Sunday, March 31, 2013

Social Work Problem #4: The Profession Suffers from an Identity Crisis

“The field, for those who know it and know it well, has this long and powerful historic image of  social justice, organizational leadership, and policy influence. But for the vast public, social work  gets muddied together with personal care, care-giving, and various non-professional human services roles. In the broader public, social work does not have the identity and status necessary to motivate many of the best and the brightest to join our profession," - Edward F. Lawlor

“We should take great pride in the work we do on the micro side — such as mental health, where we have our largest numbers of social workers. But we should also take pride in the macro practice that affects policy and organizations." - Wynne Sandra Korr

These quotes are from Social Impact, a publication based at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. The article highlights several common challenges facing the social work profession--recruitment, pay, status, funding, social influence, and brand ("who is a social worker?"). More importantly, the public image of social work is critical because it affects how elected officials, employers, clients, and the general public views its overall value to society. Unfortunately, national social work organizations continue to struggle with developing a unifying professional identity that encompasses both micro and macro content. In this post, I will discuss the fourth and final major problem: the social work profession suffers from an identity crisis.

Since the 1970s, a neoliberal political ideology emerged in the United States that promoted individualism, deregulation and privatization through free markets. Instead of building a meaningful safety net for the poor through progressive social policies, this political ideology proclaimed that the poor should take "personal responsibility" for their own circumstances. As a result, the administration of welfare shifted from a federal role to a state role through reform programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The neoliberal movement would have a devastating impact on social workers' ability to help poor families and to advocate for themselves.

Social work is at a crossroads. The general public typically perceives social workers as therapists, caseworkers, "child snatchers," and caregivers. They are unaware that social workers are also administrators, program managers, community organizers, and policy analysts. The average person would be surprised to learn that early social workers were involved in labor unions and social policy development. In social service agencies, social workers are underpaid, under-appreciated, and over-worked because society places little value in the work that they do with marginalized populations---a vulnerable group that needs access to steady employment, parenting workshops, post-secondary education, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and domestic violence programs. Furthermore, social workers have become so obsessed with Freudian psychoanalytic theory and other evidence-based practices that the profession has lost touch with the widening economic and social disparities between the (very) rich and the poor. Few social workers address income inequality in professional practice.

The current structure of social work competes with other mental health fields, such as counseling, marriage and family therapy, and psychiatry. This is very disturbing because social work was founded to enhance the well-being of the poor and disadvantaged. Through field-specific interventions, social workers can propose policies and services that will aid in reducing poverty and improving the quality of life for all citizens. For instance, I would love to see social workers organize and conduct research around increasing the federal minimum wage. Wages and public assistance has not kept up with the rising cost of food, housing and transportation. This would help thousands of families work their way out of concentrated poverty, yet social workers are absent from this discussion. Instead, social work has become a profession that engages in social control. The profession adopted (and continues to use) therapy as the dominant treatment in addressing behavioral and social problems among clients (who are disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities). The consequence is most social workers do not challenge the social systems that perpetuate poverty and inequality in the U.S.

Bottom line: I believe social workers should include both micro (human behavior) and macro (social change) perspectives in professional practice. That is what make the field so unique from the other helping professions: its orientation around social justice. However, social work is unbalanced due to its overemphasis on clinical/health training. Social work thus suffers an identity crisis because it is attempting to be another field (clinical or health-focused) that was not originally part of its mission. As a result, the general public has no clear understanding of what social workers do.

How can social work become a more balanced field? Federal and state governments need to allocate better funding and resources that will improve the delivery of social services. The enactment of progressive social policies will ensure that low- and middle-income families have the means to achieve upward social mobility. Social workers can advocate for these groups through information and referral, lobbying, scholarship, and evaluation. Altogether, these efforts will enhance the visibility and status of social work as a profession fully committed to its mission--to promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.

