In a column in last week's San Francisco Chronicle, Chip Johnson wrote that violence and gunfire on the streets of Oakland "has claimed another, unseen victim" in recent weeks — the ability of social workers to make home visits in tough neighborhoods. Violence in the East Bay has received much attention in recent months. But Johnson's emphasis on the role of social workers in our society is much overdue.
Recent academic and governmental studies have found that health care and social services workers have a higher incidence of assault injuries than any other field. A 1997 reported that 92 percent of children and youth services social workers in California and Pennsylvania had been threatened or struck in their work. Women social workers are especially vulnerable to physical violence by clients.
My grandfather was a social worker. In World War II he entered Europe on the heels of the American troops to help organize the relief effort for those behind the lines. After the war he returned to administration and later academia and worked to promote the crucial role that social workers played in the American democracy. He was proud of the role of the values of social workers. Over fifty years ago, as president of the National Conference of Social Work he said, "Fundamentally and basically, we believe in the worth, welfare, and well-being of the individual ... we have an urge to help him ... we tend to concentrate our efforts on the last, the lost, and the least." Why? "Not only for what the help does to him, but also for the support and protection it gives society." For Grandpa Ben, activity on behalf of "the last, the lost, and the least" was at the bedrock of democracy and freedom.
While violence in society receives its due share of publicity, the crucial role of social work does not. We rely on these unsung heroes to care for our mentally ill, to protect children from violence and cruelty, to minister to those fighting the demons of drug abuse, and to deal with the human manifestations of a system that honors those with wealth, power, and celebrity status, but looks down on others struggling to survive due to incapacity, bad choices, or bad luck. This is especially true today. To consider only one group, since the Clinton welfare overhaul, the percentage of poor single mothers neither working nor drawing cash assistance has surged from less than 20 percent to more than 30 percent in 2005 and is getting worse. Yet, case workers are usually in the news only when they fail to remove a child from a violent home soon enough or, on the contrary, because they unfairly took a parent's child from a possibly dysfunctional home.
Today, the social work profession is not only a victim of threats, violence, and gunfire but also of governmental and societal neglect. Their values and work as "do-gooders" seems quaint and out of place.
Years ago, well-trained social workers were valued for their policy expertise when governments wrestled with difficult social problems. Today, in Washington and Sacramento, the cost-benefit analyses of economists are likely to play this role. Further, government budget makers constantly see the area of social work as one in which financial cuts can be made. The title of "caregiver" that encompasses much of what social workers do has become associated with the image of low-wage, low-skilled people.
These are not just problems in the East Bay. Faced with scorn, neglect, and low wages, social workers are responding in various ways. Social workers with certain skills, such as in child abuse, are lacking in many parts of the country. In some parts of England, the shortage of social workers has gotten so bad that local authorities are paying for officials to travel abroad to find experienced staff. Other local authorities there have resorted to paying new employees recruitment bonuses known as "golden hellos." Social workers are considering a rebranding strategy to portray their profession as one of policy-making, not caregiving. Putting more pressure on the position of case worker, in many states a Masters of Social Work degree allows social workers to offer private clinical psychological services. This is often a much more attractive employment option than being a public or private case worker in a violent housing project.
Social work does what almost no other profession in our society does today. Again to quote Grandpa Ben, it makes an attempt "to understand the unsuccessful person, the underdog, the failure, and the maladjusted; and to appreciate what he is up against. We don't damn him as some aspects of our culture do; we try to understand him and to free him so that he can make the most of his potentialities. ... We have made an effort to get at the causes of his situation."
Who else today in business or government can make such a claim?