On March 16, 2017, alongside 24 other Master’s-level social work students, I marched toward Senate Russell Building room 385, the snow crunching beneath my heels. Nestled between a wooden podium and a hanging American flag, we huddled in three rows for a group photograph commemorating our trip as an advanced policy course traveling to Washington D.C. to advocate on behalf of five pressing issues: early childhood care and education, homelessness, veterans’ rights and services, behavioral health, and juvenile justice.
Moments later, frigid wind struck my cheeks as I sped to the Cannon and Longworth buildings opposite the Capitol with four classmates to discuss early childhood care with five U.S. House of Representative Members both Democrat and Republican.
Eager to advocate for children ages 0 to 5, where 90% of cognitive and behavioral development occurs, I made sure to research and rehearse on repeat. To my surprise, as I walked away from the Capitol that evening, the primary gleaming lesson learned stood outside of statistics: social workers are sorely missed and desperately needed in our government.
Of the 535 current Members of Congress, 9 are professional social workers. The dominant professions of Members are public service and politics, business, and law.
This absence of social workers hinders Congress from doing its best work. In 2016, the public’s disapproval rating of Congress was 76.4 percent, with only 14.6 percent of those polled approving its performance, according to Real Clear Politics. While voters crave change, attention is given to the President as the primary driver of that change, while Congressmen and women are often overlooked as holding potential to take hold of the reins. This yearning for change motivated many in their support for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, two presidential candidates who promised to shake up the system.
Despite the wild unpopularity of Congress, nearly 90 percent of the 435 House Members ran successfully in their most recent primaries and only 42 percent faced opponents. As many as 411 of the 435 seats were thought to be safe for one or the other party’s candidate, and only 23 of the 30 Senate seats up for votes were considered competitive.
One contributing reason for this is that Congress has faced severe obstacles in executing its power. In late 2016, Congress failed for the tenth time in eleven years to pass separate appropriations bills for each government department and had to resort to temporary extensions of fiscal year 2016’s budget for the first months of fiscal year 2017.
Among various reasons for this and other obstacles, two stand out: a firm standstill between Republican and Democratic Members of Congress and a hesitance on the part of Congress to turn off voters. On both fronts, heightened presence of social workers would benefit the efficiency of Congress and ultimately the needs of the American people.
Research shows that collaborative competencies, or understanding and appreciating professional roles and responsibilities and communicating effectively, are missing from dominant educational frameworks. In contrast, communication and interpersonal skills are widely taught as a core element of the social work profession. Moreover, listening and fostering empathy for possible alternative perspectives are foundational pillars of social work. These skills promote more effective communication and compromise between the two dominant parties in Congress.
Perhaps even more important than more effective communication within Congress, social workers in Congress may better bridge the gap between the public and the government. In an interview with The New Social Worker, a social work careers magazine, Representative Barbara Lee said that through her social work background, she “witnessed the depth of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and inadequate mental health care in our community,” which “drive [her] work at the policy level.” “Social workers offer valuable perspective through their firsthand experience,” she said, “that can help in advocacy for our communities at every level of government. By understanding social welfare policies and their impact, social workers have an opportunity to raise their voices and help drive the policy changes that we all know are so greatly needed.”
Many divisive issues face the 115th Congress. Research shows that environmental change, subsystem differences, and increasing diversity result in complexity, conflict, and dynamism. To survive and prosper, organizations, including the United States Congress, must control conflict, position themselves to adjust to change, and choose the best paths to goal attainment.
While political, business and legal training are essential in negotiating, organizing, writing, and analyzing laws and strategies to lift the United States to its highest potential, without the communication, leadership, empathy, and awareness to diversity skills inherent to the social work profession, Congress will continue to experience a standstill, hindering all Americans.
Social workers, trained in empathy, diagnostics, conflict and crisis management, goal setting, measurement, and attainment, and empowerment of self and others are uniquely equipped to work collaboratively across party lines and elevate the voices of all Americans, strengthening our government and ultimately our country.
It is up to us as individual Social Workers and the larger social work field to make our voices heard and participate in the political and policy process.
by Alyssa Petersel
Bialik, K. & Krogstad, J.M. (2017, January 24). 115th Congress sets new high for racial, ethnic diversity. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/24/115th-congress-sets-new-high-for-racial-ethnic-diversity/
Lucey, B. (2017, February 13). 115th Congress: By the numbers. Congressional Research Service (CRS), Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.dailynewsgems.com/2017/02/115th-congress-by-the-numbers.html
National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp
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Pincus, W. (2016, October 4). The problem is Congress, not the Presidency. The Cipher Brief. Retrieved from: https://www.thecipherbrief.com/column/fine-print/problem-congress-not-presidency-1093
Forenza, B. (2016). Social work in the U.S. Congress: An interview with Representative Barbara Lee, Chair of the Congressional Social Work Caucus. The New Social Worker. Retrieved from: http://www.socialworker.com/extras/social-work-month-project-2016/social-work-in-the-us-congress-an-interview-with-barbara-lee/
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