A Place At The Policy Table for Social Workers

Congressional Social Work Caucus Chair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA13) recently threw her support behind the efforts of the producers of a film titled “A Place At The Table” which documents the struggle of millions of Americans to adequately feed themselves and their families.  Directed by Lori Silverbush, the film was an official selection of the Sundance film festival.  As Co-Chair of the Congressional Out-Of-Poverty Caucus, Rep. Lee has led the fight against poverty on the floor of the House of Representatives and in various congressional committees.  We need more social workers involved in influential policy deliberations.

The voices of social workers are critically needed during deliberations on social welfare policy on the Hill, in state and local government, and in various think tanks.  We need to be at the table when policies affecting children and families are being crafted.  We need to have input in discussions that lead to legislation and regulations in foster care, assistance for the elderly, criminal justice reform, and mental health services—to just name a few domains.  Social workers focus on outcomes that center more on the well-being of the people being served than the cost and benefits and efficiency.  While economics cannot be downplayed, it is often the sole focus of conventional policy makers.  Jared Bernstein, a social worker, operating within the highest realms of policy (he was Vice President Biden’s chief economist), has said that economists would benefit from being a social worker.

The field of policy analysis for social welfare emerged during the 1960s with the creation of the Office of Economic Development to oversee the federal government’s effort to administer social welfare programs designed to improve the poor’s condition in the United States.  What would become President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, led to the creation of the Institute for Research on Poverty and the Urban Institute to evaluate the effectiveness of social programs and provide research that would generate better outcomes.  Social workers have a creditable track record influencing social policy yet we need to have a stronger influence on policy going forward.

Most social workers are direct practitioners working hands-on with individuals, families and groups relying on evidence-based interventions that will empower and promote better functioning in society. Some pursue careers in administration equipped with the knowledge and skills to effectively manage public and private welfare institutions or create non-profit organizations of their own choosing.  A few get bitten by the policy bug and want to influence policy decisions that regulate social work practice and impact the populations we serve.

Yet many social work students who would like to work in policy find the career path rocky if not completely nonexistent and reluctantly shift their focus back to micro practice to pass the licensing exam in order to secure employment.  The profession needs to expand its efforts to create paths to policy jobs for social workers.  The good news is there are efforts under way.  The University of Michigan offers a joint Masters of Social Work/Masters of Public Policy program and Columbia University School of Social Work has initiated an accelerated policy track in its MSW program.  New York University’s Silver School of Social Work has opened a campus in Washington, DC.  Most high-level policy jobs will require a Ph.D.

CRISP is committed to expanding opportunities for social work students to engage the federal government.  We will be launching a series of student seminars on the Hill; the first will be held on September 9th focusing on federal legislation and the Social Work Reinvestment Act.  We will also be sponsoring briefings and hosting an October 29th symposium on children’s mental health.

The breadth of the social work experience can be a blessing or seem like a curse.  Social workers are needed at every level—micro, mezzo, and macro.  However, we cannot favor one area over the other.  We must expand recruitment and create opportunities for employment for the different paths.  There has always been tension between cause and function in social work.  I believe policy practice is the new and emerging field of social work and it is vital to the well-being of our society that we open doors for social work students.


Written by Dr. Charles E. Lewis Jr.
President of The Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy

Twitter: @CharlesELewisJr.
Email: celewisjr@gmail.com

Dr. Charles E. Lewis, Jr. is President of The Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. He has served as deputy chief of staff and communications director for former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns and was the staff coordinator for the Congressional Social Work Caucus. He was a full-time faculty member at Howard University School of Social Work prior to joining Rep. Towns’ staff and now is an adjunct associate professor. As staff coordinator for the Social Work Caucus, Dr. Lewis helped to plan and to coordinate numerous briefings and events on the Hill and in the 10th Congressional District in Brooklyn, New York.

Originally Posted at http://crispinc.org/?p=983 

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  1. Katy Gerloff August 9, 2013

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