Grading the Social Work Profession

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How would you grade the social work profession in fulfilling its mission? It is useful to step back periodically to do a little self-examination to measure the progress we are making in fulfilling our purpose and achieving our goals. The late New York City Mayor Ed Koch would do this occasionally by stopping passersby on the street and asking: “How am I doing?” We as members of a unique and quite noble profession should be interested in how well we are making progress. Unlike other professions, social work and therefore social workers are committed to a broad range of objectives that define who we are. The first paragraph of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) preamble spells out the mission of the social work profession:

The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well­being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well­being in a social context and the well­being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living. 

With more than 650,000 practicing social workers in the country, measuring success could be quite a challenge. We know there are many individual success stories all across the country. We need to hear more of them, but each of us knows a social worker who is meeting the call of the Code of Ethics by rescuing individuals and families from the traps of poverty, despair, homelessness, and crime. We are renewing hope in people caught up in the vicious cycles of depression, drug addiction, domestic violence and other traumas. Yet for every success story we know there are social workers who feel they are losing the battle because of the social forces that are crushing their clients.

We celebrate the individual and organizational successes and well we should. But how are we doing with the other part of the mission—the environmental forces that create and contribute to economic inequality, bare bones social welfare resources, failing schools, and far too many people languishing behind prison bars? How well are we focusing on the well-being of our society? I believe the profession is actively impacting the well-being of society through research and advocacy. But I also believe there is more that we can do to make changes in society.

There has long been a tension in social work between “cause” and “function”—how much time and energy are devoted to helping clients navigate their environments or how much are devoted to activities that lead to changing that environment. Norman L. Wyers provides an extensive discussion about this in an article in a 1991 issue of the journal Social Work (Vol. 27, Issue 3, pg. 241)—a debate that he writes has been ongoing since 1929. In an article in a 1998 issue of Social Work (Vol. 43, Issue 6, pg. 541) Mimi Abramowitz gives a thorough historical overview of the profession’s struggle to meet individual needs and engage societal change and identifies the structural factors—professionalism and the market economy—that has limited social work’s engagement in societal change. These articles should be required reading for all social workers. I would give them to you but they are copyrighted.

Those of us who view ourselves as macro social work practitioners struggle to find our place in a profession that has tilted strongly towards licensure as defining the certifiable social worker. There is an interesting conversation occurring in one of the LinkedIn groups—The Network of Professional Social Workers—about who can call themselves a social worker. Obviously that varies from state to state but what is troubling is the breadth of the variations. In some states, you cannot call yourself a social worker if you do not have a license regardless of how many degrees you hold. We need a strong macro component in social work if we are to fulfill the totality of our mission. With that in mind I grade the profession a B-. We will pick up this discussion in future posts.

Written By Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D

Grading the Social Work Profession was originally published @ Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy » Charles Lewis and has been syndicated with permission.

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