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Class and classism: How it affects social workers and the people with which they work

Christian Kerr, a social worker, lecturer and expert witness, explores the pervasive effects of classism in social work and outlines the need for ‘class-competent’ practice.

03/07/22

Class and classism: How it affects social workers and the people with which they work

Class and classism are ill-defined but no less real for that. Earlier this month members of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) voted in favour of a motion calling for action to achieve more clarity on the form and impacts of classism, not only on the people social workers support but on professional social workers themselves.

There is a notable lack of research on the impacts of class and classism in social work. It is almost a cliché to suggest that those who attract the attention of social workers are from ‘lower’ socioeconomic brackets but those who practise social work know this to be the case, particularly in social work with children and families, where poverty has been described as ‘the wallpaper of practice: too big to tackle and too familiar to notice’ (Morris et al 2018). I was reminded of this quote by father, activist and campaigner Dominic Watters (@SingleDadSW), who cited it when speaking eloquently and directly on his living experience of poverty as a social work student supporting his family on a council estate in south east England, whilst at the same conference and AGM the above-mentioned motion on class was voted through.

Poverty and lack of access to resources are stark examples of class issues in society. To more fully appreciate the impacts of class and classism we also need to understand class privilege and how access to financial and social capital can, conversely, serve to protect and advantage people of ‘higher’ socioeconomic class. Bernard and Greenwood (2019) found that social workers encounter particular interlocking barriers to addressing child protection concerns within more affluent families with the means to resist their interventions. This included barriers from within the social workers’ own management, who were often reluctant to pursue proceedings where social workers believed thresholds had been met due to considerations of how the families’ higher social class might play out in time. This included concerns about complaints and one instance of a manager citing that the child involved would be going to boarding school in a year - the inference being that the concerns would then simply evaporate as the child would then be looked after by others. These are just some examples of how class and class perceptions can serve to protect people from, or indeed make people more vulnerable to, state intrusion.

Class is an issue that affects practitioners too. It may be an increasingly contested, elastic concept, yet classism remains a real experience for those affected, including those who, like myself, having been born into the working class of east Glasgow, then later growing up in the council estates of north east England, find themselves moving in professional, notionally ‘middle class’ circles. Classism is about how people are perceived but, more importantly, it is about how those perceptions manifest in the behaviour of others towards classed individuals.

Consider how those of us from the lower classes are problematised as ‘aggressive’, where others are celebrated as ‘passionate’. Where I might be described as ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ or ‘dangerous’ because of my accent, appearance and idioms, others exhibiting often far more damaging behaviour due to their relative power and influence in society, are feted as ‘eccentric’, ‘unpredictable’ or even ‘disruptive’ - a word that used to cause consternation when appearing on my school report card but which, interestingly, is seen much more positively nowadays, having been claimed as badge of honour by clean-cut young men in suits seeking to promote their credentials as ‘disruptive innovators’. Here’s the thing: Working class people have always been disruptive innovators, whether through creative approaches to daily survival in a world hostile to their interests, or in achieving wider societal change through fighting for land rights, protesting police killings, anticolonialism, women’s rights activism, or mobilising in protest against imperialist wars. Those of us in the cheap seats, who have achieved some modicum of success in life, have done so not because classism doesn’t exist, but despite the fact that it does. What else are we capable of? It is precisely that question which leads many of those of higher-class status to seek, consciously or otherwise, to keep we louts and oiks in our places. Three words to illustrate the point: Jacob Rees-Mogg (or is that two? My state school education didn’t extend to explaining how double-barrelled surnames worked) who once said Grenfell victims ‘lacked common sense’ and spends much of his time as a parliamentarian reclining on the benches like an awkward Edwardian bon vivant but without the party invites, voting for reductions in state benefits for the lower classes while voting against tax rises that would see extremely affluent people like himself pay more into the public coffers. Jane Addams’ biographer, Louise Knight, speaks of Addams’ conviction that “those who felt such [class] superiority and chose to isolate themselves from the rest of humanity were, in fact, uncultured in the more profound sense of the word.” Who does that describe?

The website for the US-based Class Action states: “Classism is differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class. Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.”

