Adolescents' experiences of living in poverty and implications for social work practice

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Adolescents' experiences of living in poverty and implications for social work practice

 

Author: Wong, Kwai Yau
Title: Adolescents' experiences of living in poverty and implications for social work practice
Degree: Ph.D.
Year: 2015
Subject: Child development.
Children -- Social conditions.
Poverty.
Hong Kong Polytechnic University -- Dissertations
Department: Dept. of Applied Social Sciences
Pages: xiii, 204 pages : color illustrations
Language: English
InnoPac Record: http://library.polyu.edu.hk/record=b2838236
URI: http://theses.lib.polyu.edu.hk/handle/200/8412
Abstract: Child poverty is a global problem that demands the attention of governments and communities. Over one-fifth of those living below the poverty line are children under the age of 18. In order to improve social work services for this target population, I studied not only the phenomenon of child poverty in Hong Kong but also, more generally, the diverse effects, including both positive and negative, of poverty on children's development. Most of the current research consists of quantitative studies that contribute to our understanding of childhood poverty by identifying the causes of poverty and poverty's negative effect on children. There is, however, little research that deals with children's own accounts of their experience of living in poverty. Such insight into children's experiences is essential to the improvement of social work interventions. In 2008, I planned and implemented a study based on collaborative inquiry in order to fill the gap in qualitative research on child poverty. I formed a partnership with a group of 10 adolescents of both sexes and encouraged them to interpret their experiences of poverty and allow their voices to be heard. Through the collaborative inquiry process, the adolescents co-created stories to delineate the life challenges they faced and the methods they had adopted to address these challenges. They were then facilitated to externalize the social and cultural values and beliefs that shaped their interpretation of their experiences. The goal of the study was to develop new theoretical and practical insights, based on the adolescents' subjective experiences of poverty, that could be used to improve current interventions and to design future ones. The research identified four areas that the adolescents were struggling with and uncovered four ways that adolescents cope with the experience of poverty that have not been received attention in the current literature. The first is the phenomenon of experiencing happiness in spite of poverty, which was evident in the resilience of the adolescents in the study who fought to resist the negative effects of poverty. They described the challenges that had to be overcome in their pursuit of happiness, particularly those connected with family dynamics. The second was tackling socio-economic deprivations: the adolescents in the study found that reframing and attaching new meaning to their situation was an effective coping mechanism. The third theme was about fighting against materialism in the midst of poverty. The adolescents in the study pitted traditional Chinese values and practices against the materialism that characterises so many human transactions. Their final theme was about striving to escape poverty. Some of the adolescents in the study were determined to improve their lot through education, while others adopted a more fatalistic acceptance of their situation.
An analysis of these four challenges and the coping strategies sheds new light on the psychosocial expectations imposed on adolescents. Kegan (1994) refers to adolescents' developmental challenges as "mental burdens" and considers them culturally specific. This study seeks to identify the expectations that are imposed on poor adolescents, which are often more onerous than those experienced by adolescents in general. The adolescents in the study were also very influenced by moral codes. Gilligan (1982) argues that looking at the ways adolescents deal with dilemmas in relationships gives us insight into their unarticulated stories. This study attempts to identify the social and cultural discourses that dictate how adolescents construct their reality. Gergen (1991), one of the main proponents of social constructionism, argues that such discourses influence adolescents' construction of their experience of poverty and their ways of comprehending life challenges, moral dilemmas, psychosocial life tasks, and mental burdens. One significant contribution of the present study is a new understanding of the complex and dynamic experience of poverty of Chinese adolescents. Most of the participants in this study show great versatility and resilience in addressing their life challenges, which may be a consequence of their destitute backgrounds. Hong Kong is undergoing rapid social, economic, and political changes, which have shrunk the resources for poor children and made it more difficult for them to develop in an age-appropriate fashion. These findings have implications for social work practice in Hong Kong. This study advocates social work interventions at the macro, mezzo, and micro levels. At the micro level, adolescents should be taught to be more aware of the social and cultural influences that shape their interpretation of their experiences and to refrain from accepting societal and familial expectations unquestioningly. At the mezzo level, social workers should support families living in poverty and train parents in child rearing and development. At the macro level, social workers should not only provide poor families with social resources but also act as advocates for policy change and institutional reform.

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