Dr. Lawrence M. Berger is the 12th director of the venerable Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a professor and chair of the Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work and a brilliant researcher. Lonnie, as he prefers to be called, is also a dear friend. We entered the doctoral program at Columbia University School of Social Work together in 1997 and graduated together in 2002. Lonnie earned his M.S.W. degree at Hunter College School of Social Work and now has the responsibility of leading the oldest of three federally-supported institutes for research on poverty.
The IRP was created at UW-M in 1966 by the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to provide research on the War on Poverty Programs. The 44-year old scholar took over the helm of the IRP last year when the previous director, Dr. Maria Cancian, was nominated to become Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). I had the opportunity to catch up with Lonnie recently and he graciously answered a few questions.
I asked Lonnie a question you will hear repeatedly in the coming weeks: why social work? What motivated you to become a social worker?Dr. Lawrence Berger
I was always interested in social causes and social issues. My parents were pretty active with various causes. After graduating college (Rutgers) and trying to decide what to do next, I was doing a great deal of volunteer work with hunger and homeless type organizations. I was always interested in being a researcher so in choosing an academic researcher path, social work seem to be a good fit. Before I received my M.S.W., I really didn’t have a good sense of the range of things social workers do and can do.
I asked Lonnie to describe the focus of his research.
I am interested in what influences the context in which families function and children grow up. I am interested in the intersection between public policies, family resources, family structures and context and how these factors play out in terms of parenting quality, parenting behavior, and eventually children’s health and well being. I’ve conducted my research in a range of areas. I’ve done much research on family complexity and family structure change. I’ve done research on child abuse and neglect, particularly the role of economic resources in child abuse and neglect. I am currently working on projects looking at how household debt plays a role in family functioning. I’ve also done work on family leave and housing and a range of issues around policy and family functioning.
Because CRISP focuses on policies at the federal level, I asked Lonnie about the implications of his research for federal policy.
I have done projects where I have looked at a specific federal policy or set of policies, but more broadly federal policy—whether you are considering tax policy or income transfer policy, or provision of child care, provision of early child education programs, or near-cash things like SNAP, those policies can influence family contexts and resources. So while my research may not focus on a specific federal policy, what drives me is doing research that has policy implications that help explain how family resources are impacted or how family change is affected, so you can go back and understand how these policies are affecting families and children.
Because of the IRP’s association with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), I asked if the IRP’s research had greater impact with federal agencies than with Congress.
The IRP has this long history of doing policy experiments and policy-related research, particularly in the area of child support policy. In the late 1990s, the IRP conducted an experiment in welfare reform policy on “pass-through” policy, determining how much child support payments would be passed on to the mother after the state had taken its share to repay the state for benefits. In this experiment, the state passed through all of the money to the mother of the child and it turned out not to have adverse effects in terms of labor supply and fertility and it had some positive effects. That ended up driving a change in federal policy so that now states are able to pass through all of the child support payment to mothers. They don’t all do it, but they are not prohibited from doing it. Currently we are doing a large eight-state randomized evaluation called the Child Support Parenting and Employment Demonstration Project for the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement which is looking at how these policies impact low-income fathers.
With 200 national affiliates, a burgeoning research portfolio, his wife Melissa, and four- and two-year old children to care for, I asked Lonnie how he was able to manage his many responsibilities. I also asked about his vision for the IRP going forward.
It’s a bit overwhelming, but I try not to think about it. I am fortunate to have a really good staff and we have really great researchers. I am teaching one class this semester—a professional development seminar for our Ph.D. students. There are things we do extremely well at the IRP and I want to keep doing those things. I think we speak really well—less so to the politicians—but to agency personnel and policy-related groups. We’re quite connected to policymakers and practitioners and we’re really good at doing the translational work. We partner with Brookings (Institution) on a number of things and we have Jennifer Noyes as an associated director who has been very involved with the National Council of State Legislatures and groups like that.
I want to focus on keeping us policy relevant and to keep talking to people who are on the ground and doing the work. One area that I believe is hugely important to poverty but has not been a core focus of poverty research is the criminal justice system writ large. We are looking at all levels from policing to incarceration to release and post-incarceration. Another is location and spatial factors of poverty, whether that’s around neighbor or the region you’re in. Those are areas I would like to see us focus on more.
Dr. Berger is the latest of a number of directors of the IRP with academic appointments to schools of social work. Most, if not all, of the previous directors were trained as economists. Lonnie wears his MSW credential proudly. He did focus on economics during his doctoral work and studied with the phenomenal Jane Waldfogel. I expect him to make significant contributions to the field of poverty research and policy. I am proud of you, my friend.
