The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “community”

How poor is poverty?

In a world where poverty is measured in terms of material wealth, I have found myself asking myself this question again and again in recent years.

I think of the man living alone, in England, in a one bedroom flat with no more than a table, chair, bed and a few kitchen utensils to his name, yet with regular social gatherings with friends he can rely on he describes himself as completely content and wanting for nothing.

I think of the Andean mountain village community in Ecuador who struggle to raise the $2 per child charged by the school to provide their children with a bag of sweets and biscuits on the last day of term before Christmas, the only Christmas present those children will receive. The children make no complaint, they are no different from their peers. They live a life of daily adventure, exploring their environment, taking risks European parents would quail at, getting all the attention they need and want from their parents and extended families, with no shortage of food or clothing. Just no Christmas presents. To all intents and purposes theirs is a life of poverty, and even though they know they don’t have money to spare they only recognise themselves as poor when someone draws it to their attention.

I think too of the Mongolian nomadic people who could lose their whole livelihood when a harsh winter follows a dry summer, a combination that can kill off all their livestock. A harsh life that can be seen in their eyes, in a climate where the relatively rich (in livestock) can be brought into utter deprivation due to the circumstances of their climate. For this reason many have moved into the capital city where there is only a little evidence of wealth in a country that is innately poor.

One quartz miner's makeshift home.

One quartz miner’s makeshift home.

And then I see the home of a quartz miner in the mountainous deserts of Namibia: an old North American pick-up dragged high into the mountains, its wheels long gone, the interior seating beyond sagging; a mattress laid out in the flat bed of the rear of the truck, tent canvas spread out to cover the mattress and an area beyond that servers as a kitchen and eating area. A home has been constructed here. Inside it is clean and tidy. Nearby is a pit toilet, dug into the ground with three walls and a door for privacy, but no roof – a roof is hardly needed in a country where there is no rain. A huge water cistern stands on a trailer nearby. There is so much apparent hardship in this life, living conditions that some have described as appalling. The ground is barren, no food will grow here. When they have enough quartz to trade the miners drive into the nearby town, like the pioneers and gold diggers of the American West, their route worn as tracks through the rocky landscape, where they trade gemstones for money, food and water. How much choice do they have about their lifestyle? To me it seems hard and lonely – the miners are all men and most if not all seem to live alone in this barren land. It’s not a lifestyle I would choose but what would they say if we were able to ask them about living in poverty? Would they consider their lifestyles as deplorable as we might in the West?  They work hard and their basic needs for food and shelter are met.

As one of the last remaining traditional African tribes, the bare-breasted Himba women who live in the wilderness areas of Namibia’s Kaokoland trade posting for photos in exchange for basic foodstuffs such as sugar, salt and rice. Or at least those who live near the more well-used roads do. Those who live deeper into the wilderness know more the suffering of hunger, when the rivers rise and close the roads during the wet season, preventing the tourists, the people who pay for their photos with packets of food, from driving the flooded roads. The land is all but barren, crops are scarce. Some of the Himba have chosen to abandon their traditional lifestyle, moving instead into towns and villages, often selling the jewellery and crafts for which their people are known. Such transitioning is hard but that is no doubt better than experiencing the pain that can be seen in the eyes of the women when they look at their flaccid breasts that are not making enough milk to feed their babies as they beg you to take their photo so you will give them food.

How poor is poverty?  I make my own judgements on these situations, based on my own experience of living in a relatively wealthy country, although I am by no means relatively wealthy within that country.   What I see is that poverty and wealth come in many guises but, materially speaking, sometimes even the relatively poor can seem relatively rich, while sometimes the relatively rich are also insanely rich, in a world where material wealth often doesn’t bring emotional happiness or spiritual contentment but where severe poverty destroys lives and human potential.


Moralities: Discussing Abortion

Earlier this week BBC European news reported: “A controversial bill in Spain to end women’s right to abortion on demand is set to be passed after an opposition challenge was defeated in parliament.”  Abortion on demand was only introduced in Spain in 2010 in legislation passed by the Socialists.  Since then the ruling power has moved to the conservative Popular Party.  The new legislation will restrict abortion to cases of rape or where the mother can prove that having the child will pose a severe risk to their physical or mental health.

Discussing abortion (but not rights)

Abortion raises many conflicting opinions.  The reporting quotes ‘rights of the child’, protestors in particular talk of women’s rights.  The Catholic Church supports the new legislation.

For myself, I could wish abortion did not exist (other than mother nature’s will).  But wishing won’t make it go away.

I can only begin to imagine the mental and emotional anguish of having my body nurturing a new life created from a traumatic beginning and I could wish that no child was conceived because of rape.  I could wish that rape did not exist.  But wishing won’t change things.

I don’t believe any parent truly wants a child with disabilities* and I could wish that no child was born with severe disabilities.  But wishing won’t help them or their parents.

