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Introducing social work: a starter kit
Introducing social work: a starter kit

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1.1 What is poverty?

This is a photograph of a woman wearing a scarf.
Figure 2

Poverty means not being able to heat your home, pay your rent, or buy essentials for your children. It means waking up every day facing insecurity, uncertainty, and impossible decisions about money. The constant stress it causes can overwhelm people, affecting them emotionally and depriving them of the chance to play a full part in society.

(Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2016, p. 3)

In 2011 the Office for National Statistics (2013) reported that 22.7 per cent of the UK population was considered to be at risk of poverty or social exclusion. This is equivalent to 14 million people. The majority of service users that social workers work with experience some form of social exclusion and poverty. In order to support these service users effectively, it is necessary to identify factors that contribute to poverty and exclusion, and to appreciate the impact that this has on their lives. This includes developing an understanding not only of the problems associated with economic hardship and isolation but also of the impact of the stigma and discrimination that service users may face. It is only then that social workers can adopt anti-discriminatory practices and approaches to enable them to work in partnership with service users to address the problems that are hard to manage in their lives. Understanding the impact of economic disadvantage is essential for social workers, as Cunningham and Cunningham (2014) explain:

Poverty provides the context for other factors that can increase the likelihood of contact with social services. For example, unemployment, inadequate housing, low income and social isolation can be contributory factors in causing problems such as family break-up and conflict, poor health, stress and difficulties in caring for children and dependents. Similarly, poverty can increase the likelihood of children experiencing maltreatment and being looked after by care services; of older adults going into residential care; and of admission to a psychiatric ward.

(Cunningham and Cunningham, 2014, p. 28)

The majority of individuals and families that social workers work with are among the most impoverished in the UK, and dependent in whole or in part on welfare benefits. Davis and Wainwright (2005) note how the growth of poverty since the late 1970s in Britain has led to an increase in demand for services. However, poverty is a contested concept and there are a number of ways in which it can be defined. For example:

Absolute poverty describes the absence of what is needed to survive. People are seen to be in poverty if their income fails to provide them with the basic necessities of the minimum of food, clothing, and shelter to sustain their physical health. This definition takes no account of the prevailing living standards of a particular society. While such subsistence definitions are sometimes used at a global level, relative definitions are more commonly used in developed countries.

Relative poverty is a concept used to describe the situation whereby people can have the basic resources to survive but still be regarded as being in poverty. The definition is relative to social context and therefore changes over time. People experience poverty if they lack the resources to have the kind of diet and living conditions, as well as the ability to participate in ordinary living patterns, customs and activities, of a given society. Social exclusion is often a feature of poverty, and the inability to participate in society by engaging in social, cultural and political life is an aspect and example of a relative definition of poverty.

As an absolute standard for measuring poverty in the developing world, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) applies $2 of income per day as a basic subsistence level for survival. This definition is used to compare the extent of poverty across different countries. In the UK, The Child Poverty Act 2010 employs a relative definition of poverty to describe a situation whereby a person’s income is below 60 per cent of the median in the year it is measured. Poverty is also measured using various ‘consensus’ definitions. These have been used to determine the extent of relative poverty and are based on what the public consider to be the basic necessities for achieving a minimum standard of living.