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World Social Work Day: 'White Dee' - Doing Social Work Without Knowing It

18/03/2014 11:05 GMT | Updated 17/05/2014 10:59 BST

There are a lot of assumptions made about the poor and there are a lot of assumptions made about the social workers who are trying to help them.

The 'gagging clauses' that are part of every social worker's contract preventing them from discussing their work fuels misinformation. If you stopped someone on the street and asked what a social worker actually does, chances are they wouldn't be able to tell you.

Two recent TV programmes depicting the reality of poverty, Benefits Street (Channel 4) and Famous, Rich and Hungry (BBC 1) may have caused controversy but it could be argued they have done more to educate the public about social work than any government initiative.

Benefits Street's Dee Kelly, aka 'White Dee', embodies many social work tasks and values.

The care she shows resident rogue Funghi, whose life must be the least fun thing anyone could imagine, by knocking on his door, taking an interest in his life and attempting to help him, are routine tasks for social workers.

Her determination not to give up on him even when rebuffed are also essential skills for a social worker, and even though detractors may criticise social workers for being persistent, a key part of the job is not giving up on people.

Dee also counsels Funghi when his contact with his son is stopped by the child's adoptive parents, and with the realisation that his drug use has impacted on all of his family relationships. This is something that social workers do every day.

Nushra Mansuri, Professional Officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), who started her social work career in Birmingham, liked the show. "This is community social work in action. It really took me back to my days on placement in Birmingham with families in similar situations and close knit communities.

"I thought Dee was a real trooper, confiscating Fungi's money in order to stop him spending it all on alcohol and drugs and instead pay his bills. But she was not domineering and could empathise with his situation, particularly when he revealed that his problems stemmed from childhood sexual abuse.

Dee's willingness to challenge Funghi's behaviour was also social work in action, "She could see through all of the behaviours, all of the addictions, and challenge him on his prejudices towards other people, says Ms Mansuri.

By arranging for him to do jobs for people on the street, Dee was also trying to boost Funghi's self-esteem. Social workers are taught that when people feel appreciated they feel have something to contribute to society rather than remaining outside it. In turn this helps them to address harmful behaviours.

If nothing else, the basic moral support that Dee gave Funghi is something we all need and is not only maligned but totally disregarded by the current Coalition Government.

In the debate about welfare, deliberately and carefully constructed to engender hatred for the poor, we are not encouraged to root for people to conquer their demons but to deride and despise them for being at a low ebb.

The theme of this year's World Social Work Day is 'Social and Economic Crisis - Social Work Solutions'. By contrast, in scrutinising the lives of the poor, we are encouraged to focus on people's weaknesses, their cheap food and cheap lives, as if we must not forget that it's their own fault that they are in this mess. So the focus is not on the solutions but on the chaos.

There is rarely talk of help, more of punishment, as if being poor is a crime in itself. Try to place people in a wider economic and social context, as social workers do, and you face accusations from Conservatives of being a Marxist.

Very few seem to question the current rhetoric, as if being hungry is a thrilling alternative to gainful employment, or being mentally unwell or physically disabled is a wilful lifestyle choice.

The truth that many people sink into depression and feel hopeless because they have none of the support networks others can rely on is rarely acknowledged.

Famous, Rich and Hungry, where celebs go to live with families experiencing food poverty, recently screened in aid of Sport Relief, showed how a little moral support goes a long way.

It wasn't that the families who were filmed were in need of rescuing from their misery by naturally superior celebrities, it was more having someone who could temporarily lift the burden and help that raised spirits.

While we may laugh at posh Jamie from Made in Chelsea's baffled pondering on 'soup kitchens' -"Soup shop? I assume that's a shop that sells soup?" - he encouraged his host Mohammed to start volunteering at a community lunch project in order that he could have at least one meal a day.

It is this practical help that social workers provide. One social worker recently told me of taking a family on a shopping trip to the supermarket to select some healthy food and the children being stumped by a fresh potato, as the only ones they had previously encountered came from a tin.

When Tony Benn died a caller rang BBC Radio 5live to say her mother hadn't rated Benn very highly as he was a 'posh toff' who had no idea what it was like to live in the real world. Does this matter as long as you care about the problems the 'real world' are facing?

Perhaps both of these programmes are only doing now what George Orwell did in The Road to Wigan Pier; shine a light on lives that hold no influence with politicians.

Social workers hold on to people others deem to be beyond help. As Nushra Mansuri says of Benefits Street: "I just loved the spirit of the people in the face of such hardships. While we have such an awful status quo of inequality, I say long live this sub culture of compassion, friendship and support".