The Nature of Poverty and Social Exclusion

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Using a Case Study explain the nature of poverty and social exclusion and its impact on family life. How might current anti-poverty strategies help the family you have chosen? Most of the service users with whom a social worker comes into contact live in poverty and poverty affects almost every facet of their lives, often excluding them from the ‘normal’ activities of mainstream society and preventing them from becoming full citizens of that society. For this reason alone an understanding of poverty and social exclusion is required; on a structural level (explanations as to why certain groups experience higher levels of poverty), the individual and familial (what poverty means to actual people) before we can begin to appraise the present governmental policies that have the declared aim of addressing both poverty and social exclusion .

In this assignment an overview of the reasons for and consequences of social exclusion will be followed by a case study,( all names & some details have been changed to protect the users right to confidentiality ) before going on to discuss what remedies are available to the social worker working with this family in poverty and how effective they might be. One in four people live in poverty in the UK and 63% of lone parents are in poverty (defined as below 50% of average income). The structural disadvantages that produce and perpetuate poverty impact more heavily upon women than upon men  and 90% of lone parents are women. Poverty limits life expectancy, creates contexts within which ill health disfigures and reduces the quality of life and relationship to the wider society and can itself become a way of life that becomes recreated from generation to generation.

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But what is poverty? The concept of poverty has both an absolute and a relative dimensionbut the element of social exclusion tends to intrude in predominantly capitalist and developing societies where wide disparities in wealth exist side by side. If everyone is very poor, then no-one is excluded, if only some social groups or communities are very poor then social exclusion becomes a characteristic of poverty. Attempts to explain poverty over generations have turned upon the ‘culture of poverty’ debate in which the presumption was that people living in poverty used different strategies to navigate their condition and this debate continued in the US and in Britain in the early 1990s with the assertion that an ‘underclass’ now existed in both societies, excluded by the mainstream and excluding itself by inverting the traditional virtues of thrift, hard work and honesty.

Such an ‘underclass’ was effectively disenfranchised and were not seen as, nor saw themselves as citizens. This ‘underclass’  also takes up a high proportion of the national wealth in terms of containment (criminal justice system), benefits payments and healthcare intervention (drug, alcohol and nicotine abuse). Therefore, government strategies to deal with poverty and social exclusion have dimensions of both social justice and security of the state. Socially excluded groups largely defined by class and ethnicity pose problems for a just and a stable society. However, the ‘underclass’ thesis has been heavily criticised (Morris, 1993) for seeking to justify de facto social exclusion and taking punitive measures (including cutting social security benefits).

For poverty to continue generation to generation explanations lie in the culture of people in poverty or the failures in the welfare system to meet need. If the victims of poverty are not to blame, then the blame must lie elsewhere. A focus on agency failure directs attention towards those who are supposedly charged with eliminating poverty. The case study I shall describe encapsulates the way in which poverty and social exclusion is a multi-faceted phenomenon and how many of the structural oppressions that impact upon individuals, families and households combine to create a complex series of interactions that drive people into poverty and once there, and without appropriate intervention, keeps them there.

Janice is a 24 year old lone parent living on a council estate situated on the periphery of a major city. She left school at 16 with no educational attainments and having spent the last two years as a school truant or non-attender. It is very probable that Janice is dyslexic, although no tests were carried out by the school and she never received a statement of special needs, which would have helped her to overcome this disability. As a result she is functionally barely literate, although she appears to have no learning disability. Her lack of academic attainment, allied to the high unemployment (70% throughout most of the estate) in the area, means that she has never had a paid full-time ‘job’. She began a Youth Training scheme but dropped out. Until she was 18 Janice lived at home (also on the estate) with her mother and her mother’s partner, who was alcohol dependent and he and Janice’s mother were accustomed to loud and sometimes violent domestic disputes.

