Poverty is often used as an indicator of social and economic development. Statistics seem to suggest that the number of people living in poverty in the UK is rising (Mantle and Backwith, 2010; Parekh, MacInnes and Kenway, 2010). In the general public or media poverty tends to be advertised as hunger, homelessness and gruesome living environments, where basic needs are in severe deficit. The concept of poverty is generally presented as an issue of underdeveloped countries.
Consequently the picture of poverty seems to be highly influenced by the political and ideological opinions held by the viewer. Research suggests that there is an ongoing debate on what the term “poverty” means and how it can be measured. Where there seems to be a recurrent use is on the two most generic forms of poverty measurements as described in social policy literature, these being absolute poverty also referred to as subsistence (meaning a lack of basic necessities) and relative poverty, i. e. acking of an acceptable level of resources or income as compared with others within a country (Cunningham and Cunningham, 2008). The for and against discourse, of which measurement is most valid and how such measures are calculated, is beyond the scope of this essay. Nonetheless it seems that “relative poverty” tends to dominate whenever the measurement of poverty is discussed. Relative poverty tends to be associated with the principle that all individuals at some point in their lives require welfare (Denney, 1998).
For instance, Townsend (1962) in his quest for the meaning of poverty, points out that poverty is a dynamic, not a static, concept. He opposes to poverty being an absolute state and, refers to it as relative deprivation. The point made is that the ongoing development of society, almost simultaneously, creates new needs for its growing population hence the benchmarks for poverty changes with time.
Thus, the general principle should be that poverty refers to those individuals and families whose resources, fall short of the resources dominated by the average individual or families in the community in which they live (Townsend, 1962). It seems fair to stipulate that there are a variety of reasons for why people are living in poverty. This spectrum can be from (but in a nonlinear way) a lack of income and/or resources that ensure sustainable lives, a limited access to education, employment and health, to a lack of participation in decision-making.
This essay will aim to emphasise on how these various factors of poverty as well as social policy are baselines towards understanding poverty and creating inequalities, hence informing social workers on how to address these needs of service users. Available literature seems to agree that poverty is not just connected with financial adversities. It is an ailment which affects individuals, families (as well as households) and whole communities. This ailment occurs from a lack of basic necessities (education, health, housing, employment, among others) that are necessary to maintain healthy living.
Dowling (1999) similarly stipulated that “poverty is the greater excluder for many people because poverty is concerned not only with lack of income, but with the lack of choice and opportunities…” Subsequently, one needs to consider which other social problems are associated with poverty and how these relate to social work. There has also been research in the significance of gender and its link with poverty, which found that there were different experiences of poverty by women and men that seemed to be related with access to different types of employment and family roles (i. . raising a family) (Rowlands, 2002). Understanding gender divisions is important for social work because issues affecting women ought to be included as part of the agenda in social policy. Dominant models of welfare may vary but there is a strong gender inclination into a “male breadwinner” model that places women’s income secondary to men (Denney, 1998). As such, social work practice in the context of poverty needs to considered society’s social values of family and its impact on policy making.
Other research studies have found that children who grow up in families with low incomes are significantly more likely to experience a wide range of problems and poorer developmental outcomes than children from wealthier families. For example, poverty also correlates with inadequate nutrition, which in turn is associated with low birth weight (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn, 2000). The latter has also been considered as an important measure of wellbeing for infants and as a predictive of later behavior problems and poor school achievement.
From a social work stance this could also be related to children being placed at risk as well as becoming looked after. Similarly, poverty has been linked with income in terms of poor families having lesser financial resources to allocate to their children. Low levels of income may impact on the quality of a child’s home environment, in terms of leading to conflict between children (as well as adolescents) and parents along with parental mental health problems, this then produces less satisfactory emotional, social, and cognitive development (Duncan and Brooks-Gunn, 2000).
Duncan and Brooks-Gunn (2000) also mention that avoiding the adverse consequences of deep or persistent poverty in early childhood is key for the healthy cognitive development of children. Literature indicates that a child is in poverty if he or she experiences deprivation (such as low income) and/or grows up in persistent poverty. Research further evidences that poverty is a key defining characteristic of service users accessing social services but more significantly is the arguable role of social policy in the perpetuation of poverty (Price, 2006 and Foster, 2011).
In the current climate of recession there is ongoing debate on how the policies in regards to welfare benefits, tax credits and employment have a direct impact on poverty and/or cause disadvantage to the poor (and most vulnerable groups). For example, Foster (2011) has stated that pension policy provision is likely to have a significant impact on the lives of those in older age, whom will subsequently require assistance from social services. Moreover, poverty also correlates with other factors such as unemployment and social isolation, which in turn can contribute towards family break-down (Cunningham and Cunningham, 2008).
Economic factors have been found to play a part in child poverty where connection was also made with policy decision (in 1980) to up-rate benefits in line with prices instead of earning (Bradshaw, 2002). More current, the forecast for the cuts in the welfare reform bill, such as raising income tax threshold and Universal Credit, proposed by the Coalition Government is that they are likely to increase the levels of child poverty as well as other vulnerable groups (such as disability and lone-parent families).
