going austerity on the ability of social workers to meet peoples’ needs. It explains the different understandings of poverty used by social workers alongside the views of activists from ATD Fourth World. The key learning from this section is that currently, poverty is such a common feature of the experiences of people that, it can sometimes not be noticed and addressed by social workers. For this reason, it is important for social workers to understand multi-dimensional theories of poverty – social, cultural and relational - and their corresponding professional and ethical responsibilities to people living in poverty.

Section 4 proposes practical, skills-based approaches that can assist social workers in their work with people experiencing poverty. This section explains the need for social workers to understand the communities they work in, and the importance of relationship-based approaches in anti-poverty practice. This part of the Guide provides an analytic thread between the literature on poverty, the messages from social workers and activists, and the skills and knowledge required for anti-poverty practice.

Section 5 provides useful resources for readers to use in self-directed learning, group discussions, and training on anti-poverty practice.

How to use this Guide

The foundational value-base of this Guide is The code of ethics for Social Work (BASW, 2014), which reflects the shared principles unifying BASW members; irrespective of their roles, countries of practice, or levels of experience.

The Code of Ethics for Social Work (BASW, 2014) requires BASW members (and all social workers) to advocate for and demand social justice for people living in poverty and, it commits them to contest all inequalities, which result from uneven access to material resources, political power, and civic participation. Besides values, this Guide seeks to shape social workers’ decision-making. It can be used in conjunction with all UK social work practice frameworks, including The Professional Capabilities Framework (BASW, 2018) in England; the Anti-Poverty Practice Framework for Social Work in Northern Ireland; the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 (Section 12) and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 (Section 22); and the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014.

This Guide will be useful to all social workers. Examples of where it can be used are:

  • Assessments – by providing evidence about the impact of poverty on children, their families, and adults, it can be a reference point for identifying needs, including self-assessments.
  • Interventions – As explained above, Section 4 is a practice-focused exposition of the models and skills that social workers can deploy inanti-poverty practice.
  • Reflective practice – the Guide is intended to be useful for individual and group reflection on the impact on poverty on social workers’ decision-making and judgement. It can assist social workers to reflect on how to appropriately and ethically respond to the needs of people experiencing poverty.