“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: