Why Social Workers Should Address Economic Inequality

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I began discussing economic inequality in my classrooms more than a decade ago when President Bush successfully pushed through Congress another round of supply-side tax cuts. Since then, there have been continuous discussions about the consequences of having so much of the nation’s wealth concentrated in the hands of a few super wealthy individuals and families.

In remarks given at the ARC in southeast Washington, DC in December 2013, President Barack Obama called economic inequality the defining challenge of our time. That economic inequality is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed is hardly debated these days. However, no one seems to have a politically viable plan to reverse the current trend, so we can only expect it to worsen.

Researchers Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have been documenting trends in economic inequality for more than a decade. Saez, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the Center for Equitable Growth has published numerous research articles on economic inequality with Piketty and others.

A 2014 paper with Gabriel Zucman—Wealth Inequality in the United States Since 1913—documented the growth in the share of wealth held by the wealthiest individuals and families with slides that provide a visual representation of the largess. Piketty, an economics professor at the Paris School of Economics created a firestorm among conservative economists with his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in which he concluded unchecked economic inequality may not reach the destructive levels predicted by Karl Marx, but could begin to undermine democracy.

The Roosevelt Institute recently released a compendium of social and economic policies that, according to Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, will promote economic growth and more shared prosperity. Titled “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy”, the report features ideas of top progressive economic thinkers and promotes policy changes that address financial regulation, labor unions, progressive taxation and human capital investments that they say will create broader opportunity and a more egalitarian society.

Stiglitz, the former chief economic advisor to President Bill Clinton and former president of the World Bank, stipulates that economic inequality is not inevitable—that the notion there is a tradeoff between economic growth and inequality is false, and that the market is not free and infallible but determined by the rules and policies that we have put into place. He says new rules are needed.

Across the pond, the renowned scholar Sir Tony Atkinson has been building a case for policies that promote social justice for decades. In his latest book—Inequality: What Can Be Done?released earlier this month, he lays out a 15-point plan to address economic inequality that includes raising the highest marginal tax rate to 65 percent. Take Jared Bernstein’s advice like I did and give a listen to this very compelling lecture and discussion by Sir Tony Atkinson. He says many things that are worth hearing. One thing he says that is undeniable is that neither side of the political spectrum has debated this escalating calamity in a meaningful way.

The American public has not made much of the issue despite the fact that 45 million Americans are living below the poverty threshold, many older Americans are facing a retirement crisis, and as Robert Putnam describes in his recent book—Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis—for millions of children in the United States, the myth of the American Dream is little more than a fairy tale.

In a February AP/GfK poll, 68 percent of respondents say the rich are not paying their fair share of taxes. Yet all that we have seen in terms of public outrage was the relatively short-lived Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that never became the movement it threatened to be.

My understanding of being a social worker begins with a commitment to the pursuit of social justice for all Americans especially the most vulnerable among us. So the question is: what are social workers doing to affect social change? Are we merely helping people to cope with the status quo?

I am hearing from quite a few young social workers that they are not satisfied with what our profession is doing to change present circumstances. They believe that social workers must be more engaged in our nation’s politics and so do I. So does Nancy Humphreys and Tanya Rhodes Smith. There are enough social workers to lead the charge to demand that Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates address economic inequality.

As Frederick Douglass said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

What Should Social Workers Want from Hillary Clinton?

Hillary Clinton and the World's Women

Of all those actively seeking the presidency, former Secretary of State, Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton seems to be the most likely successor. It is not just because she is the most qualified among those seeking the presidency, nor is she the least disliked among the candidates, but it’s probably about time a woman gets the chance to lead the nation and demographics increasingly favor Democrats winning the White House.

According to the most recent Real Clear Politics consensus poll, Clinton leads former Florida Governor Jeb Bush by 7.7 points (Fox News has the matchup as a tie). She leads Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by 9.2 points, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul by 8.6 points, Florida Senator Macro Rubio by 8 points, Dr. Ben Carson by 13.3 points, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee by 11.7 points, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie by 10.2 points. Much can happen with more than a year and a half left before the election, but Hillary Clinton is clearly the frontrunner.

It is far too soon to know who the Republican nominee will be. In the April 15th Public Policy Polling results in New Hampshire, Scott Walker led the pack with 24 percent—ten percentage points ahead of his next rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Rand Paul (12%) and Jeb Bush (10%) managed double digits while Florida Senator Marco Rubio (8%), Christie (8%), Huckabee (7%), Carson (7%) and former Texas Governor Rick Perry (4%) rounded out the field.

So, should we wake up on Wednesday, November 9th with the first woman President of the United States in Hillary Clinton, what will social workers expect from her during her first four years? I say we should avoid making the same mistake Dr. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley made who have spent the last seven years criticizing President Obama for not having a sufficient agenda for black Americans when they failed to present the President with a specific policy agenda they wanted him to support.

What are the specific policies social workers would like to see advanced during a Hillary Clinton administration? That policy agenda should be made known before she goes into the White House. We may not agree on everything but certainly there are several key policy proposals we can all get behind.