How Social Workers Can Practice Trauma-Informed Care
Over the past few decades, there has been increasing recognition of the widespread and profound impact of trauma on individuals and communities. The results of an international mental health survey suggest that traumatic events have affected over 70 percent of the population, and can lead to prolonged physical and psychological harm.
These findings have transformed the field of social work, shifting the focus of education and training onto practices that recognize, support, and empower survivors of trauma. Referred to as “trauma-informed care,” this framework is especially important for social work professionals who have a high likelihood of encountering people with a history of trauma in practice settings.
Expanding the Definition of Trauma
Trauma-informed care starts with an understanding of the intricacies of trauma, and how it impacts individuals and communities. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
For most people, the concept of trauma conjures up images of soldiers who have survived violent combat. Others may think about people who have been exposed to physical abuse, sexual assault or natural disasters. While these are some of the most distressing experiences that an individual can endure, trauma isn’t defined by an extreme event—it’s what the event means to the individual.
Trauma-informed social workers must take the time to understand a person’s unique perception and response to an event, taking into account the complex layers of identity, power, and oppression that contribute to trauma. Adopting this framework, researchers have expanded the definition of trauma to include the following categories:
- Complex trauma: The result of being exposed to repeated, ongoing, or simultaneous traumatic events, such as chronic neglect from a caregiver or long-term exposure to war conflict.
- Intergenerational trauma: This type of trauma is passed from those who directly experience trauma onto subsequent generations.
- Historical trauma: A type of intergenerational trauma that is experienced by specific racial, ethnic or cultural groups that accumulates across generations. Some experiences most commonly associated with historical trauma include the colonization and forced migration of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans.
- Institutional trauma: This is a type of trauma that occurs when institutions take actions that worsen the impact of traumatic experiences; for example, when a university covers up a sexual assault violation.
- Secondary trauma: Many helping professionals experience this type of indirect trauma, through hearing or witnessing the aftermath of a traumatic event experienced by a survivor. In addition to expanding the definition of trauma, the social work field has begun to outline some essential components of trauma-informed care.
Promoting a Sense of Safety
Trauma-informed social workers recognize that clients may have a history of trauma and prioritize creating an environment that feels physically and psychologically safe. Physical safety can be ensured by keeping areas well lit, monitoring who is entering and exiting the building and providing clear access to exits. Psychological safety involves a client’s feelings of trust in their relationship with the social worker, and can be ensured by modeling respect, consistency, acceptance and transparency.
Acknowledging and Reinforcing Patients’ Strengths
Many social service and healthcare professionals focus on diagnoses and interventions, framing symptoms as problems or weaknesses. Trauma-informed social workers, on the other hand, recognize that these symptoms are coping strategies in response to trauma. These practitioners highlight resilience and acknowledge strengths, cultivating hope for recovery and change.
Creating Opportunities for Choice
Trauma survivors often feel a sense of powerlessness, resulting from a loss of control and predictability in their experience of trauma. Trauma-informed social workers attempt to return the client’s sense of control by offering them choices and actively involving them in goal-setting and decision-making. As clients practice making decisions in the social work setting, they develop coping strategies and self-advocacy skills that support their functioning in the outside world.
Applying Your Knowledge
To maximize your impact as a social work professional, you need an extensive understanding of the latest theoretical perspectives, including trauma-informed care. An online master of social work program can help you acquire the conceptual knowledge and hands-on field instruction that you can apply to improve clients’ lives and achieve your professional objectives.
The Adelphi University Online Master of Social Work program brings decades of expertise and a legacy as a leading social work school to a flexible curriculum designed for working professionals. As a graduate student in the program, you’ll have the opportunity to engage with faculty members at the forefront of research on trauma-informed practices. Our graduates complete the program prepared to become Licensed Master Social Workers and fill the need for a skilled trauma workforce.
In A New World, Social Work Leads the Way
This is a sponsored article by California State University at Northridge
How Cal State Northridge is doing its part.
The pandemic, if nothing else, exacerbated the unequal distribution of resources in society. For millions of people, access to food, shelter, and health care is now more uncertain than ever.
What’s emerging is a new, somewhat dire need for experienced social workers – professionals able to compassionately address a disparate and evolving set of issues. Not only here in Los Angeles, but all over the world.
For much of the pandemic, the field has championed relief efforts, such as the rent moratorium. This provided a necessary, if temporary, reprieve from the daily fear of eviction. Outside of California, however, this moratorium is over. As are federal unemployment benefits.
And the impact is tragically visible. In California alone, the homeless population is over 151,000, with 41,000 of that in Los Angeles. And that’s just according to official estimates. The true number, allege some experts, may be much higher.
This is the sad, beautiful truth of social work. No matter where a client is, whether it’s in the classroom, at home, or on the streets, the field will be there.
But the field itself is evolving, too.
