This essay is going to critically analyse the social construction of poverty by underlining the issues. In this essay I will attempt to explore how a social problem is ‘constructed’ and how poverty has been constructed into such a problem. It will explore how poverty is defined and how it has been considered as a deviation from the norm by discussing the distribution of power and how it influences the construction of a social problem, how cultural values play a part in the social construction process and finally I will look at what policy responses have been formulated in response to poverty.
All references to service users and carers have been anonymised to indicate respect and maintain confidentiality, in keeping with the GSCC Code of Practice. The term poverty is defined in the Oxford Concise Dictionary as ‘that of lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal’. This definition in appears to be a construction of what normality is and it suggests that to be in poverty is a deviation from the norm, it makes a suggestion that there are good and bad people and this deviation from the good is one aspect of how a social problem could be constructed.
The deviation from the norm regarding poverty could suggest that people are poor through their own actions and to remedy this situation they should adopt more normal actions of self reliance such as proper budgeting, harder work etc. According to Hingham, P(2006) “poverty” is the common factor in social workers involvement”, therefore social workers work towards promoting social justice by addressing the causes of poverty. Those who use, and are required to use, social work services continue overwhelmingly to be poor and disadvantaged (Smale et al. , 2000).
Poverty provides the context for other factors that can increase the likelihood of contact with social services. For example, unemployment, social isolation and low incomes can be contributory factors in causing problems such as family break up, poor health, and difficulties in caring for children and other dependents. Similarly, poverty can increase the likelihood of children being looked after by the care services; of older adults going into residential care; and of admission to a psychiatric ward (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1995; Becker 1997; Smale et. al. 000; Social Exclusion Unit, 2004). It is essential that social workers develop the ability to be reflective and adopt critical practice (Adams et al. , 2005) to guard against discriminatory practices. Society comprises of a range of systems in which they are many structures operating simultaneously, some reinforcing and some contradicting each other. Social work is essentially a socially constructed activity. Social construction reflects on the values and opinions of a particular culture at a particular time. This has a profound impact on social work practice.
The expansion of social work in the 1970s was partly intended to respond to the “cycle of deprivation”. The cycle of deprivation has been shown repeatedly to be a myth. Although many people are convinced that they know “problem families” that have been poor for generations, this is a false impression. When three generations of a family are poor, it is not because poverty is inherited; all it shows is that people who live together are sharing hardship. Poverty is seen as a social problem through a complex process of social construction.
There is a construction of poverty that identifies it as a necessary feature of social life: some people will be better endowed, try harder or be more successful than others, and inequality will be an inevitable result (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994). Interfering with this natural order of things is dangerous, particularly because it prevents poverty acting as a spur to try harder. Inequalities are both the natural result of unequal performance in a competitive world and necessary to keep people trying to succeed.
The response to the problem of poverty is to try to restore it to its ‘natural’ state, since programmes designed to ameliorate it prevent people trying to succeed. As a result, poor people become ‘dependent’ on welfare benefits and ‘demoralised’, losing the moral urge to fend for themselves and their families. The essay will now explore a structural perspective of poverty and how the manifestation of power plays a part in its construction. Structuralism explores how the economic, social, cultural, and political structures including their process create and perpetuate poverty.
The “structural” school of thought argues that most poverty can be traced back to structural factors inherent to either the economy and/or to several interrelated institutional environments that serve to favour certain groups over others, generally based on gender, class, or race. Of the various institutional environments that tend to sustain a multitude of economic barriers to different groups, it is discrimination based on race and gender that create the most subtle obstructions.
The disproportionately high rate of poverty among women may be viewed as the consequence of a patriarchal society that continues to resist their inclusion in a part of society that has been historically dominated by men, and as a consequence, welfare programs have been designed in ways that stigmatize public support for women as opposed to marital support; both arrangements tend to reinforce patriarchy. Structural perspectives explore the existence and persistence of poverty by examining the way behavioural choices are limited by the structural factors in society.
The causes of poverty are found in areas such as the behaviour of Governments such and the wealthy and economic changes in society. A range of structural changes of poverty can be identified, for example, the idea of Labour market changes. One consequence of changing labour market in the last twenty five years in Britain has been the rising levels of unemployment. Although levels of unemployment have fallen in recent years a further consequence of labour market changes has been the replacement of relatively high paid manufacturing work with lower paid work (Bennet et al, 2000).
