Social Work and Poverty
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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. lacking 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.e. 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 womens income secondary to men (Denney, 1998). As such, social work practice in the context of poverty needs to considered societys 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 childs 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