Following the death of George Floyd, social workers are increasingly involved in policing, augmenting first responders with a new option: one aiming to mitigate crisis and, as importantly, prevent the use of force.
As cities and states consider policing alternatives, social workers can help to ensure each community’s voice is heard, especially communities of color. Gaining popularity, the idea is to offer a more compassionate approach to law enforcement. Rather than responding with aggression, an arriving unit could instead respond with care, assessing the situation from a mental health standpoint, not one of criminality.
Likewise, opportunity youth – sometimes referred to as “at-risk” – now face many new challenges (among them, a skills gap from a year of remote learning). On top of food scarcity and uncertain housing, there’s also the real risk of contracting COVID. And for these youth, who often lack access to health care, this can be especially dangerous.
In all these cases, a humane approach is needed. Many social work programs incorporate hands-on experience, giving students access to the communities they’ll serve. One such program is the Master of Social Work (MSW) at California State University, Northridge (CSUN).
Unlike many social work programs, CSUN’s MSW expands participants’ career possibilities by offering a generalist approach. This enables graduates to work at ALL levels of the field: individual/family (micro); group/community (mezzo); and societal/policy (macro).
The program is offered fully online in two- and three-year formats. The two-year option is a full-time program with an intensive curriculum designed to help students complete their degrees and enter the field in as little time as possible. The three-year option, on the other hand, is an excellent choice for those who would prefer the same curriculum at a less intensive pace.
The master’s degree, which is often ranked among the best in the country, promotes the well-being of urban communities. Through its curriculum, participants learn how to assess a community’s needs from the inside, in large part through active listening.
As the field continues to evolve, those who comprise it must evolve too. That begins with knowledge of the new world, but ends, as it always has, with the people who need us most – the ones for whom we care.
Technology and Entrepreneurship in Social Work
After helplessly watching her sister try to navigate the international adoption process, Felicia Curcuru launched Binti in an effort to reinvent foster care and adoption. Since the launch of the company in 2017, Binti has expanded its network to over 190 agencies across 26 states in the U.S. The software Binti creates helps social workers and others who work in foster care to effectively approve 80% more families and decrease their administrative burden by up to 40%.
Jimmy Chen, a Stanford graduate and the son of struggling immigrants from China, created Propel in 2014 after noticing that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients needed to call a 16-digit phone number to check their balance. In order to check their balances, some of the recipients would resort to strategies such as buying cheap items such as bananas. Currently, the Propel app helps 5 million households who are eligible for SNAP benefits to manage their finances!
Besides using technology and entrepreneurship to transform human service systems, what do these companies have in common? They were not started by social workers.
Technology and Entrepreneurship in Social Work
Technology and entrepreneurship have and will continue to transform our profession. But social workers have stayed on the sidelines of this creative process for too long. If we are to be successful in effectively disseminating our incredible values and pushing forth the mission of social work, social workers must play a more direct role in embracing the movements of technology and entrepreneurship.
This is not a new concept. Research articles on technology and entrepreneurship in social work have been published for years, and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has published reports on technology in social work. Furthermore, universities such as Columbia University in New York have embraced the movement, and have created a minor for social workers called “Emerging Technology, Media, and Society,” which trains social workers to understand the latest developments in the world of technology. Finally, thousands of social workers operate their own private practices and embrace the benefits of entrepreneurial practices.
This slow, yet continuous shift towards technology and entrepreneurship is important, but it must be accelerated. The question still remains: how do we enable social workers to embrace the power behind technology and entrepreneurship? Here are some ideas:
Enabling Social Workers to Embrace Technology and Entrepreneurship
First and foremost, social work curricula must embrace technology and entrepreneurship. The curricula must incorporate mandatory courses on technology and entrepreneurship, and these courses should be taught by experts in these fields.
Social work departments must enable field placements for social workers in technology or startup environments. By being a part of successful organizations in these spaces, social work students can be exposed to this type of thinking and be inspired by the possibilities!
Social workers themselves must take time to explore and learn about these fields. Although it is difficult enough to maintain our mental health while managing our caseloads, we can utilize the time we spend on webinars or Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to take classes in technology and entrepreneurship.
Social workers can become intrapreneurs, or employees that create new projects from within organizations and businesses. For example, during my time at a community mental health organization, I helped launch a social media channel for the organization’s therapists, which allowed us to feel more connected, share resources, and learn from one another.
As social workers, we uphold an ethical code that enables us to represent the most marginalized members of our society. But we can only do this effectively by embracing the intersection between technology, entrepreneurship, and social work. Although there is no silver-bullet answer, we can help social workers gain entrepreneurial and technological skills by broadening the education available to social work students and ourselves so that we can all better understand the possibilities that are out there.
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