Read the rest of the posts in this series:

Friday, March 29, 2013

Social Work Problem #3: The Curriculum Discourages the Recruitment of Men and Racial/Ethnic Minorities

The third major problem with the social work profession is that the curriculum discourages the recruitment of men and racial/ethnic minorities. Social work, like most helping professions, is less ethnically and racially diverse than the U.S. population. According to the NASW Center for Workforce Studies, the majority of licensed social workers are Non-Hispanic White women (86%) whose client population fall within the broad category of disenfranchised populations, including a disproportionate number of people of color (i.e., Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander American, and American Indian/Alaskan Native). The remainder of the social work workforce is Black/African American (8%), Hispanic/Latino (3%), or "Other" (3%). The majority of male social workers are increasingly near retirement age and represent less than one in ten social workers. Fewer younger men perceive social work as a viable career option. The steady decline of men in the profession since the 1970s may inadvertently affect access to decision makers (e.g., elected officials) and reinforce outdated beliefs that social services is a natural field for women.

The growing homogeneity of the social work workforce presents three problems. First, the NASW Code of Ethics insists that social workers "obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability." Social workers are trained in cultural competence, yet the profession as a whole doesn't reflect what it preaches. Second, professions that are perceived as pink-collar occupations (predominately female) in American society are typically stressful, marginalized, and underpaid. These careers are also seen as less demanding and prestigious by the general public. Third, a combination of social and political factors (judicial and legislative limitations to affirmative action, changing immigration patterns, welfare reform, restrictions on federal financial aid, etc.) can hinder access to higher education for disadvantaged groups. This can result in social work enrollments that remain radically different from the actual racial-ethnic distribution of society (Schilling et al., 2008). Given these realities, social work educators and practitioners must develop strategies to attract more men and students of color into the profession.

The lack of diversity in the profession is a major concern for the future of social work. In order to fully address this problem, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which handles accreditation and curricular guidelines for BSW and MSW programs, and the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), which handles the design and distribution of social work exams for state licensure, should consider these three recommendations.  
  1. Decrease the number of hours students must complete in field instruction. Social work is the only profession that requires students to achieve a high numerical minimum (at least 900 hours) in the field before graduation. I believe this hurts recruitment because other more prestigious professions don't require such rigorous standards. Social work should return to its previous minimum of 500 hours so that more prospective students become interested in the field.  
  2. Permit social work programs to offer part-time or extended degree options to accommodate working professionals. Most MSW programs require students to enroll full-time. This leaves little flexibility for students to choose a program that is the best fit for their circumstances. A part-time option could be attractive to prospective and current students who are raising families or need to rely on employer-sponsored health insurance.  
  3. Request ASWB to redesign the Master's exam to cover both clinical and macro content. The current Master's exam format is clincally-oriented. This is a disservice to macro-practice social workers who want to apply for state licensure. A redesign of the Master's exam could eventually encourage CSWE to emphasize more macro content in advanced coursework and force more state boards of social work to offer a macro practice license.
By increasing the number of licensed macro-practice social workers, these recommendations could eventually increase the number of macro-practice field placements in social work schools. This would then raise the visibility and status (both its importance and value) of macro practice within social work schools, prospective students, and the general public.

Bottom line: Since 1980, social work has become a predominately white female profession whose client population is predominately disadvantaged people of color.  These demographics show that social work is not meeting its social justice mission in recruitment and outreach. Accrediting bodies, such as CSWE and ASWB, must undergo curricular and administrative changes that will enhance this outreach and recruitment. This will help social work schools expand their macro-practice content and recruit more men and racial and ethnic minorities into the profession.

Source: Schilling, R.F., Morrish, J.N. & Liu, G (2008). Demographic trends in social work over a quarter-century in an increasingly female profession. Social Work, 53 (2) 103-114.

The NASW Center for Workforce Studies and Social Work Practice contains the latest demographic data on social workers by gender, race, and ethnicity.

Read the rest of the posts in this series:

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court to Revisit Ban on Affirmative Action in Michigan

Breaking News! The U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will revisit the ban on affirmative action in Michigan. The Court will determine whether whether state voter ballot initiatives that barred affirmative action in state colleges and universities, such as Proposition 209 in California and Proposal 2 in Michigan, violate the rights of minority groups to fully participate in the political process. Court proceedings will begin this fall.