* This is not including societies where a disability, especially in a child, is seen as an advantage when it comes to begging.  If acute poverty did not exist and begging was not necessary then I still doubt that any parent would truly want a child with disabilities.

I could wish that all children were planned and conceived within a loving and stable relationship.  I could wish that no child was unwanted.  I could wish that no child was conceived from incest or sexual abuse.  I could wish a lot of things but wishing doesn’t change reality.

The “good old days”

There was a time of course when abortion was not legally or readily available, although to some extent it has always existed: the medicine woman who knows of a few herbs that will do the trick, the back street abortionist with her famed knitting needle.  Women desperate enough have always found ways to end an unwanted pregnancy, despite the risks to their own health in these practices.  And often, in their time, for very good reasons: it’s only a hundred years ago that in England a pregnancy outside of marriage  resulted in the woman being imprisoned (for life) in a mental health institution and her baby forcibly removed at birth.  Pregnant teenagers and young women might be lucky and sent to a maiden aunt somewhere in the country where they could give birth in secret and return, childless, to their family, the family reputation still intact, the ‘future’ of the girl restored.  Even as late as the mid 1970’s something like this happened to a 15 year old relative of mine, who was sent to a young mother’s unit for her pregnancy and birth.

Those were the not so good features of the ‘good old days’.  But there was one aspect of life 100 years ago that we have since lost: the value placed on family and community.  A young couple facing the birth of another child in an already overcrowded home might have the option of one or more of their children living with aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.  Such as when, in the early 1900’s, after the death of his father and with the family sinking deeper into poverty, my grandfather went to live with a childless aunt and uncle.  In many African, Caribbean and Latin American cultures today it is still possible to see communities where parenting is seen as the responsibility of the wider family group, where childcare is shared, where children are loved and absorbed into the community without stigma or concern.


Are there alternatives to abortion?  Not many.

Pregnancy outside of marriage is no longer stigmatised.  It no longer carries the shame.  Illegitimacy is no longer stigmatised.  In fact the word illegitimate is increasingly falling out of use.  However, before the 1926 Legitimacy Act a child carried the stigma of illegitimacy until death regardless of whether or not their parents later married.  After 1926 legitimacy was granted providing the child had not been conceived while either parent was married to someone else, but it was not until the 1959 Legitimacy Act that children were legitimised regardless of whether either of their parents had been previously married or their marriage annulled for some reason.  That should have been great news for my father but to this day he still feels the acute shame of his generation, of having been ‘born out of wedlock’.

What this means is that there is a realistic option to abortion inasmuch as giving birth and caring for the child is an option today in a way it was not an option 100 years ago.  And certainly that has been an choice for many if the cries and criticisms of the likes of the Daily Mail castigating profligate ‘single mothers’ is anything to go by.  They can’t win can they.  Condemned by pro-lifers for opting for abortion, condemned by the government and press as scroungers and wasters if they don’t.

Which only leaves one other option: adoption.  And here I return to my ‘wish list’.  I could wish that society was more tolerant of women who choose to give birth and then willingly allow their child to be adopted.  It’s no easier a decision than abortion, in some ways it is more difficult.  Both result in emotional pain.  But abortion can be done in secret.  Adoption is very public.  We live in a society where it is automatically assumed that a pregnant woman will want to keep her child: after all, she would have had it aborted otherwise.  Standing up and say, ‘Yes, I’m pregnant but I’m choosing to have my child adopted because …..’ takes a special strength of character, and support from those closest to her.

The role of the Church and other religions

It’s all very well for the Catholic church to support the change in legislation in Spain, severely restricting the option of abortion.  It goes completely with religious beliefs that life is sacred, that abortion is murder, that only God can give or take life.  But focusing on topics like this is taking the easy option – and legislation doesn’t change human behaviour.  It’s also not real life for a significant proportion of society.  The church (and other religions against abortion) should be asking why women want abortions, why there is rape and incest, why families struggle and break down.  And then the really hard question: what can they do to support society so that the cause of what they perceive to be the ‘problem of abortion’ is tackled rather than the symptom.

In doing so, perhaps religions will also be helping young women to choose the open difficult path to adoption rather than the secret path to abortion.  Then at least young women will have three genuine choices when faced with an unwanted pregnancy rather than just two.

A deep rooted fear

autistic son letterAn anonymous woman wrote a troubling letter to a grandmother caring for her 13 year old autistic grandson for the summer holidays.  When I first saw this come up in my facebook news feed I thought (hoped) it might be a hoax, but reviewing the source of the news it seems to be real.   Even if it was a hoax someone somewhere has written it.  It represents the views of someone somewhere.

The writer may be found by the local investigating (US) police, and may be ‘punished’ in law and possibly even within their own community.  But is that enough?  In posting it here I’m going beyond my own reactions of distaste at the language used and the views expressed, I’m reminding myself not only how deep rooted prejudice can be but how that prejudice is often fuelled by ignorance, fear and lack of understanding.

