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How Social Workers Help Women Living in Poverty

 |  7 Min Read

Social workers are a valuable asset for anyone living in the United States, but they are especially valuable to women. Earning your master of social work can help you assist women who are struggling to stay above the poverty line due to suppressed income opportunities. As you’ll read below, many women in the world are in need and there is always more room for help from social work graduates.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women reported in 2000 that of the 1.5 billion people in the world who live on a dollar a day or less, the majority were women. The UN called this “feminization of poverty.” Fifteen years later, the UN reported in “Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016” that women continue to have socioeconomic disadvantages, earning 24% less than men worldwide. The UN says in all regions of the world, when unpaid work hours are factored in (caring for children and aging family members), women work more hours than men.

The lack of gender equality worldwide opens opportunities for social workers who are passionate about empowering women and girls with access to education, land ownership and equal pay, among many other factors that influence the feminization of poverty. All of these are possible with the right kind of support around them, and the best support in this situation is getting a degree in social work. Potential roles for a social worker to work with women in need include:

  • Broker
  • Advocate
  • Case Manager
  • Educator
  • Facilitator
  • Organizer
  • Mediator
  • Lobbyist

A Planet of Poverty

Social work involves a lot of particular issues but one that stands out above the rest is poverty. Poverty affects everyone, regardless of sex, age or race, but for some reason those not living in poverty, the prevalence of this significant problem can seem distant. However, the United States Census Bureau reported in 2019 there were 34 million people living in poverty. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services provides poverty guidelines for determining eligibility for federal programs. For example, the 2015 poverty guideline for a family of three in the U.S. is $20,090.

The Feminization of Poverty

According to Maria Shriver’s “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink” (in partnership with the Center for American Progress) published in January 2014, one in three American women are impoverished. Another startling statistic is that women represent two-thirds of those who are paid minimum wage.

Because many of these women are mothers, the negative ramifications of poverty extend beyond the women; poverty affects their children as well. Children who are raised in poverty are more likely to have traumatic experiences such as neglect or abuse. These experiences are known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, and they can have lasting effects on children.

According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, women earn little over half of what men earn, and the majority of those living well below the poverty level are women. This is why, more than ever, earning a social work graduate degree will not only lead to an extremely rewarding career, but also see you start your career in very high demand due to women’s need for social services.

A Dollar a Day

The documentary “Living on One” explored what it was like for the 1.1 billion people (mostly women) who live on $1 per day. Documentary producers Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci lived in a rural Guatemala town, Pena Blanca, on $1 a day for 56 days. In Pena Blanca, 40% of the children never finish school as they must start working full-time to help support their families. During the course of their documentary research the following took place:

  • Chris and Zach slept on cardboard or the dirt, and their bodies were ravaged by fleas.
  • They each consumed only 800-900 calories per day.
  • One month in, Chris contracted a parasite (from the town’s contaminated water source) and E. Coli; his medication cost a significant $25.
  • Chris and Zach discovered one of the few ways to survive and to triumph over their conditions was with a micro-lending program that helps villagers start small businesses.

Chris, Zach and a Pena Blanca resident named Rosa secured microbusiness loans, which enabled them to invest in small businesses. For Rosa this was a weaving business; for the documentary makers, it was a radish farm.

While their ability to procure microloans shed a ray of hope on their conditions of life, by no means is this solution available to everyone. When people and groups live below the poverty level, opportunities for betterment, such as loans or microloans, are scarce and limited.

How Social Workers Mitigate the Feminization of Poverty

Waging war on poverty requires the concerted efforts of those with the ability to encourage positive change in the lives of individuals and groups.

What Social Workers Do

Social workers protect, assist and support their clients. Some of their skills include:

  • An understanding of social systems, including how to analyze and study them, evaluate needs within them, and work with individuals based on religious and cultural upbringings
  • Counseling families to find better solutions to their problems
  • Placing abused children in new homes
  • Finding housing and employment for homeless families
  • Helping pregnant women, adoptive parents and foster children navigate the adoption process
  • Helping families make best use of the welfare system
  • Backgrounds in field research, which enables them to evaluate and mitigate issues within a population
  • Expertise in psychopathology, which enables social workers to help individuals from mental, physical, and social perspectives
  • An understanding of current landscape within their specialized fields of social work, as well as major issues that need attention
  • A working knowledge of the laws pertaining to underserved and underrepresented groups such as impoverished women and minorities

In addition to having a passion to help others, social workers are heavily involved in advocating for causes and getting help for their clients. These are just a few of the social worker’s duties that come along with the profession.

Advocating for the Impoverished

Social workers can advocate for the impoverished by pushing for laws and policies that increase opportunities. Specific to women’s needs, social workers can advocate for women to have greater access to employment, housing, and education.

Advocating can take many forms. Here are some of the strategies social workers use to bring their causes to the public forum:

  • Lobbying: This process is a personal meeting with elected officials that helps make them aware of an organization’s views and requests. NASW has prepared a Lobby Day Toolkit with advice on preparing for the lobbying process.
  • Organizing Protests, Sit-Ins and Demonstrations: The right to peaceably assemble is one of the freedoms of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Social workers can use these gatherings to bring issues to the public’s attention and draw new supporters in to assist with the cause.
  • Writing and Getting Op-Eds Published: Good writing skills are very valuable for a social worker. “Opposite the editorial page,” or Op-Eds, are a way to get a message across in written form in a newspaper or publication. NASW provides excellent guidelines for preparing op-eds.

The war on poverty is multifaceted. Addressing the problem requires more than charitable funds and donations. In 2010, the UN established to study and accelerate gender equality. The organization supports local efforts on six continents through training, program and technical assistance.

Social workers provide motivation and self-esteem coaching to give those who believe things will never improve new hope and confidence to move forward and to continue trying. They are key to connecting those in need with organizations and resources that can help them. Using the philosophy of fighting for justice that is central to the Master of Social Work program, they can educate clients and groups of clients on essential life skills that they may not have had access to. Such efforts give these women a fair chance to rise above the poverty level and to achieve great things.

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