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Introducing social work: a starter kit
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1.2 Explanations for poverty

This is a photograph of a woman in a group of volunteers.
Figure 3

Many traditional explanations for poverty place emphasis on the characters of the individuals, citing the ‘underserving poor’ who are said to hold self-defeating attitudes, believing that they are unable to alter their circumstances. These were typically represented in a kind of ‘underclass (Murray, 1989) by ‘problem families’ caught in ‘cycles of deprivation’ (Backwith, 2015).

However, alternative explanations to these highly personalised and individualised accounts are provided by structural explanations for poverty. Structural forces in society are represented by the distribution of income and wealth and life opportunities, access to the labour market and to education, alongside the polarisation of political power, especially when favouring elites and privileged social groups. Such imbalances in the distribution of wealth in favour of enriching the wealthy, can result in social institutions and opportunities being far less accessible to the poor, thus reinforcing and sustaining their already disempowered state. These explanations are important for social work. Lishman (2002, p. 50) argues that ‘social workers should understand the structural dimensions of the societies in which they work [and] should in working with service users, challenge the world in which they live in order to change it for the better’.