From Inside HigherEd:
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court Monday agreed to hear a second case involving affirmative action in higher education -- even before it has issued a ruling on the other case that it has considered this term. The justices agreed to consider whether Michigan voters in 2006 had the legal right to bar the state's public colleges and universities from considering race or ethnicity in admissions. Should the Supreme Court invalidate that vote, bans on the consideration of race by public colleges in other states -- most notably in California -- could also be thrown out.
From University of Michigan:
The nation's high court will hear an appeal filed by state Attorney General Bill Schuette after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Proposal 2, the ballot initiative approved by voters in 2006, was unconstitutional. The court said it would take up the case, known as Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, in the term that begins in October. Proposal 2 amended the Michigan Constitution by adding a provision prohibiting discrimination and preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity, sex, or national origin in public education, public employment, and public contracting. U-M remains in full compliance with Proposal 2. The 6th Circuit concluded that Proposal 2 violated the federal Equal Protection Clause by making it more difficult for minority groups to participate fully and equally in the state's political processes, particularly with respect to the ability to seek changes in university admissions policies. 
Initially, I was shocked by this announcement because the U.S. Supreme Court will therefore hear two consecutive cases on affirmative action (Fisher v. University of Texas) and now state voter initiatives that ban affirmative action. Research has shown that these bans have negatively impacted the enrollment of African American students in flagship state universities. Race-neutral approaches (percentage plans, socioeconomic review, etc.) are not a viable substitute to race. Once these bans are enacted, it is nearly impossible for minority civil rights groups to gather the funding and resources to overturn these laws. This is an unprecedented move, but I have hope that the Court will make the right decision(s).

Friday, March 22, 2013

HuffPost: Minimum Wage Would Be Nearly $22/Hour If It Had Kept With Increases in Productivity

In the Huffington Post, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) made a case for increasing the minimum wage during a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing, in which she cited a study that suggested the federal minimum wage would have stood at nearly $22.00 an hour today if it had kept up with increased rates in worker productivity.

"If we started in 1960 and we said that as productivity goes up, that is as workers are producing more, then the minimum wage is going to go up the same. And if that were the case then the minimum wage today would be about $22 an hour," she said, speaking to Dr. Arindrajit Dube, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor who has studied the economic impacts of minimum wage. "So my question is Mr. Dube, with a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, what happened to the other $14.75? It sure didn't go to the worker."
Warren went on to argue that raising the federal minimum wage to over $10 an hour in incremental steps over the next two years -- a cause championed by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address and since taken up in the Senate -- would not be as damaging for businesses as some critics have argued.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Social Work Problem #2: Too Much Focus on Professionalization, Not Enough Focus on Social Justice

The second major problem is too much focus on professionalization and not enough on social justice. The origins of the social work profession in the United States focused on casework (Mary Richmond's Charity Organization Society) and cause (Jane Addams' settlement house movement). What distinguished social work from the social sciences (sociology, psychology, etc.) was its strong focus on social justice, particularly around advocacy and social policy-making for disadvantaged populations. Early social workers, who gathered data to better understand the needs of individuals, families and local communities, contributed to the development of progressive state and federal legislation (juvenile justice system, social security, civil rights, War on Poverty programs, etc.).

Today, most American social workers have abandoned this social justice orientation for professionalization by concentrating in clinical practice. These clinical social workers are case managers, mental health specialists, and psychotherapists. Instead of advocating for more progressive economic and social policies, social workers have become an extension of the state--front-line workers who promote psychoanalytic social control interventions. This transition began in 1915 when Abraham Flexner, who was then the nation's leading authority on professional education, proclaimed that social work was not a profession because it lacked a written body of specialized knowledge and educational standards. Furthermore, he insisted that social workers were generalists without "decision-making authority." In the post-WWII period, casework (therapy and similar services to individuals and families) thus emerged as the dominant form of professional practice.