Adams, et al (2009) similarly states there is a close relationship between poverty and social policies relating to health, housing and education. For example, homelessness and poor housing conditions have been associated with low-income and contributing factors towards health problems. Dowling (1999) has equally pointed out a number of areas in government policy which have impacted on the poor, namely policies that have limited public spending, introduction of regressive taxes (i. e. community charge and VAT on fuel), stagnant benefits among others.
Therefore it is important to understand how the state and social capital may deprive vulnerable groups (Foster, 2011). A starting point for this could be by considering the sociological explanation of poverty. Cunningham and Cunningham (2008) present these into three categories: functionalist theories (poverty as a positive function), individualistic explanations (focus on ‘problem families’) and structural explanations (structure of society and associated political and economic factors).
Understanding the concepts offered by these paradigms regarding the causes of poverty influence or direct policy making. For example, politicians and the media have sought connections with the subdivisions of the individualist theories, such as cycle of deprivation and culture of poverty, to rationalise current policy and practice. Whereby, some argue that individual’s ability to successfully contribute towards their own healthy living is hindered by the individual’s own overreliance on the welfare state.
In this regard, as postulated by Davis and Wainwright (2005) the extent to which social workers recognise the impact of poverty on service users will be influenced as much by the value base of their practice as the organisational framework in which they work. Strier and Binyamin (2010) offered further theories of poverty, which include an individual theory where poverty occurs due to the individuals being either unprepared or unable to participate productively in market economies; ultural/behavioural theories tend to embrace a collective view of poverty and structural which views poverty as the result and expression of multi-level oppression. The debate could then go on into what is a “basic need” alongside a persistent stereotypical view which holds the poor responsible for their own poverty, this is where absolute poverty prevails insofar as there is no consideration for present-day living standards or conditions. This in it itself may be pejorative to services users that require social care assistance.
Dowling (1999) takes the above stances further by exploring whether or not the poor need social work, she finds that the poverty of social service users is related to policies that have restructured welfare in Britain, such as income inequality (lone parent families being the most affected) and the 1989 community care legislation where private homes for those with learning disabilities and mental health problems were developed with a for-profit motive rather than a social care perspective.
For many service users poverty is a persistent feature in their lives, where issues of inequality become also significant. As such, it is critical for social workers to possess a sociological understanding of key debates and issues related to poverty. Such as debates on how policy-makers shape the responses to poverty and structure the framework within which social workers can respond to poverty. Social workers are in a position to promote the rights and needs of those facing poverty and ought to exert this “power” to benefit those in need of assistance.
Hence, awareness and understanding of poverty (as well as broader social policy) is an essential part of a reflective and critical approach to practice (Adams, Dominelli and Payne, 2009). An inclusive approach to understand poverty will need to also consider many other groups who may be excluded for a variety of reasons of inequality, such has gender, race, ethnic origins, age, disability and religion. Literature and research clearly suggest that poverty does not just happen but is a by-product of socio-economic policies and decisions about how resources are distributed and who can benefit from them.
Consequently, the results are that those affected by poverty are marginalised in their own society, as stated in Cunningham and Cunningham (2008) poverty becomes “a yardstick against which the rest of society can measure themselves”. There is significant research in regards to the inequalities caused by poverty. For instance, poverty is also an indicator of risk for other forms of disadvantage and inequality such as health, housing and educational achievement (Davis and Wainwright, 2005). Poverty has also been linked to children’s life changes, ill health and mental health problems.
Adams, et al (2009) state that there is a symbiotic link between poverty and health in terms of ill health making people vulnerable to poverty but also how poverty can contribute to ill health by means of poor diet, homelessness or inadequate housing. Housing too has been described as a critical determinant of wellbeing and social exclusion in later life (Adams et al, 2009) Moreover, the lack of adequate education (as a produce of poverty) also leaves individuals vulnerable, in terms of making appropriate decisions about health and prevention of disease.
The links between poverty and ill health further contribute towards vulnerability at all stages of an individual’s life, but more so in old age. Price (2006) posits that pensioners are far more likely than others in the population to be in persistent poverty, moreover the means-testing of income security may be considered an ageist social policy. Also, that poverty plays a large part in defining the needs of clients and to formulate social policies that effectively tackle poverty, some agreement is needed on the nature and extent of its existence (Price 2006).
Most individuals and families affected by poverty are, in various degrees, dependent on welfare benefits. The critique is that the same social care system that is meant to support them also attaches cost to the services provided, hence perpetuating the poverty experienced by those using social services (Davis and Wainwright, 2005). Responses to poverty should primarily assess the process by which poverty is created and maintained while, at the same time, encompassing other forms of ppression and discrimination (race, disability and age) experienced by those living in poverty (Davis and Wainwright, 2005). The poverty debate remains central to the welfare reform bill and general government social policies. There are ongoing discussions in regards to the distribution of resources and activities to address poverty. Put forward arguments request the need for a combination of resources, education, employment and empowerment opportunities for those living in poverty but in essence an equal access to services for all.
