Academic journal article School Social Work Journal

Social Work and Special Education Students' Attributions of Poverty: A Leadership Opportunity for School Social Workers

Academic journal article School Social Work Journal

Social Work and Special Education Students' Attributions of Poverty: A Leadership Opportunity for School Social Workers

Article excerpt


Even today, poverty remains one of America's most incessant social problems. Poverty results in human suffering: despair, low self-esteem, malnutrition, social and emotional isolation, and physical and psychological problems. Populations at risk for poverty include large or oneparent families, older adults, children, women, people of color, and people with disabilities. People living in poverty have greater susceptibility to violent crime, deprivation, marginalization, low living standards, unemployment or low-paying jobs, disabilities, emotional problems, substance abuse, lower educational achievement, racial discrimination, and inadequate housing (Zastrow, 2008). According to Zastrow, people living in poverty are often stigmatized as lacking the ability or motivation for self-sufficiency, are judged as being dependent on others for meeting their needs, and are viewed by society as incapable or lazy.

Children are disproportionately represented in poverty statistics (Children's Defense Fund, 2011). The ramifications on the learning capacity of children who live in poverty are of serious concern. Children who come to school with challenges to their basic needs, such as inadequate nutrition, health care, and housing, are less able to learn. Schools and teachers are ill-equipped to respond to these complex social issues that accompany students to the learning environment.

Many in the helping professions, including teachers and social workers, are concerned with the issue of poverty. Social workers, in particular, are guided by the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 1999) that encourages advocacy on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. These guiding principles focus on issues of poverty, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. Social work education strives to sensitize students to the institutionalized structural barriers faced by impoverished populations. These barriers include institutionalized power structures, inequalities perpetuated by public policy, and embedded prejudice and oppression. Curricular content in many teacher education programs may not clearly address these structural issues that are embedded in poverty.

Although nearly all teacher education curricula include a course on the sociopolitical aspects of schooling, there has been pressure to deemphasize issues associated with social justice for well over a decade (Neumann, 2009). For example, in 2006 the nation's largest teacher accrediting organization (the National Council on the Accreditation of Teacher Education, NCATE), removed the term social justice from its professional standards in response to concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Education and others regarding the merits of instruction that is focused on shaping attitudes and dispositions of preservice teachers (Heybach, 2009).

This study explores comparative beliefs about the causes of poverty among undergraduate social work and special education students.

Review of the Literature

Poverty Data

The United States Census Bureau released new data on poverty in America in September 2011. The news was not good for young families and students. The poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, which was up from 14.3 percent in the previous year (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2011)t This was the third consecutive annual increase for poverty in America. This rate represented 46.2 million people in poverty, the highest number of people in poverty for the 52 years that the Census Bureau has been collecting data. The rates increased across racial groups of whites, African Americans, and Hispanics, with no statistically significant change for Asian-Americans.

The increase in poverty rates disproportionately affected young families and students. Poverty rates for families with a head of household older than sixty-five did not appreciably change over the last decade, whereas poverty rates for families with a head of household whose age was between thirty-one and sixty-five increased by 1. …

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