What was behind the thinking of the mother who wrote this letter?  Was she just disturbed by the noise?  I’m sure most of us can relate to that at some level, even if it’s only just having to listen to someone else’s music on the bus or train, especially if we perhaps have a headache or it’s been a long day and we are tired.

No, she demonstrates opinions that go way beyond the noises this young man made. She shows a lack of empathy and understanding for the grandmother of this young man, an ignorance of his disability.

But there’s something else in there too.  Her tone is one of anger.  What is she angry about?  Where does her anger come from?  Is she angry because she thinks her taxes are going to support other people, especially those she views as unable or unwilling to contribute back (as she clearly views this young man), as she says “what right have you to do this to hard-working people”?  She’s not going to be alone in her thinking like that, but it’s not just this one young person who is the target of such thinking: anyone who is disabled, whether from birth or accident, unable to work or ‘contribute’ to society in a recognised (and, in the view of some, acceptable) way, will be the target of this form of prejudice.  The logical progression of that kind of thinking is to kill off the elderly too!

But it seems that underlying all this is fear (it usually is).  She writes “[the noise he makes] scares the hell out of my normal children”.  Why are they scared?  Because she is scared?  Of course: children pick up on the fears and prejudices of the adults around them; they are replicating her emotions.  But what is she scared of?  What she doesn’t understand?  What she can’t control?  Scared it could have been one of her children the dice rolled that way for?  That’s something else many people can relate to: how many expectant parents, when asked whether they are hoping for a boy or girl, respond that they just want their baby to be healthy (ie, normal)?

This letter is cruel and bullying, written to cause hurt and fear.  The writer is, I believe, subconsciously transferring her fears to the recipient.  Deep down I believe she knows she’s wrong: she ends her letter by saying, “nobody wants you living here and they don’t have the guts to tell you”, but she too didn’t have the guts to sign her name to the letter.  Why?  No doubt she knows how society in general will view her lashing out at this grandmother, and that the grandmother will garner the most sympathy.

So much of social work is about raising questions.  Too little do we find even most of the answers.  Perhaps if or when the writer of this letter is identified those involved will be able to find the time to start asking some of these questions and deal with the cause and not just the consequences of her fears.

The value of ‘having more’

One of my earliest experiences of working with children & families in social work was visiting a young mother who was excited because the “Provie Man” (Provident Loan company) had lent her £200 so she could buy Christmas presents for her children.  I didn’t want to destroy her temporary sense of happiness and excitement, and it was too late to change the fact of the loan, but I knew that with crippling interest rates she would struggle to pay way over the odds in interest over the coming year, and no doubt repeat the cycle again the next year.  All so she could buy a pile of cheap toys that would break in no time.  She was just one of many in the same situation.

Travelling in Ecuador at Christmas I stayed with a family whose children received only one present: a bag of mixed biscuits and sweets.  All the children in the village received the same present.  Few received anything else.  The parents simply explained that they couldn’t afford to buy the children any more presents.  Yet none complained.

The children didn’t go without.  They received everything they needed it when they needed it: clothes, books for learning.  There were few toys but plenty of opportunity to play with natural materials, using their imagination in play with friends of all ages.  Play was not always supervised and sometimes might have been thought unsafe, but they learned to help and look after each other.  There was also masses of love and attention from their parents, their aunties and uncles, cousins, siblings, friends and neighbours, as they learnt the ways of their community.

From the opening lines from Michael Meegan’s book, All will be well – “We were not designed to live the lifestyle that has become predominant today.  The nature of our Western economy is to feed an insatiable value system based on having more.  It is based on people not being happy.  If people began thinking that they were content with what they possessed already, the economy could no longer sell you the latest style or the latest ‘must-have’ stuff …..  We settle for trifles such as wealth, fame and comfort … self help books, at best, do three things … remind people they are locked into cycles and patterns of negative thinking; point out practical ways of changing behaviour or developing self-awareness and they can help people to climb out of emotional straightjackets; but these are merely by-products for a way of life that we were never meant to live.  … It is often easier to read about happiness than to become happy, easier to aspire than to do, easier to plan than to break the entrenched patterns of our daily routine.”

Meegan sums up well the cause of so many of the social problems social workers spend their working lives dealing with, picking up the pieces from the fallout of the “insatiable value system of having more”; including the consequence that leads young women and others to take out Christmas loans they cannot afford to buy things their children don’t really need so they can feel they are meeting their children’s needs and so their children can begin early compete among their peers to climb the ladder of always “having more”.

Society demands social workers deal with society’s problems, recently in England this including taking the form of the Troubled Families Programme.  Allegedly social workers are applying the values of society: do not steal or murder, etc, etc.  But are these the real values of modern society?  And how do the real values of society compare to the values of social work?


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