Most social work conversations today focus on licensure, title protection, and private practice rather than the continuous erosion of progressive social policy since the civil rights movement. Licensing requirements in most states only recognize clinical content and supervision, forcing many social work schools to provide content knowledge for that purpose at the detriment of macro social work courses. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) continues this trend by testing graduating students on their knowledge about clinical practice (Master's exam). What is more insulting is that 40% of the revised Advanced Generalist exam tests macro-practice social workers on knowledge about clinical practice (only 18% of the exam actually focus on macro practice questions). Macro practice has become so neglected and marginalized that the social work profession has lost sight of its true purpose--to improve the social conditions of disadvantaged communities through organizing, planning, and policy practice.

Therefore, it is not a coincidence that social workers are rarely called upon by the news media to discuss contemporary issues in social welfare policy. Instead, people who have little to no experience with the social services (e.g., journalists, economists, elected officials, lawyers, and even business folk) are considered the experts on the needs of the poor. Social workers have also abandoned policy practice to public policy schools, whose curriculum overwhelmingly favors quantitative approaches to policy-making. The problem with quantitative approaches is that data sets fail to capture the depth and insight of those impacted by government policies. Social workers are then expected to passively implement policies and services that often do more harm than good to the truly disadvantaged.
Bottom line: This shift from social justice to professionalization is often criticized by macro-practice social workers who feel their needs are underserved and ignored by social work schools, the state boards of social workers, and national associations (e.g., Council on Social Work Education,  National Association for Social Workers). We need more social workers (both clinical and macro practice) who have the knowledge and skills to address social and legal challenges in the 21st century. Families and communities need advocates who will represent their interests against powerful profit-driven special interests groups. Therefore, the social work profession should focus less on clinical practice and return to its social justice roots in organizing, planning, and policy practice.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

NYTimes: A Dangerous ‘New Normal’ in College Debt

New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, released this timely article about the dangerous costs of rising tuition in higher education. This crisis affects both college and advanced degree holders, who struggle to repay their staggering student loans (often higher than their starting salaries!). The higher education system (coupled with the inability to discharge student loans in bankruptcy) will become unsustainable if Congress, state legislators, and higher education administrators don't find a way to reduce the tuition burden on families.

As college tuitions rise and state and local funding for higher education falls — along with median household incomes — students are taking on staggering levels of debt. And many can’t find jobs that pay well enough to quickly pay off the debt. This has long-term implications for our society and our economy, as that debt begins to affect when and if young people start families or enter the housing market.

The student debt crisis may become a dangerous “new normal,” according to a report this week by the nonprofit State Higher Education Executive Officers Association:

“In the ‘new normal,’ retirement and health care costs simultaneously drive up the cost of higher education, and compete with education for limited public resources. The ‘new normal’ no longer expects to see a recovery of state support for higher education such as occurred repeatedly in the last half of the 20th century. The ‘new normal’ expects students and their families to continue to make increasingly greater financial sacrifices in order to complete a postsecondary education. The ‘new normal’ expects schools and colleges to find ways of increasing productivity and absorb ever-larger budget cuts, while increasing degree production without, we hope, compromising quality.”         

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Social Work Problem #1: Lack of Professional Support for Macro-Practice Social Workers

This month will focus on four major flaws that undermine the profession's ability to meet its mission. While I feel blessed to be an alumna of a top-ranked program that supports macro social work practice and research (Michigan), many students attending under-resourced and clinical-only MSW programs (the majority of MSW programs) lack access to macro content in the curriculum. This is detrimental to the students' learning as well as the social work profession's mission. It is critical that social workers recognize these setbacks and find ways that improve the profession's capacity to help everyone and not just a select few.

The first major problem is the lack of professional support for macro-practice social workers. When I browsed the titles for the upcoming social work conference in Michigan, a majority (~80%) of the sessions focused on mental health, pain management, health care, and psychotherapy. Since my MSW concentration was management and community practice (in educational settings), it was both frustrating and disappointing to see how social workers continue to ignore topics focusing on community organization, management, and policy practice. When social workers ignore its legacy of social activism in the early- and mid-twentieth century, the profession is not meeting its social justice mission.

