COVID-19 has had a significant impact on all aspects of life, affecting just about every human being in different ways. However, something that has stood out for me is just how much these unprecedented changes have highlighted an active pandemic existing throughout centuries all over the world: poverty.
Townsend (1979) offers a definition which highlights that poverty is when individuals, families or groups lack the resources to obtain lifestyle attributes which are desirable in their specific society. For example, in the UK it is desirable to achieve and maintain a healthy diet, however many families lack the resources to do so and are subject to ‘food insecurity’ (Loopstra, 2020). Booth (1889) and Rowntree (1901; 2000) have both contributed significantly to the research and knowledge base around poverty, for instance their work around the distinctions between absolute poverty and relative poverty. These two definitions provide different perspectives of looking at poverty and create a wider perspective that there are various different types of poverty such as child poverty, in-work poverty, and others.
During COVID-19, I have seen absolute poverty which is concerned with destitution and not being able to provide for oneself in terms of basic necessities such as food, clothes, and shelter intensified. The Trussell Trust (2020) has found an “89% increase in the number of food bank parcels given to people and a 67% increase in the number of household referrals to food banks”. It is my belief that children and families social work practice has become individualised and blames service users for being in these types of situations rather than understanding and addressing the structural factors that have impacted these inequalities. Poverty is often ignored as having an important role in the struggles and difficulties many service users face and poverty-aware social work is particularly important during the COVID-19 crisis.
Gupta (2015) and Featherstone et al. (2019) highlight that children and families social work takes place amongst severe budget cuts, increasing levels of poverty and inequality and a highly risk averse context, whilst referrals for children and families services are continuing to increase. Furthermore, Gupta and Lloyd-Jones (2014) argue that the focus of social work is narrowing due to contemporary government policy demonizing families in poverty and reducing support services. COVID-19 has only strengthened these factors and whilst Hooper et al. (2007) suggest that poverty has a significant impact on making parenting more difficult, the current political context and action on tackling the current crisis fails to address this. Gupta (2015) builds on this with her finding that the most common reason for children having social work involvement is due to neglect which is heavily associated with poor parenting caused by poverty. I wonder how social workers are taking COVID-19 matters such as shielding, redundancy, and schools shutting into the assessments around neglect?
The International Federation of Social Workers (2012) claims that social work is concerned with working with those in poverty due to the long history of working with the marginalised and excluded. Although, due to the current political climate of austerity measures which fail to address the economic impact of COVID-19, practice continues to be individualised where social work with families ignores the wider socio-economic factors and pushes the blame onto individual family circumstances and behaviours. For example, Tammy Mayes who is an expert by experience living in poverty has shared that her daughters have not been able to take part in their education due to digital exclusion that is being addressed with more blame and shame rather than support.
APLE Collective (2020) have highlighted this digital divide and how it is wrong to assume that all families can adapt to remote learning through technology. Current government policy such as the Department for Education attempting to provide free laptops have failed as the National Foundation for Educational Research (2020) report on ‘Schools Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning’ has found that many children living in deprived areas are not able to engage effectively with remote learning, therefore putting them at a disadvantage and causing potentially life-long impacts on the education of children and young people (Stubley, 2020).
Choices within the austerity agenda have had significant impacts on the welfare state, bringing many reforms and changes for those who receive and need benefits; whilst during COVID-19, we have seen consistent delays, errors in criteria and impractical obstacles. It is important to highlight the paper reflecting 10 years on from the Marmot Review in 2010 (2020) which found that life expectancy has stalled and is in reverse for the most deprived women in society. This shocking finding highlights the extent of austerity and its impacts on equity, standard of living and life chances for the most deprived. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these impacts and the social work role in this with the current individualised approach we see in most child protection teams does not help children and families and creates more shame and blame on the families rather than supporting them to meet their needs and goals. With this being the current professional discourse that social work has taken, it is important to ask: are we going against key social work values of social justice, human rights, and equality?
