Methods: No previous research on this topic had been conducted in Singapore, therefore the study used an exploratory and qualitative approach. Focus groups (FGs) aimed to learn about the perspectives of practicing social workers on financial issues. The discussion guide included social worker perceptions of: (1) low-income clients and their financial circumstances, (2) how families manage finances, (3) interventions that support financial well-being, and (4) gaps in knowledge and skills of practicing social workers.
Using a purposive non-probability sampling method, the research team recruited social workers with at least 2 years practice experience from 92 agencies. More than half (54) participated in 8 FGs in 2017. Participants worked in several sectors, including the voluntary social service sector; government-sponsored family service centers; disability services; and health care and child welfare organizations. The FGs were facilitated by a social worker who is experienced and knowledgeable about qualitative research and the range of social work settings where participants work. FGs were approved by IRB, and were audio-recorded with written participant consent.
Analysis began by reading transcribed interviews multiple times. The two analysts then began to open code the data, to avoid limiting analysis to presupposed themes. After further coding and achieving good inter-rater reliability, the analysts (one of whom was the FG facilitator) developed the two main themes of this study.
Results: The first theme is that clients’ presenting problems are often multiple and complex (e.g., incarceration, family violence, and mental illness). Participants reported “fire-fighting” (addressing the most pressing issues) with less opportunity to solve underlying financial issues. Too often, clients’ financial troubles—and the socio-environmental factors and system barriers that limit their “opportunity to act” (Sherraden, 2013)—which underlie or even are the direct cause of the presenting problem, are not addressed.
Second, participants reported being unprepared to address many of their clients’ financial troubles. They lack knowledge and skills to engage clients in often sensitive conversations about their family finances, to understand myriad services and assistance schemes; to make appropriate referrals; and to advocate effectively.
Conclusions and Implications: These two themes—fighting “fires” instead of addressing underlying financial troubles and system failures, and deficits in practitioner knowledge and skills—reveal several implications. First, future research can inform understanding of how to mitigate system failures and test policy interventions. Second, research can inform and test ways to prepare social workers to integrate financial assessments and interventions into practice, have money conversations with clients, and locate appropriate financial resources for clients. This includes testing a recommendation made by several participants for a one-stop social work resource platform for financial assistance schemes that links social workers, and provides opportunities for training and peer learning.