What is macro social work? Macro social work focuses on changing larger social systems (i.e., communities, organizations, and society). It involves three broadly defined areas: community organization, management, and policy practice. Spectrum of practice includes outreach and recruitment, planning and program development, project management, community organizing, political and social advocacy, program evaluation, dialogue facilitation, grant-writing and fundraising, and internal organizational change. Social work graduates plan, implement, manage, and evaluate social welfare policies and programs in public and non-profit settings.

Since I began this blog, I have posted a lot about macro social work to inform readers and visitors that there is more to the social work profession than mental health, child welfare, and case management. One of the things I find most frustrating of all is the lack of continuing education courses (CEUs) addressing topics in community practice for licensed social workers. Licensed macro-practice social workers must often waste their time and money on CEUs that have nothing to do with his or her current employment. Macro-practice social workers also have to be entrepreneurial (networking among non-social workers, using alternative job titles such as outreach coordinator or policy analyst, and justifying how an MSW is valuable in a non-clinical setting) during their job search since most non-profit and public sector employers have no clue about our versatile (administrative, people-oriented, and social justice values) skills. This is due to neglect and marginalization of macro social work in the profession.

Schools of social work are required to teach clinical (working with individuals, families and small groups) and macro content in the foundation curriculum. Yet, students who want to concentrate in macro social work find themselves in the minority because clinical practice is the dominant (and in some cases the only) concentration. The fact that most students enter social work with clinical training in mind is also disappointing due to the poor visibility and absence of macro practice. It can also be difficult for social work students to find macro field placements due to the lack of qualified licensed macro-practice social workers. Some MSW students also pursue a second graduate degree (law, public policy, public health, education, etc.) to remain competitive in the eyes of employers. Finally, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) primarily offers content and support to clinical social workers. Macro-practice social workers should ignore NASW and register with the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA) and other professional associations related to their practice area (since my background is higher education, I have membership with ACPA--College Student Educators International because I want to pursue a career in academic and educational affairs). 

Bottom line: The social work profession cannot continue to act like it advocates for the disadvantaged when it does not offer professional support for macro-practice social workers. State boards of social work should recognize macro practice as a licensure option so that more social work students can receive field placements with macro-practice professionals. The social work profession needs macro-practice social workers, who work with communities and organizations to organize people, gather data, and present policies that improve society.

Read the rest of the posts in this series:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Video: Wealth Inequality in America

This six minute video has been circulating around the Internet. It exposes the growing income disparities between the bottom (nearly most Americans) and the top 1%. It is imperative that social workers (with skills in advocacy, policy research, and capacity building) speak up against wealth inequality, which threatens to undermine this great nation. Americans should tell their elected representatives that we need a thriving middle-class and progressive safety net for the poor and vulnerable. Giving tax breaks to the rich while letting everyone else suffer (excessive debt, foreclosure, outsourcing, and redlining) is not the answer.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

NASW: Social Workers in Colleges and Universities

In 2011, the NASW Center for Workforce Studies and Social Work Practice released the occupational profile, Social Workers in Colleges and Universities.

Social workers play critical roles in higher education settings. Many colleges and universities across the country employ social workers in their counseling centers or as part of their faculty. Social workers employed in colleges or universities tend to focus on the psychosocial functioning of individual students (Gibelman, 2005). Issues that social workers address can be related to academic challenges, adjustments to a new environment, or behavioral issues (Gibelman, 2005). Other issues might include campus drinking, relationships or domestic violence. Social workers in these settings can also work as faculty, preparing social work students to address individual and social problems and to bring about social change. Social work professors may also conduct research on a variety of topics