Another argument in relation to the labour market change is its impact on economic globalisation. This is supported by the Marxist view that some form of poverty is inevitable in capitalist society. In any economic system where competition exists relative differences will always exist. One of the aspects of the relationship between poverty and capitalism is the concept of social segregation. Structural theories of poverty have suggested the existence of economically segregated groups leads to social segregation and in some cases can lead to physical segregation.
According to Marxist the idea of a welfare system is therefore is significant as it provides some form of safety net for those at the bottom of society. Howard et al argued that cultures adapt to social and economic conditions and in the process develop self-defeating strategies; structural theorists argue that these strategies are not necessary. On the other hand cultural theories do not blame the individual for their own poverty but the individual’s culture.
Their culture (their beliefs, values, attitudes and general patterns of behaviour and language) are what causes their poverty. Some would argue that this culture of poverty simply does not exist and that those in poverty share the same culture as the wider society. The New Rights perspective looks at the poor under in terms of three types of failure. They look at the moral side which suggests poor people are criminals and routinely indulge in deviant behaviour. It also looks at the economic side which suggest that they are unwilling or unable to get paid Howard et al (2001),.
The educational perspective suggests that poor people lack cultural and educational skills and qualifications. The underclass are therefore seen to contribute to their own social exclusion by their rejection of the values and norms of wider society. This theory is criticised for failing to explain the existence of poverty and critics suggest that people in poverty are no different in terms of their moral outlook from other members of society; rather it is their lack of income and poverty that prevents them from achieving mainstream values.
The culture of poverty then is regarded as a response by the poor to the realities of their situation. Policy response to poverty was formulated due to its construction as a problem and recent political ideologies have attempted to ‘deconstruct’ the problem of poverty. The Individualistic theory takes the view that the causes of poverty and even inequality are rooted in individual failings of some sort or another. It states that poor people deserve to be poor.
It takes the view that it is the morality of the individual that is causing their poverty, it is their laziness. Task centred practice could be used to work with service users who are in poverty, in very practical ways. Service users have often been critical of social workers for failing to help them with practical problems, such as debt, housing, and other ‘problems of living’. Task centred practice offers a practical model which is potentially very empowering to service users as it is they who choose which areas they wish to work on.
Task centred practice is based on the premise that the service user will work in partnership with the social worker and learn new methods of problem solving which will equip them in the future. In this sense, social workers could adopt a very practical way to address some aspects of poverty. On the other hand this method of practice is based upon an individualised approach and doesn’t address the bigger picture. Combining task centred working with more radical methods of working might address this.
Holman (1973) suggested that a casework approach to social work only served to mask the social and political forces operating in peoples lives and maintained their depriving situation. He alleged that a casework approach denied the collective problems of those in poverty, and in common with other radical approaches to social work, Holman promoted methods in social work which were aimed at reducing inequality and combating poverty and oppression.
He goes on to argue that social workers are no different to others in making, distinctions and judgements between different groups of the poor, “between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. He suggests that most social workers believe they can have little strategic impact on poverty itself and believe therefore, that they should intervene with individuals rather than on a structural level. The very role of the social work profession is at the heart of this debate and many social workers struggle to balance their own ideological beliefs with those of their employing agency.
Social workers may consider themselves to have a moral responsibility to work in partnership with service users, to at least raise the profile of those in poverty and work in an empowering way to bring about as much alleviation as possible. Whether this goes far enough however is an issue individual social workers must grapple with in terms of their own practice and choice of employing agency. Becker (1997) is critical of social workers and the state regulation they implement. He scathingly suggests “Social orkers have become ideologically incorporated into their employing organisation; they owe their existence and power to the power of the state, and their function is largely to maintain institutional ends. For many tens of thousands of poor families with children, contact with social services, and with social workers in particular, continues to be fraught with danger”. To conclude there has been an illustration that society has constructed norms and how poverty has been portrayed as a deviant from the norm. The essay briefly explored the concept of power and how ones dimension to it can contribute to the process of social construction.
Values that help to identify problems have and how these values may construct a different problem from another by the process of social construction. Society has been identified as being in a state of constant change with ever changing values and perspectives. A policy response to poverty was discussed and how certain political ideologies have attempted to deconstruct poverty as a social problem. The term social construction is a multi faceted entity that enters into the everyday conduct of people’s lives (Lister, 2004).