Is Politics Failing Social Work or is Social Work Failing at Politics?

Mahatma-Gandhi-Politic-Quotes

Current news events seem to be rife with stories relevant to social work while continuing to highlight our lack of presence in those conversations. Suicide, police shootings, more school shootings, corporal punishment, and domestic violence are issues that stick out on a very long list . Various articles on this website have challenged us to think about social worker’s role in these mainstream stories.

The ultimate gauntlet was thrown by Dr. Steven Perry and his speech on C-SPAN that we are “too silent” on issues of access and social justice.  We are in the trenches on the frontline, and we need to increase public awareness on the efforts of social workers in order to affect public policy making decisions.

Prior to listening to Dr. Perry’s speech, I honestly thought the answer to this question was that politics has been failing social workers, but Dr. Perry calls us out on how we can do more and should be doing a lot more. As social workers, we are interested in making a change, but it is how we go about it that is coming into question. What the above speech and article do (excellently) is get us to think about where and how we want to be involved. Social Workers need to be involved more in politics.

Where I struggle with politics is the much talked about notion of “Policy to Practice”. As people in the helping profession, we all have a notion of what helping others entails. We have the power to help heal individuals, families, schools, and communities yet our voice is not always heard by policy makers. Similar to Dr. Perry, I wondered why our expertise and knowledge continues to not inform policy. What gets in the way?

Social work is becoming more and more about the bottom line. We get messages to use programs that are “evidence based”, “increase productivity”, and “reduce cost”. Interventions that accomplishes all three of these things may get the funding or not. However, despite meeting this criterion, these programs don’t always appear to “make the cut.”  Here are some examples to illustrate this further.

First, lumping together both foster care and juvenile justice together to discuss prevention programs and increasing outcomes. There appears to be a lot of concern about the money we are spending on foster care, out of home placement, and juvenile justice centers. As someone who coordinates care with young people who are at risk for out of home placement, there is a lack of intensive preventive services. There are huge waiting lists for the small amount of slots available. We know prevention services work, however my observation is that these programs are actually getting cut. Are politicians aware of this?

Another example of failed policies and lack of evidence based interventions being funded can be seen in how homelessness is being addressed. According to a press release by The U.S. Housing and Urban development in 2010,

“When an individual or a family becomes homeless for the first time, the cost of providing them housing and services can vary widely, from $581 a month for an individual’s stay in an emergency shelter in Des Moines, Iowa to as much as $3,530 for a family’s monthly stay in emergency shelter in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development today released three studies on the cost of ‘first-time’ homelessness; life after transitional housing for homeless families; and strategies for improving access to mainstream benefits programs”

Services to prevent homelessness seem few and far between. For a homeless family, $3,000 per month can go a long way to finding someone permanent, stable housing. Social Workers are on the frontline, and we see what works as well as what our clients need. We apparently need to demonstrate to policy makers that what we do has “return on investment.”  Investing $3,000 a month to teach families to be more self-sufficient, knock down barriers to unemployment, and access to substance abuse and/or mental health treatment will save more money so individuals and families don’t need to become homeless in order to get services.

Are we ensuring policy makers know that we are fighting for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed on a daily basis to help improve their quality of life and to reduce dependency on government services? This is the challenge that we need to take head on, and Dr. Perry reminds us of how powerful social workers can be at the policy making level. To truly serve our clients, we have to address and engage on a policy level because helping one client at a time is only temporary fix which may be impeded further without proper funding.

To truly serve our clients, we have to address and engage on a policy level because helping one client at a time is only a temporary fix which may be impeded further without proper funding. Social Work has power and let’s take up the challenge to find new ways to use it. Dr. Perry has called us out and please find your way to answer the call.

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Sean Erreger

Sean Erreger is currently a Clinical Case Manager for youth with a mental health diagnosis.I have a decade of direct social work practice experience including adolescent day treatment, psychiatric emergency room, adult inpatient, and foster care prevention. Blogging and sharing social work resources at Stuck On Social Work View all posts by Sean Erreger

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