The list of functions that social workers employ in higher education settings in the occupational profile is very good. However, my biggest complaint with this document is that it overlooks social workers in student affairs positions. A growing number of social workers are obtaining positions as advisers, coordinators, managers, and directors in student affairs areas, including admissions, academic advising, counseling and psychological services, health education, multicultural affairs, community service-learning, and social justice education. While a social worker does not need a license to pursue a career in student affairs, those who are licensed provide field education opportunities for social work students who want to work directly with college students. Greater awareness of social workers pursuing careers in academic and student affairs is vital to ensure that our voices are heard in NASW.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Review: Social Work Matters -- The Power of Linking Policy and Practice (2012)

Social Work Matters: The Power of Linking Policy and Practice (2012), edited by Elizabeth F. Hoffles, MSW and Elizabeth J. Clark, PHD, ACSW, MPH, is a collection of essays by over 50 authors who demonstrate how social work matters to the healthy functioning of society. This statement supports that argument: Social justice is the fuel that drives social workers and what sets social work apart from other professions. Social workers with practice experience make excellent advocates, organizers, and policy-makers. The two goals of this book were to 1) portray what social workers accomplish in different fields on a daily basis because the professional is often misunderstood and undervalued, and 2) link traditional, direct practice with the critical policy and advocacy components of the profession.

In the introduction, the editors highlight famous social work trailblazers--Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, Dorothy I. Height, and Whitney M. Young--who were the key architects on groundbreaking social initiatives in the twentieth century. The editors also highlight how social workers provide the majority of mental health services in the United States and work on a variety of social issues, such as poverty, inequality, insecurity, fear, violence, trauma, loss, and pain. Thus, it is important that social workers not only know what is happening at the agency level but also have a good understanding of social policies that influence their practice. According to the editors, social workers are trained to "acquire resources for clients, organize communities for causes, and coordinate grassroots advocacy campaigns."

“Social work is more than just a ‘value added’ service,” says Hoffler. “It is essential to ensuring that our country continues to provide opportunity, promotes equity, and help millions of individuals fulfill their potential. Readers of this book will understand that truth as never before.” The chapters of this book illustrate what different kinds of social workers do on a daily basis, and how macro action can be applied to help individuals, communities. Each chapter explores the transition from micro-level service—working directly to improve the lives of individuals—to the macro-level work of altering our social systems and institutions through broad social action and advocacy. The authors describe a real-life social issue, argue why this issue matters in social work, provide implications for policy and practice, and conclude with discussion questions for further exploration.

In this 325-paged book, the chapters focus on the following topics: administration, advocacy, children and families, communities  corrections and the courts, direct practice, education and loan forgiveness (my favorite chapter, which is usually ignored in most social work career books), equality and social justice, finances, government programs, health, HIV/AIDS, parity (mental health/substance abuse), and research. I loved the education and loan forgiveness section because the chapters focus on the importance of exposing macro practice to students, educating students on student loan forgiveness programs, and social work opportunities in higher education administration. As a joint degree student in social work and higher education, it is satisfying (I can't say this enough) to hear about other social workers' experiences working with college students (the clients).

Overall, I highly recommend this text to social work (especially macro practice) students, educators, and practitioners who want to link their practice experience with policy developments. It is promising that NASW produced this much needed text; now, if only the leadership will expand their membership base beyond clinical social workers. If the social work profession truly promotes social justice and advocacy, then NASW needs to provide better support (networking, educational resources, and continuing education opportunities) for macro social workers.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Social Work Month and World Social Work Day 2013

March is Social Work Month! The 2013 Theme is “Weaving Threads of Resilience and Advocacy.” 

This theme builds on the idea that “social work is the profession of hope.” Many practitioners and students say their work is about helping others move forward. Organizers also want the 2013 campaign to amplify the social worker’s role in helping people use their personal strengths to create a vision and a plan for what life can be. The website also includes 100 Ways to Promote Social Work.

World Social Work Day 2013 is March 19, 2013. Its theme is "Promoting Social and Economic Equalities." You can also read more about this in the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development to Action.

This month will also include a special investigation on the state of the social work profession. I will address five problems within social work and provide recommendations that will improve the profession's image to the public as well as recruitment/retention efforts. I look forward to engaging discussions and thoughts from you!