Social workers also tackle structural conditions that lead to poverty

Dr Sudha Nair's recent commentary highlights the challenges of social work practice with families facing multiple difficulties ($500 a month on cable TV and cigarettes and this family still wants aid?; June 23).

However, it presents an incomplete picture of the realities of low-income families.

It also does not fully reflect social workers' interactions with clients and the profession's ethical responsibilities, which go far beyond "questioning the poor on their needs and choices".

Social workers in Singapore are embedded in various communities and institutions, working alongside vulnerable individuals and families.

On any given day, we witness their strength and sacrifices in pursuing better lives for themselves in the face of tremendous adversities.

These challenges are often compounded because of limited financial resources and the lack of access to information, informal support and services.

While it is easy to attribute the situation of low-income households to poor decision-making and celebrate tough love, we must also acknowledge the role that systems and structures play in creating the conditions of poverty in the first instance.

In addition to asking clients hard questions, structural barriers in areas such as housing, education, sustainable employment, health and mental health services, family support, and care services must be addressed.

Social workers in all fields of practice have a responsibility to draw attention to these barriers. Only then will people have the freedom and bandwidth to make and realise good decisions.

The issue of spending choices highlights further concerns. Who gets to decide what are bad decisions?

In low-income households with limited options, the television is an important source of leisure and information.

Material goods can offer a semblance of normalcy for marginalised families.

There needs to be a wider discussion about basic living standards in our society.

These discussions must involve people from diverse economic situations. Otherwise, it is easy to fall into double standards when it comes to low-income households.

Ng Kok Hoe (Dr)

(This letter was digitally signed by 40 other social workers and social service practitioners.)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2018, with the headline 'Social workers also tackle structural conditions that lead to poverty'. Print Edition | Subscribe