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.