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Neoliberalism and austerity have led to a growing inequality gap and increasing levels of poverty and social harm. In this short form book, part of the Critical and Radical Debates in Social Work series, Chris Jones and Tony Novak look at consequences of poverty and inequality and the challenge they pose to the engaged social work academic and practitioner. There are many studies of poverty that look at competing definitions (and some of the consequences) of poverty in modern society. Here the authors argue that, especially for a profession with a claimed commitment to values based on equality, social justice and meeting human need, poverty and immiserisation impose a requirement on social workers to speak out and not to collude with social policies that make the plight of the impoverished even harder and their lives even worse.

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Our work with refugees on Samos has been rooted in our common humanity and informed by mutual respect, solidarity and empathy. In Samos we have come to recognise that these human qualities are shaped by where you stand with the refugees. If you stand shoulder to shoulder as brothers and sisters it nearly always followed that relationships form where people connect, despite massive differences in background and experience. Even in 2015 when the average stay of the refugees on Samos was two to three days it was astonishing to see so many friendships made between the refugees and the local activists who met them on the beaches and helped provide clothes and food. Even two years later many of these connections have endured.

On the other hand we also saw many ‘helpers’ who did not stand with and alongside the refugees. These people could talk the talk of their concern for the refugees but they saw themselves as both different and superior. Such an attitude prevented meaningful contact with the refugees and often led to ‘help’ being given in ways which were humiliating and disrespectful. This was evident in many ways. Refugees for example were and are viewed as supplicants with almost no rights to even choose the clothes they were given. If a young male refugee refused a needed pair of jeans, for example, he was immediately seen as ungrateful. The very idea that refugees should care about how they looked or comment on the labels/brands on offer was seen as outrageous.

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This chapter focuses on the impact of radicalism on social-work education in Britain during the 1970s, and how the state responded to such radicalism. The 1970s was an extraordinary decade for British social work, with repercussions that have decisively influenced its subsequent development. The decade opened with social work being rewarded with its own state agency, with social work and no longer medicine as the lead profession. It ended with a nationwide strike of social workers in targeted areas of the country. The British welfare state, which had enjoyed a period of unparalleled growth since 1948, became a significant site of action. The most decisive response to the issue of difficult and querulous social workers was the creation of the Certificate in Social Services in 1975 as a parallel qualification to the Certificate in Qualified Social Work.

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This article looks at the hidden history of ‘popular social work’. It suggests that suspicion of state-directed social welfare and social work has a long history, that state-directed welfare is rarely unconditional and non-stigmatising, but that these values are enshrined and embedded within popular social work, which is often rooted in social movement activity. The article argues that we need to see social work as a much more contested activity, shaped by politics and that we need to rediscover the history of popular social work, which has been ignored within most professional histories.

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We are living in turbulent times. Across the globe, regimes have been toppled and people in unprecedented numbers are taking to the streets in protest as austerity politics sweeps away their jobs and their incomes. The notion that individual debt-fuelled consumerism could provide both the economic drive and the social glue for a rampant capitalism unchallenged in the globe has proved to be disastrous. In the midst of one of the most serious crises of global capitalism, a crisis that is both economic and political, even the most cautious analysts have to face up to the fact that something new is happening in the world. The poor are stirring and rising against their punishment for an economic crisis not of their making; they are angry because the perpetrators are left free and untouched; they are increasingly sickened by the extraordinary disparities in wealth and income; they are insulted by the conspicuous greed and consumption of the rich as their own living standards and well-being decline, and they have had enough of being ignored.

Such stirrings are necessary. Because as well as ‘impoverishing the many’ capitalism is also plundering the earth’s resources with no regard for the human and environmental carnage it brings in its wake. The clock is ticking for the human race. It is a time for clear thinking, strong words and action. It is time for social workers – both academics and practitioners – to speak out and act against the human destruction we are now witnessing.

The scale of hardship that has been dealt out in recent years cannot be underestimated, both nationally and globally.

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It is gratifying to see that all the respondents broadly endorsed our principal arguments and demands. All of them, from their varying societies and countries, describe the terror and damage of unbridled neoliberalism and its devastation of lives and well-being, especially among the most downtrodden and vulnerable. They all note similar patterns and social and economic trends, as what Schram rightly calls disposable populations grow in size, inequalities between the wealthiest and the rest widen and deepen, and as the state responses to welfare, crime and protest become ever more authoritarian and disciplinary. In general terms, in many of the core capitalist societies, such as the US, the UK and Canada, the overall trajectory of the state today is more concerned with minimising costs, social control, management and discipline, rather than seeking to ameliorate the problems of poverty and unemployment. The extraordinary increases in incarceration and surveillance of the population provide stark examples both of the contemporary neoliberal state’s orientation to its own people and the mining of corporate profits on the backs of the most disadvantaged. For the poorest, the agents of social control and the gatekeepers of declining resources are now as likely to wear the outfits of a private corporation as they are the uniforms of the police or the prison service. The concept of contradiction has been a long-held tenet of critical welfare state analysis, and in this book Abramowitz classically sets out the manner in which the state’s welfare measures are simultaneously good and bad for people.

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The Palestinians of the West Bank have been living a life of poverty, oppression and occupation. Yet amid this maelstrom, they have managed to organise a range of grassroots welfare projects that meet some of the complex needs of the communities they serve. Drawing on interviews with Palestinian young people about their experiences of life under occupation, this chapter describes some magnificent welfare projects in the West Bank. The majority of those the authors spoke to had no formal qualifications in social work, yet the quality of the work they undertook holds lessons for social workers everywhere. This chapter is based on interview material with six workers at the Yaffa Centre, Balata, with three workers at the Jenin Disability Centre, and with three workers at the Am’ari Children’s Centre. All three projects are in refugee camps.

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