After a particularly violent argument in which Janice, as well as her mother, was assaulted, Janice left to live with Dwayne in a squat the other side of the city. Dwayne was a heroin user and tried to introduce Janice to the drug, but she refused. Just before Janice’s first child, Jade, was born, Dwayne (Jade’s father) left her. Jade was born in a maternity home for young mothers and Janice and Jade moved into semi-independent accommodation and then into Janice’s own flat back on the estate. Janice later met Patrick, who moved in with her and by whom she had a second child, Ciaran. By this time Jade was almost three and showing signs of delayed development. Jade, now five, has multiple handicaps and cannot walk, she also has severe learning disabilities. Shortly after Ciaran was born Patrick was arrested on a charge of aggravated burglary and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.

Janice now lives alone with her two children, her contact with her mother is limited owing to the friction caused by her mother’s partner. Janice’s natural father left the family home when she was six and she has had no contact with him since. She has no siblings and her contact with her extended family is non-existent. In Janice’s case we can see encapsulated many of the factors that lead to poverty and social exclusion and the stigma associated with these. She, since Patrick’s conviction, is effectively the lone female parent of one child (of dual heritage) who is profoundly handicapped and a second child who is developing normally but has respiratory problems. She has no marketable skills and at various times has been obliged to earn her living from prostitution, although she has no convictions for soliciting.

Janice lives in a community where unemployment is high, there is a high crime rate, a lack of social cohesion (this is a ‘sink’ estate) and has few social amenities. Bus fares are high and the city centre some eight miles distant. What can present government policies do to help Janice and her family and how could I, as the social worker, make use of them to provide assistance and to promote inclusion and citizenship? For most service users who live in poverty, poverty is the single most influential factor in determining the condition of oppression and stigmatisation in which they find themselves. This is not to argue that a simplistic policy of ‘throw money at them’ is either morally reliable or administratively correct, but the low level of benefits received by most claimants remains far below that required for a standard of life that can provide social inclusion.

Means tested social security benefits have offered claimants a standard of living which has been variously described as wretched, drab and limited, characterised by debt, ill-health, poor housing and constrained access to opportunities to participate fully in any meaningful way in the life of the community (Cohen et al, 1992 p 6). In the decade since this was written little has changed. However, what has changed is perhaps a willingness at central government level to accept that poverty, in both absolute and relative terms, became deeper and more entrenched in the period 1979-97, and that drastic action is required to reverse this process. The eradication of child poverty within twenty years was pledged in March 1999 (Barnes, 2001) and its achievement must deliver an end to poverty for the families in which these children live.

The difficulty posed by such a pledge is the extent to which it can be delivered, given a possible economic recession and the intractability of a social exclusion which is itself an outcome of poverty and its re-enforcer. Official poverty statistics…suggest there has been little progress. For the purposes of this case study we will assume that Janice and her family live within one of the areas designated to trial Sure Start, which was launched in April 1999 to underpin Tony Blair’s pledge of the previous month. Sure Start was intended; ‘to improve the health and well-being of families and children before and from birth, so children are ready to flourish when they go to school’.

For Janice, monies provided through Sure Start could also be supplemented by those from the Children’s Fund, which can be used to provide direct payments to families in special need (for instance adaptations to the flat and facilities for Jade) but the overriding need for Janice is to have more money coming in to the household. Integrated Child Credit would be paid direct to Janice. Although Patrick is presently being accommodated elsewhere, there is plenty of evidence that in budgeting within male/female households it is the woman (who is also most usually the primer caregiver) who tends to have management but not control of the family’s finances and is the one to ‘go short’ at the end of the week.

