How Social Workers Deal With Mounting Poverty

Social Work Poverty
Social Work Poverty

By Katie Krukenberg, MSW, LCSW

Katie Krukenberg is an MSW graduate (2006) from Florida State University and a licensed clinical social worker in North Dakota. She works at the University of Mary and is an assistant professor of social work as well as the director of field education for the social work program.

The Ethical Responsibility to Take Action on Behalf of Clients in Tackling Poverty

Social workers play an important role in ensuring all people have access to resources that will ensure the meeting of their basic human needs. This enables everyone to attain the highest quality of life possible. Poverty is an issue that requires the best of what social work stands for in terms of work at all levels (micro, mezzo, and macro) - as well as being strengths based and solution focused. When looking at the issue of mounting poverty in our country, it is clear that social workers have an ethical responsibility to take action on behalf of clients and within our responsibilities to broader society. More challenging is the identification of steps to tackle poverty in a way that looks to the future and create steps for sustainable changes to decrease poverty over time. As a student in Florida State University’s MSW program you’ll have the opportunity to learn about the challenges faced by clients, as well as strategies to help overcome them.

Upstream Thinking Required in Response to Mounting Poverty

There is a parable that tells of a man who came upon a river where someone was drowning. He quickly jumped in to rescue the drowning person, only to find two more people drowning. No sooner had he rescued them than he discovered even more people drowning in the river. After calling for help, several people joined him and assisted in pulling people from the water. Even more helpers began to assist the people being pulled from the water, providing warm blankets and first aid. The man decided to go upstream while the others continued administering to the constant flow of people falling in the river, thinking that if he could find the reason for so many people falling into the water in the first place, that he could eliminate the need for so many people to rescue and attend to the victims.

This story highlights what is known as upstream thinking, and is applicable in the way that social workers must respond to mounting poverty. Certainly pulling those who are drowning out of the water and attending to their basic needs is an important task, and one that needs to be done well. However, in order to truly create sustainable change and improve quality for life of all, a trip upstream is needed. Here are 5 ways for social workers to practice upstream thinking and attend to poverty at all levels.

  1. Education: Learning about the mission of the social work profession, various roles that social workers hold, and strategies for tackling social justice issues are critical in gaining the foundation needed to do impactful work. Florida State University’s MSW program will provide you with the tools needed to take on social justice issues such as poverty.
  2. Meeting Basic Needs: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows us that meeting basic physiological needs for food, clothing, shelter, and sleep have to be our first priority with clients.Trained social workers knowledgeable in a variety of assistance programs available, eligibility requirements, and services to help fill service delivery gaps are critical to assisting clients most severely impacted by poverty.
  3. Awareness: To stay abreast of current information regarding available resources and processes to access services, social workers must take steps to gain awareness about their community, stakeholders, funding streams, and opportunities for collaboration. Joining coalitions formed around targeted issues can be a great opportunity for increasing awareness of issues and services, as well as creating task groups focused on greater public awareness of issues impacting communities. Public meetings or workshops can be organized, augmented by awareness campaigns promoted through all available mediums such as news and social media.
  4. Advocacy: Social workers who work directly with clients impacted by poverty will soon discover what service delivery gaps exist, whether they are related to availability, accessibility, or adequacy. This puts social workers in a position to advocate for the addition or expansion of services available to clients impacted by poverty through some of the awareness strategies mentioned previously.
  5. Social Policy Involvement: As part of a graduate social work program such as Florida State University’s MSW program students will be educated on social policy and ways to be active in policy related activities designed to make long term sustainable changes to reduce poverty. The NASW Code of Ethics devotes a section to social worker ethical responsibilities pertaining to Social and Political Action, highlighting both the importance as well as ethical obligation to political action (section 6.04): “Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.”


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