Classed identities, whether willingly held or ascribed by others, are not always visible. Classism has been described as the ‘unseen prejudice’. There are other prejudices that are often unseen, such as antisemitism and ableism, and there is no hierarchy of oppressed characteristics. However, intersectionalism is key to understanding how marginalised group identities play out in people’s experiences and outcomes. I acknowledge here the aspects of my own identity as a white, working class, heterosexual male that places me in positions of privilege in society. While I have experienced class prejudice, I am not raising classism here in order to claim some form of victimhood for myself, nor to colonise or appropriate the experiences of others. I raise classism here because it is so little acknowledged in our society and in our professional circles, and, because, among the intersecting barriers faced by people holding multiple, marginalised identities, class is seldom emphasised. A collective blind spot? An issue too discomfiting to confront? Whatever the reasons, we need to talk about it, because it matters a lot in social work.
Read ‘Classism: the unseen prejudice’: https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/features/classism-the-unseen-prejudice/5103455.article

Class Action is doing much to raise the profile of classism and its intersections with other characteristics such as race in the US. But what of similar concerted ‘class action’ in the UK, one of the most class-riven countries on Earth? In 2019, the Trades Union Congress launched a campaign to have class discrimination banned by law, accompanied by a report that calls not only for action to address the fact that working class families have borne the brunt of stagnating wages and deteriorating working conditions, but to properly fund the public services working class people rely on. Again, this demonstrates the multitudinous ways in which direct and indirect class discrimination plays out. Put it this way: People of higher socioeconomic status are less likely to need the state’s welfare safety net. So many of those behind successive policy moves that have led to chronic underfunding of public services are seldom likely to have to call on those services. Those of lower-class status are not driving social policy decisions, despite being most affected. Thankfully, there are initiatives aimed at redressing the balance by upholding and amplifying lived and living experience, whether through the anti-poverty campaigning of ATD Fourth World or research projects such as Covid Realities. Few, though, have an explicit focus on class because such initiatives tend to focus on the material realities of people’s lives and what, practically, can be done to improve lives and ameliorate harm. However, alongside this – which is the aim of this piece – we must also highlight the underlying attitudes, assumptions and tropes about people of lower socioeconomic status that drive the material injustices they face. With all that in mind, I commend to you Roni Strier’s concept of ‘class-competent social work’:

- Social workers should have the capacity to understand the dynamics inherent in their clients’ class situation and be able to analyse the inter-connectedness of class with other diversity components such as race, culture and gender.

- Social workers must have the knowledge needed to identify the systemic barriers associated with class constraints. This understanding must exceed the scope of the economic sphere and should include cultural, social and symbolic aspects related to it.

- Class-competent social work comprises case and policy advocacy, participatory action research, group work, community practice, consciousness raising methodologies oriented to address the personal, interpersonal, organisational and political aspects of class issues.

- Class-competent social work recognises the essential influence of the clients’ class situation on their personal and collective lives, and is cognisant of the class-based nature of social policies.

- Class-competent social work implies a sense of critical self-awareness. Social workers should be aware of their own class biases and assumptions, and they must be open to critical debate on how these biases and assumptions may affect the cross-class nature of worker–client relationships. They must be conscious of the extent to which power and class conflicts are involved in the interactions between clients and social workers.

For access to any resources linked to in this article that are behind paywalls and/or require institutional access please contact the author at christiankerr@live.com.

Read ‘Social work, poverty, and child welfare interventions’ (Morris et al 2018): https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/123330/1/Morris%2C%20Kate%20-%20Social%20work%2C%20deprivation%20and%20child%20welfare%20interventions%20-%20AFC%202017-10-26.pdf

Read ‘Social Workers’ Perspectives of Intervening in Affluent Families When There Are Concerns about Child Neglect’ (Bernard and Greenwood 2019): https://chscp.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Paper-Prof-C-Bernard.pdf

Read ‘Changing My Mind: An Encounter With Jane Addams’: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0886109905283138

Read ‘Class-competent social work: A preliminary definition’: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230073362_Class-competent_social_work_A_preliminary_definition

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