Poverty continues to plague a country rich in material, cultural and educational resources. About 11.3% of Americans lived in poverty in 2000, while recent newspaper and magazine articles highlight the growing disparity between the rich and poor.
Social work has an extensive history of addressing poverty at the individual, community and national levels. In fact, one of the six ethical principles guiding social workers—working for social justice—cites poverty as a primary problem.
A close examination of poverty reveals that it is about much more than money alone. Poverty results from a number of factors that include political, social, and economic dynamics. For instance, as the country shifts from a manufacturing to a service economy, wages have been dramatically lowered for the average "nonprofessional" worker. In addition, the feminization of poverty has been exacerbated by persistent disparities in salaries for men and women, as well as the disproportionate economic burden that single mothers face in raising children alone.
Social workers' training in systems theory gives them a firm grounding in understanding the nature of poverty and its roots. Clearly, there is no single solution that can "cure" poverty—poverty must be combated on a number of levels. People living in poverty often need increased access to affordable childcare, low-income housing options, mental health treatment, and educational and employment opportunities.
Take the example of a social worker's intervention with a young
woman living in a poor urban community. When she first appeared for
social services, the young woman was pregnant, depressed and unable
to pay her rent. However, she was determined to improve her life
circumstances and those for her unborn child. She couldn't save money
because she had another child to support. Although he was emotionally
partner was unable to financially contribute to her support.
During their work together, the social worker was able to develop a plan of action with her client. By following up on leads, the young woman was connected with several sources of tangible help in her community. Over the next few months, she was able to identify subsidized housing, obtain prenatal care, receive treatment for her depression and to enroll in a part-time job training program. Her partner was also able to find employment through a community job bank. By the time her baby was born, the young woman's outlook on life was brighter.
On a broader scale, social workers are tackling the complex issue
of poverty through community organizing in poor neighborhoods. Community
organizing utilizes the community's assets and combines them with
additional resources to build up the local systems that support health,
education and financial viability. It emphasizes a poor community's
strengths as opposed to its weaknesses. Social workers empower community
residents to be active in leading these efforts by lending their
professional skills to facilitate and support local initiatives.
Besides addressing poverty on the individual and community levels, social workers strive to fight poverty on a national scale. They have joined forces urging Congress to increase the minimum wage and have advocated for the importance of ending poverty rather than simply reducing the number of welfare recipients.
In all of these efforts, social workers use their training to look beyond the symptoms and get to the root causes of poverty. Always, their primary goal is to empower people to become vital, healthy members of society.
- Coulton, C.J., Chow, J. (1995). Poverty. In R.L. Edwards (Ed.-in-Chief),
Encyclopedia of social work (19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 1867-1878). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.
- Espiritu, M. A social worker addresses psychosocial problems in an impoverished community. (2002, January). Currents.
- Harrison, C.D. (1995). Community Development. In R.L. Edwards
(Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of social work
(19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 555-562). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.
- Naparstek, A., Dooley, D. (1997). Community Building. In R.L. Edwards
(Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of social work (19th ed.,
1997 Supplement. pp. 77-89). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.
- Weil, M.O., Gamble, D. (1995). Community Practice Models.
In R.L. Edwards (Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of social work
(19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 577-593). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.