Poverty-aware social work can be seen in the collaboration of social workers working with anti-poverty charities such as ATD Fourth World. For example, BASW’s collaboration with the Child Welfare Inequalities Project (CWIP) and ATD Fourth World to create the Anti-Poverty Practice Guide for Social Work (BASW and CWIP, 2019). This guide enables social workers to understand poverty in all its forms by including people who have lived experience in poverty to empower their voices and ensure these are heard. The CWIP’s research has identified that poverty is ‘the wallpaper of practice’ where poverty has a significant impact that most people social workers work with experience, yet is rarely taken into account in practice, for example assessments of parenting capacity can be negatively perceived due to a lack of consideration of the impacts of poverty (Turner, 2019).
How can social work claim to have values of social justice, human rights, and equality when service users are blamed for not providing for their children in the context of poverty and a pandemic they are suffering from? Social workers cannot work effectively with people, empower individuals, and make meaningful changes by blaming and shaming service users when they are victims of harsh political choices and agendas. In order for social workers and service users to work together and have stronger relationships that benefit all parties, social workers must be poverty-aware and tackle social injustices through a macro approach. Social workers must be agents of social change in order to truly advocate for the people they work with, and without this, the relationship between social worker and service user was never truly meaningful.
I believe that by taking a structural approach and being more poverty-aware, especially in response to the devastating impacts of COVID-19, social workers can truly advocate, work with, and empower service users. The structural approach attempts to explain poverty with a wider perspective away from the blaming of individuals, families, or groups for experiencing poverty – contributing to the concept of social exclusion. They highlight that many people experiencing poverty are victims as a result of a failure of the structure and operations of agencies that have the power and responsibility to cause or relieve poverty. This includes the government, anti-poverty policymakers and social services. Some examples of the structural approach include MacGregor (1981) who argues that poverty is a political concept where the cause of poverty is a result of political failure where there is a lack of political will to make effective changes in social security policies to relieve the impacts of poverty, and this lack of political will can be seen in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another example is Grover’s (2019) argument that due to austerity measures of cuts and damaging changes to social security policies, Britain is suffering from ‘violent proletarianization’. This term refers to the brutal approach of forcing people to think that paid work is a must rather than being reliant upon benefits. Therefore, those suffering from austerity measures which have been intensified due to the current crisis are taking on low paid work, as well as increasing levels of redundancy (Partridge, 2020). This research takes a more radical approach to understanding the impacts of social security policies and how austerity is a form of structural violence causing ‘social murder’, where the violence of austerity on the poorest and most vulnerable in society is causing more physical and mental ill health – therefore causing ‘social murder’. I believe that this argument can be linked to the current pandemic as redundancy rates are at an all-time high as well as an increase in bank staff and those on zero-hour contracts becoming a necessity that has been found to have links with higher COVID-19 infection rates. (Samuel, 2020). The death tolls of COVID-19 continue to rise, disproportionately killing those from ethnic minority communities which has links to deprived areas. (Public Health England, 2020). The idea of ‘social murder’ continues through COVID-19 and austerity measures that fail to address this means that Grover (2019)’s argument is still prevalent today.
It can be seen that social workers are undoubtedly practicing within poverty impacted by COVID-19 and policy movements continuously. Social workers have a role through values such as social justice and human rights and ethics to address poverty on both micro and macro levels. At the micro level, social workers can provide information for service users and use person-centred approaches by offering community services, information surrounding the welfare state, and meeting collaborative goals. At the macro level, social workers have the duty in relation to their values to address poverty and its impacts on society. In regard to austerity’s impact on families, it is the role of a social worker to understand this and reject ill-informed judgements and assumptions about service users such as a mother having to choose between paying for heating or dinner. This is because the impacts of austerity and COVID-19 on social security policies may have a significant influence on causing this difficulty for the parent. Social workers can also campaign for the end of austerity as well as contribute to policy making through research and developing the knowledge of the impacts of austerity, COVID-19 and poverty.
Gupta, Blumhardt & Fourth World (2018) suggest that a theoretical framework based on being more poverty aware through upholding social work values such as human rights and social justice may trigger a much-needed shift in children and family social work practice to reduce the individualisation and blame put on families we often see today. By taking a structural approach, challenging political choices, and recognising poverty’s impact especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that meaningful change can be made. I believe that this change of being more poverty aware will enable service users to trust social workers as advocates for their struggles, difficulties, and injustices and in turn build stronger relationships and meaningful partnership opportunities.
Omar Mohamed, BA Social Work Student, University of Birmingham
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