Poverty is the wallpaper of practice – “too big to tackle – too familiar to notice” Morris (2021)
I was recently reminded that in this new year of 2023 I had completed my 25th year working for a Local Authority and within Social Care. In reflecting on those years and becoming more aware of poverty I wanted to share some thoughts.
What is poverty?
Poverty has always been visible in my career, like an incurable condition of society.
I have observed its impact on many occasions, working with people and families receiving welfare benefits or on fixed, low incomes.
There is a multi-layered nature of poverty which includes both the physical lack of resources and opportunities to meet our own needs (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2008) and the psychological impact of living in poverty (Maslow, 1943). Its impact has never been more evident than it is today, affecting groups of people previously untouched by the pain, suffering and shame it can cause. It has become embedded in society in 2023, reaching areas of society once considered immune. Its severest impact still being on those citizens most reliant on state support.
It has been allowed to take root over many years of austerity, cost-cutting and greed. As a result:
- 14.5 million (22%) adults, children and older adults in the UK are in poverty.
- 6.9 million People are locked in poverty through disability or having a family member who is disabled.
- Children living in deprived neighbourhoods are ten times more likely to come into care with a life expectancy 9 years shorter than others.
- Unpaid carers provide £132 billion per year in support with more than a million pushed into poverty. Cuts in funding since 2010 have significantly impacted on unpaid carers doubling those who are in poverty, excluding many from claiming Carers Allowance, stopping any opportunity to live the lives they want to lead.
People are facing rising costs with no money and no way of accessing more money to meet those rising costs. Being forced to make the impossible decision of heating or eating because their level of income is being defined by Governments, not by the true cost of living. I have seen how this drains the life out of people.
What has changed in 25 years? What have I learnt?
The current welfare systems are assessment led. Defined by meeting criteria and thresholds, to determine who gets what and who doesn’t, with the additional element of needing to pay for support. In this way, statutory social work can be seen to be about regulation of the population; gatekeeping and not about positive intervention or change enablement.
As a social worker, I am having deeply distressing conversations all the time with people who are cancelling support that they clearly need as they unable to afford the financial contribution. Food parcels used to be a Christmas gesture, but now they are a part of daily life. Requests for emergency money for gas/electricity are more common. Embarrassingly, I recall comments made about houses with sticky floors, dirty kitchen tops, no food in the cupboards, that you never accept a cup of tea. Fast forward I now recognise that what I saw were the real consequences of poverty for people, families and communities. I knew this but it never felt connected to me. Subconsciously, poverty has always been the wallpaper of practice: “too big to tackle – too familiar to notice” (Morris, 2021)
Further still, as I write, in the news there are stories of professionals using food banks, including social workers. I’m aware of colleagues who are restricting when they have their heating on, struggling to afford the increased living costs, questioning how they are going to do their job.
So …. we are just Social Workers, what can we do?
1. Use our professional power
I am reminded of the magic fairy wand I am expected to wield, the weight of expectation to change the world, fix everything.
As practitioners in our assessments and interactions, we can recognise poverty as a real, everyday problem. Recording its impact on people’s health and wellbeing is vital. We must challenge where it is clear poverty is being used incorrectly, oppressively. Challenge the systems that maintain the status quo. Recently in a webinar a speaker (Parent) referenced being described as neglectful for using a food bank. This was documented in child protection reports as a measure of their inability to parent rather than as a necessity. An indicator of the need for support, not judgement.
Challenge the individualistic viewpoint of poverty “This is your fault get yourself out of it” fight against normalisation and invisibility of poverty using any means disposable to us.
2. Be poverty Aware
I recently watched a webinar by Siobhan Maclean on Poverty and Anti-Poverty Practice, listened to campaigners such as Dominic Watters and been part of the BASW Anti-Poverty Campaign. Being poverty aware is crucial. Being able to stand in solidarity with people, build relationships, provide hope. As a profession we are caught up in the bureaucracy of our organisations. We have lost sight of the issues, abandoned our values and our rights-based foundation.
Social workers should represent the hegemonic definition of ‘good’. We can challenge social injustices, be advocates for equality of opportunity and equality in the standard of living.
Practitioners should reignite those far and distant university taught theories on relationship -based practice, rights-based approaches, values of respect and dignity, moral duties, community-based work of the distant past but not of now. I am mindful that I sit in the middle of the organisation and the person, family needing support. How I use my professional and legal knowledge could make all the difference.
3. Never forget who you are
Social Work has always had a political side. Now more than ever is the time to remember who we are, why we came into the profession. Challenging poverty as a form of social injustice is at our very core and we must recognise the power we hold in ensuring poverty does not remain invisible.
The current picture is bleak, but are there any rays of sunshine?
Being involved recently in Anti-Poverty Campaigning, having more conversations about real action, writing this blog, educating myself, advocating publically about poverty, within my job it feels like I am shining a light. COVID-19 provided rays of sunshine showing that communities can come together but it should not take a pandemic to motivate people into action this should be a normal part of a caring society.
I end with a call to resist: Poverty is not too big to tackle too familiar to notice if WE all work to shine a light on poverty, work to do what we can to challenge its existence and find meaningful solutions for those most effected (Morris, 2021).