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:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn’t agree more that our profession suffers from an identity crisis. And I agree that “a neoliberal political ideology” has contributed to that crisis. And indeed, the public stereo-type is a challenge, but so are some of our internal stereotypes. I believe that our rush toward professional validation has been reckless and misguided, and that it is time to take a step back to question our identity and our mission. But my brain almost exploded when you referenced the collection of essays titled “Shattered Image” from Social Impact.

Featured in that article is the following statement from the (social work) dean of a very large and powerful university:

“All professions have image problems — physicians, lawyers, journalists. Reverence for professions has been dwindling. For social work, there’s a large gap between perception and reality. … It hurts recruiting in the sense that people are concerned about being negatively stereotyped. … But underpaid and overworked represents a lot of professions …”

“Most social workers don’t work with the poor anymore, but with the mentally ill, in schools, hospitals, substance abuse, and aging. … The majority of new social work schools are small, rural, or church-related, training foot soldiers. We need that, and I don’t mind supporting that.

“But that’s not how we prepare our students. We charge so much, we have to prepare them for something different and more broad. We have a special role as private universities. I’m interested in preparing our students for the exceptional. When we do place them in conventional roles, we train them to do exceptional things. … But others are working at Ernst & Young, in management and consulting, in public policy

… “Private universities have to do training for leadership. If we don’t, we lose the rationale for a certain kind of existence. Once public universities took on the role of public service, private schools had to take on a different role …"

As a social work practitioner with 30 years of practice experience, now teaching full time in a small, private, non-profit university, this deans suggestion that she doesn’t mind supporting our “foot soldiers” but that her students must answer a higher calling to justify her schools high tuition rate, fairly makes my blood boil. WE HAVE A PROBLEM WITHIN OUR ACADEMIC LEADERSHIP. And the fascination with everything clinical is a perfect manifestation of this. (Admits this clinically licensed social worker!)

Ten years ago when I transitioned from practitioner to full time educator I expected to find a beating heart of altruism and a pervasive passion for matters of social justice. I have been more than disappointed. What I have found is a faint but steady rhythm, sustained by a scattering of faithful, passionate, articulate, and vocal advocates: struggling to maintain a presence in a system, really a series of systems (from our accreditor to our professional organizations to our universities and social institutions,) that largely treats them as an antiquated annoyance.

While I can appreciate a role for social workers as “mental health clinicians” I believe that such practice represents a particular professional plateau from which one must be constantly vigilant: cautious of stumbling off a steep and identity rending precipice.

I regularly encourage our undergraduate students, particularly those focused upon a clinical career to read Unfaithful Angels: How social Work Abandoned its Mission by Harry Specht & Mark Courtney.

OK, gotta go now. A class full of foot soldiers beckons. Gary