Poverty, Class and Language

Published on Barefoot Social Worker, by Hilary Searing, not dated.

There seems to be a prevailing orthodoxy in social work debates which silences unfashionable opinions. Ideas about poverty and class, which are part of social work’s heritage, almost never get a hearing. If social work is to keep its radical tradition it must resist these Orwellian trends.

The thrust of my argument is that language is being used to re-shape public perceptions of poverty. The reason for this is that the middle class, the dominant group in society, wishes to deny the truth about poverty and to close down clear-thinking and intelligent debate on the subject. Furthermore, the social work profession is abandoning its traditional concern with poverty and inequality because middle class leaders of the profession want to ‘forget’ these problems. 

In recent years, the language of poverty and inequality has been replaced by that of social exclusion. This has been introduced to disguise the true extent of poverty and to create the illusion that the problem is being tackled. This process inevitably requires the poor to be blamed for their poverty. It involves the mindless repetition of words and phrases that have lost any connection with meanings – equality of opportunity, inclusiveness, stakeholder – and the avoidance of any embarrassing facts about poverty. Public perception of poverty is manipulated so that the better-off do not have to take any responsibility for the problem. Meanwhile, poverty remains as serious a problem as ever.

Even the social work profession has become involved in this false way of thinking. The ‘official’ language sweeps away principles of social justice and the notion that social workers should be aligned with poor, working class people. The ‘correct’ view is that the social worker is simply employed to mediate between the client and the state and this can be achieved without any reference to poverty, inequality and class.

Academics, too, are uncritically promoting the ‘official’ language. They are writing more and more in an artificial language that cuts them off from the real world. Their language is becoming so dense and convoluted that it is either incomprehensible or meaningless. They appear too eager to follow the lead of politicians – who are renowned for their manipulation of language and their concern with spin.

The ‘official’ language plays down the significance of power and class differentials between clients and social workers. It denies the reality of statutory social work where the struggle for power and control characterises much interaction with clients. It is designed to ensure that clients are groomed and moulded into the official system and that class conflicts are denied … //

… Meanwhile, there is a sense of crisis in the profession. Many of the problems have been brought about by the government and its obsession with performance targets which creates the illusion that something is being done when in reality the situation is getting worse. It is nonsense to suggest that targets are achievable if management has no understanding of the social context of problems that social workers address and the barriers to meeting needs arising out of poverty.

We must not allow the scope of our discourse to be limited by the agenda set by the ‘official’ language of politicians. Any credible analysis of poverty must reflect the class divisions in society which give rise to, and perpetuate, inequalities of income and wealth. Social work cannot be expected to have an impact on the consequential problems unless the root causes of poverty are honestly acknowledged and addressed. (full text).

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