Mantle and Backwith (2010) suggested the need for social work to be community-orientated as a way of working towards tackling poverty, where social workers need to engage with poor communities. In their view such an approach can promote community cohesion and social capital as well as provide direct practical assistance to people. Individuals and families that are living in poverty require a level of empowerment that may be built on by the provision of accessible education and employment as this can aid in the development of skills and knowledge that might enhance quality of life.
Therefore, social conditions need to accommodate and ensure that all individuals have access to resources, opportunities and public services. As proposed in the body of this essay, poverty aware practice includes careful consideration of theories of poverty, income-based measures and inequality (as well as exclusion). But it equally incorporates learning/understanding the factors that perpetuate, endorse and elevate poverty, being these led by economy, political stances and/or social-cultural approaches.
Only then may social workers start to develop a value based from which to effectively support the needs of services users affected by poverty. Social workers perspective of poverty must be in its entirety if change is to be achieved. Hopefully, this will equip social workers with necessary tools to promote opportunities for those affected by poverty but also advocate with and on behalf of service users. The core nature of social work requires social workers to be directly involved in the relief of poverty via the direct support (or signposting) that they offer service users.
The issue here is whether there is an understanding of the meaning of poverty, its roots and development. Davis and Wainwright (2005) suggest that social workers’ understanding of poverty is influence by the value base they attribute to their role as being one of tackling poverty as well as by the organisation framework in which they work. Monnickendam, et al (2010) study found that poverty perceptions are reflected in service policy. As a result, social workers may find conflict in trying to balance their ideological beliefs with those of their employing agency (Cunningham and Cunningham, 2008).
This could have significant implications in recognising and effectively supporting the needs of services users that are experiencing poverty as well as alleviating the symptoms of poverty, which in turn could result in provision of inadequate support services. Therefore, social workers understanding of poverty should consider the structural, organisational and personal impact of poverty on people who use social services (Davis and Wainwright, 2005).
Social workers ought to aim towards promoting social and economic conditions in order to contest inequalities. This can be done by challenging policies and practices that are not fair to society as a whole. Such as, by ensuring that resources are offered and distributed fairly. A way forward to answer the question posed by this essay is that an understanding of poverty must consider the different approaches that exist, i. e. whether poverty is a lack of basic necessities for healthy living, the issue of low income, inequality and/or exclusion.
There is scope to argue that whichever one is the primary source of poverty they seem to be interrelated either as a cause or outcome to the adversity that is poverty, for example, as mentioned low income creates inequalities in terms of access to services such as education and health. These multi-dimensional layers of poverty as well as social policies inform social work practice insofar as by being part of the organisational and structural frameworks that form the provision of social care services.
The social context of welfare helps understand how provision of health, education, financial assistance, among others, is decided and distributed. Monnickendam,et al (2010) stated that as a natural course social workers may not consider the implication of macro-level social problems on their clients. Thus, to address the needs of services users where the issue of poverty is prime, social workers need to grasp these key themes within poverty.
Social Workers must be able to uphold every individual’s human rights while abiding to core social work values hereby service users have the right to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of their poverty status. To do this and improve service users welfare it is beneficial to understand how or where people are in society and how their situation relates to welfare and social policies. REFERENCES Adams, R. , Dominelli, L. and Payne, M. (2009) Social Work Themes, Issues and Critica Debates, Hampshire: Palgrave Bradshaw, B. 2002) ‘Child Poverty and Child Outcomes’, Children & Society’, 16: 131–140 Cunningham, J. and Cunningham, S. (2008) Sociology and Social Work, Exeter: Learning Matters. Davis, A. and Wainwright, S. (2005) ‘Combating Poverty and Social exclusion: Implications for Social Work Education’, Social Work Education: The International Journal, 24 (3): 259-273 Denney. D. (1998) Social Policy and Social Work, Oxford: Claredon Press Dowling, M. (1999) ‘Social Exclusion, Inequality and Social Work’, Social Policy and Administration, 33(3): 245-261 Duncan, G. nd Brooks-Gunn, J. (2000) ‘Family Poverty, Welfare Reform, and Child Development’, Child Development, 71 (1): 188-196 Foster, L. (2011) ‘Older people, pensions and poverty: An issue for social workers? ’, International Social Work, 54(3): 344–360 Mantle, G. and Backwith, D. (2010) ‘Poverty and Social Work’, British Journal of Social Work, 40: 2380-2397. Monnickendam, M. , Katz, C. and Monnickendam. , M. S. (2010) ‘Social Workers Serving Poor Clients: Perceptions of Poverty and Service Policy’ British Journal of Social Work, 40: 911–927
Price, D. (2006) ‘The Poverty Of Older People In The UK’, Journal of Social Work Practice, 20 (3): 251-266 Rowlands, J. (2002) ‘Alive and kicking: Women’s and men’s responses to poverty and globalisation in the UK’, Gender & Development, 10 (3): 31-40 Strier, R. and Binyamin, S. (2010) ‘Developing Anti-Oppressive Services for the Poor: A Theoretical and Organisational Rationale’, British Journal of Social Work, 40: 1908–1926 Townsend, P. (1962) ‘The Meaning of Poverty’, The British Journal of Sociology, 13 (3): 210-227