Social Workers Reducing the Impact of Poverty

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In social work, poverty alleviation is a critical and ongoing concern.


Three levels of poverty have been identified, according to the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). In social work terminology, extreme poverty occurs when families cannot meet the basic needs for survival. Moderate poverty occurs when families just barely meet their needs. Relative poverty, which is the most common form of poverty in developed nations, occurs when a family’s income falls below a certain threshold compared to the national average income.

Poverty levels vary widely around the world. In the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 12.3% of the population — about 39.7 million individuals — fell somewhere below the poverty line in 2017, the most recent year for which numbers are available.

In social work, poverty alleviation is a critical and ongoing concern. In fact, according to James Kelly, president of the National Association of Social Workers, it is one of the profession’s core competencies.

“Social workers, as the social safety net of many communities, have the unique training and education to work with individuals while they make efforts to become economically self-sufficient. It is one of the profession’s most notable accomplishments to work with those who are less fortunate and to provide them with the resources and support to right themselves,” he says.

To best provide this type of help, social workers need specialized education through degree programs such as Ohio University’s online master’s in social work. Curriculum addresses poverty and related issues and helps prepare candidates for success in the social work field.

Effects of Poverty

To understand why poverty alleviation is such a pressing issue, social workers should be aware of the many crippling effects of poverty. In its policy statement “Poverty Eradication and the Role for Social Workers,” the IFSW lays out some of the most pressing problems:

  • Children at risk. Impoverished children suffer from hunger, malnutrition, and increased risk of death from infectious diseases. Overall poor health and lack of resources can make schoolwork difficult, which leads to poor educational performance and reduced future prospects.
  • Women at risk. Impoverished women tend to have fewer educational opportunities and may be subjected to forced labor, trafficking, and other forms of violence.
  • Elderly at risk. The elderly often lack work opportunities, and many societies offer no political or social arrangements for their security and survival. These factors lead to poverty.
  • Marginalized groups at risk. Marginalized groups include refugees, migrants, immigrants, the homeless, ethnic minorities, and indigenous peoples. These groups may be excluded from opportunities available to the majority of society and consequently suffer from poverty.

In addition to these risks, a study from the National Center for Children in Poverty finds a high incidence of depression, domestic violence, and substance abuse among low-income women. These problems, which may occur either singly or in combination, can pose serious barriers to employment and threats to the well-being of both mothers and children.

The Social Worker’s Role

Social workers, who have daily involvement with at-risk populations, see these problems firsthand and work to alleviate them. They have wide discretion in their approaches and techniques, which the IFSW says may include:

  • Individual intervention. Social workers find creative, innovative ways to help people understand their situation and change their behavior and their environment, where possible.
  • Community development. Community development involves seeking or building economic opportunities for impoverished clients through work on job security, local business development, job training, and placement. This role requires skills in community analysis, social planning, community organizing, and social action.
  • Community practice. Community practice calls for social workers to help people to discover their own resources and ability to create influence and positive change. In this type of approach, the IFSW explains, the social worker “combines work with individuals and families with community work, focusing on enhancing resources and opportunities along with personal capacities [so] as individuals develop out of their poverty situations, so do communities, and the two become mutually reinforcing.”

Group Education

A less direct challenge for the social worker is educating other professionals, such as educators and health care workers, who may lack targeted knowledge about poverty. Workshops and conferences that present poverty-specific programs are popular methods of group education. Licensed social worker Rose Frech, however, points out that there are pitfalls to this approach.

“Not all poverty trainings are created equal, and closer inspection will show that they can represent vastly different ideological viewpoints,” she explains. “[They] may promote politically charged values and present divisive strategies for addressing poverty and inequality. As a result, to achieve the desired impact, great care must be given when selecting and planning these events to assure they align with your agency’s mission and values.”

Frech suggests that social workers consider four points when planning a poverty training:

  • Do your research before scheduling a speaker or training. Make certain that the message aligns with the values and mission of your organization and your professional ethical code.
  • Consider offering an alternative viewpoint. Can you arrange for someone to present a differing view in a respectful manner?
  • If you have concerns about an upcoming training or speaker at your organization, respectfully raise those concerns to the appropriate person.
  • Consider your ultimate goal and choose training methods that support that goal. Besides presentations, examples might include roundtable discussions, providing opportunities for staff to work alongside people in poverty, or organizing volunteer opportunities.

A Deeper Understanding

While a social worker’s actions are important, the key qualities for working with people in poverty may be empathy and understanding.

“For many, a life in poverty is one of perpetual disappointment, missed opportunities, self-loathing, and blame. Recognizing these feelings in others, and the impact they have on us professionally, is an important step in creating change,” says Frech. “When interacting with clients, we can consider the physical, cognitive, and emotional implications for those living a life clouded by scarcity. More broadly, we can bring these issues to light to our decision-makers, locally and beyond, in the hopes of developing sustainable solutions.”

In these ways and others, the social worker is ideally positioned to create positive, long-term change for the impoverished population.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work

Ohio University’s online Master’s in Social Work degree program prepares graduates for a career in social work. Graduates help vulnerable populations to handle life’s challenges in areas that include poverty, aging, marriage and family therapy, foster care counseling, crisis counseling, and human resources.

The MSW program, which is part of the university’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, is 100% online and does not require a GRE for admission. For more information, contact Ohio University now.


Poverty definition – International Federation of Social Workers

U.S. poverty level – U.S. Census Bureau

Importance of poverty alleviation – National Association of Social Workers

Effects of poverty – International Federation of Social Workers

Additional risks to low-income women – National Center for Children in Poverty

The social worker’s role – International Federation of Social Workers

Group education – The New Social Worker

A deeper understanding – SW Helper