However ICC is not due to come onto stream until 2003, by which time Patrick should have been released from prison and will have returned to live with his family. Faced with the stigmatisation of a prison sentence he may have problems in gaining employment, thus the payment of ICC direct to Janice could enable her to keep more control over their finances. Janice should also be eligible for Disabled Living Allowance in respect of Jade, but it is well recognised that poor families are least aware of their rights and least likely to receive support (Roberts & Lawton, 1998). We must also take into account Janice’s possible dyslexia and functionally low literacy level. The role of the social worker is to inform Janice of her rights and to assist her in making claims for benefits to which she is entitled, bearing in mind Roberts & Lawton’s (1998) finding that;

Socially disadvantaged families are less likely to apply for DLA, less likely to be successful and less likely to receive an award at the higher rate (as cited in Reith, 2001). The DLA can meet some of the additional costs involved in raising a disabled child and the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act (1999) extended the highest rate of payments to 3 – 4 year olds and came into force in April 2001. Had Jade been a year younger (she is now five) this would have benefited Janice, once again, if she had been sufficiently well informed to have applied for it in the first place. The penalties of social exclusion include not having access to appropriate information as to how applications might be made and what goods and services they might cover. Certainly poor health and disabilities in children correlate closely with poverty.

Not only are families with a disabled child likely to be poor because their earning capacity is limited…….Families which are already poor are more likely to have chronically sick or disabled children . At present Ciaran is meeting his age appropriate development targets, but he has chronic respiratory problems possibly caused by damp housing conditions and exacerbated by poor diet. An assessment of the family’s accommodation in the light of both children’s health needs is required. Beyond money as a means of reducing the social exclusion of Janice and her family, practical strategies (for some of which financial payments can provide remedy) include; respite childcare, access to parental support groups (especially for parents of children with disabilities) and access to local amenities. Costs of transport and access to child friendly buses, taxis, mini-buses should all come within the scope of the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal proposals (Social Exclusion Unit, 2000) and Neighbourhood Management.

However, Janice’s case encapsulates many of the most intractable characteristics of social exclusion, including low educational attainment and school attendance, long term unemployment, ill health and disability and crime. In addition Janice is socially isolated and her personal support network very circumscribed. As the social worker working in partnership with her I should actively seek to empower Janice by acknowledging her strengths to raise her self-esteem; her refusal to use drugs, her care for her children and her support for Patrick. Social exclusion tends to foster either dependency  with a return to notions of an ‘underclass’ and long-term stigmatisation as a ‘problem family’, or a resort to illegitimate means (including crime) either to acquire the means of participation or to reject society’s values and morales. By a de facto removal of citizenship – cursory appraisal of voting figures in the 2001 General Election shows a lack of interest in political and social debate across the board, but especially amongst those groups that are already marginalised – individuals become disenfranchised as members of that society.

Being part of society requires having a place within it, being valued and having a contribution to make within the community and wider society (Robbins, 1994). Social exclusion is both a structural process (certain groups are subjected to greater stigmatisation and risk of exclusion) as well as an individual dimension and the more disadvantages and/or oppressions to which a person or group is subjected the more excluded they will be. In many ways the work of the Social Exclusion Unit and the government initiatives it has generated can be seen as a final commitment before society fragments and/or becomes polarised. As Alcock (1997) writing before these initiatives were launched makes clear; The concept of social exclusion refers to a process, or a set of social relations, between poor people and the rest of the society in which their poverty is created and recreated.

The important points here are that exclusion is a process, not simply a product, the forces of the market through employment, income and the advertisement of consumer goods drives people to the margins of society and excludes them in poverty, but this poverty is recreated by the transmission of the stigma of exclusion and the ways in which these are constructed (class, education, housing and health care) from one generation to the next. It is this concern, that Janice’s children may grow up just as socially excluded as their parents, that at one and the same time drives government inclusion policies and the concept of the ‘underclass’.

As social workers, whatever misgivings we may have about the capacity of New Labour to deliver, the prospect of its failure, either for individual service users or society as a whole cannot be accepted. What does give rise to concern is reports from practising social workers that those groups most socially excluded have been left out of the reckoning. For those people furthest from social inclusion (the old, those with mental health problems) little is being done, which leads one to question as to how far the social inclusion strategy is quick results lead and the result of spin rather than social engineering.


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