Of course, this is easier said than done. How do social workers come up with a relatively concise and specific list of policy priorities we would like to see implemented during another Clinton Administration? There are many notable policy social work scholars who can assist in developing a policy agenda. We can begin with economist Jared Bernstein, a product of Columbia University School of Social Work’s doctoral program. So is Lonnie Berger, the director of the Institute for Research on Poverty.

CRISP has several distinguished policy scholars on our advisory board including Michael Reisch at the University of Maryland and Jane Waldfogel at Columbia University. All the ideas need not come from social work scholars. Developing social work policy priorities, while a social work-led endeavor, should draw on ideas from other disciplines. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Washington Center for Equitable Growth Executive Director Heather Boushey, and economist Joseph Stiglitz all have worthwhile policy prescriptions.

Why should President Hillary Clinton care about what social workers want? Candidate Clinton is on a listening tour and may well be interested in hearing social work policy ideas. She says she wants a more egalitarian society—so do social workers. She says she wants to see the overturn of Citizens United v. FEC—so do social workers. She has been longtime advocate for less fortunate children with the Children’s Defense Fund.

According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there are approximately 800,000 social workers strategically placed in nonprofits, governmental agencies, and businesses throughout the nation. We are the ground troops, the managers, and the strategists needed to turn things around. If and when we flex our political muscles, we will be a force to reckon with.

Oh dear, there goes my alarm clock. It’s time to stop dreaming and get ready for work.

Social Work and the Welfare State

As a social worker on the Hill, I have had a front row seat during battles over the welfare state. Usually, the main combatants are Republican conservatives who continue their relentless quest to reduce government’s involvement in providing for indigent Americans and Democratic progressives who believe government must be involved to ensure an adequate safety net. Conservatives want relief for the poor and disabled left to private charity. They believe citizens should not be taxed to provide welfare and other social services and should be allowed to willfully give a portion of their earnings and resources to private caregiving entities. They view the welfare state as an unlawful transfer of wealth—taking from those who worked hard to be successful and giving to people who lack the motivation and drive to do for themselves. They believe providing unemployment insurance to laid-off workers reduces their incentive to go out and find another job. They believe individual effort—personal responsibility—should be the driving force of a healthy economy.

Progressives on the other hand believe society is strongest when people work together to achieve common purposes. Jared Bernstein characterizes this debate as YOYO vs. WITT—“you’re on your own” vs. “we’re in this together”. Somehow, I believe there is more to that phrase in the Constitution’s preamble—promote the general welfare—than just providing security and an orderly society. I believe the founders had to believe in a “we’re in this together” philosophy because they knew cooperation was needed as much as competition to ensure progress. You only need to look at Congress today to understand how dysfunctional competition is without compromise.

After centuries of leaving poverty to private charity, we got the English Poor Laws. The economic crash of 1929 and the Great Depression forced the federal government to intervene in order to keep many Americans from starving. Since then we have been in this endless battle to define the parameters of the welfare state. Conservatives have been working nonstop to rollback New Deal policies. They would like to see the privatization of Social Security and the elimination of unions and other collective bargaining efforts. Progressives have been hard at work protecting safety net programs—preventing the block granting of social welfare programs, fighting against cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. All the while the economy is spiraling out of control in the favor of the wealthiest Americans. The top 0.1 percent of American families now own as much as the bottom 90 percent.

 

Inequality-Chart

Economic inequality is the mother of the modern day welfare state. Even conservatives are beginning to understand this. Arthur Brooks, president of the free enterprise promoting think tank the American Enterprise Institute, recently declared that it was time for conservatives to make peace with the welfare state—a startling comment from a hard line conservative. My guess is that he understands it is the price that must be paid for such a high level of economic inequality. In a society where income is distributed more equally, there would be a larger middle class which existed in the middle of the last century. There would be more people working because we would have more consumers with more disposable income. We would have less people needing food stamps and less people would be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit.

So, where should social workers stand on the welfare state? We should of course fight to ensure there is an adequate social safety net, but at the same time we should be looking for ways to reduce the number of people who depend on a social safety net which requires a more fair and equitable society—concepts that are foreign to conservatives. Those of us—social workers—who take seriously the profession’s commitment to social justice are the best hope for the poor and middle class. However, if we are not able to present a compelling vision about how we become a more just society then we will spend all of our energy trying to protect a burgeoning social welfare safety net.

Democrats lost big time in the midterm elections not because of the low voter turnout. They should not expect better results in 2016 because the composition of the electorate will be more in their favor. Democrats lost because they failed to present ideas to the American people about how progressive policies would make their lives and their children’s lives better. Had they been able to articulate a path to a more just and equitable society, voter turnout would not have been a problem.

Getting Social Workers Out of the Closet

There has been much talk recently about who can legitimately call themselves social workers. What training is required? Which licenses are needed? And, there have been many discussions about the variations of social work licenses that exist in different states. License or no license, we know that many social workers are “hiding” in non-clinical environments where it doesn’t seem much social work is happening in places like Congress, the World Bank and federal agencies such as the departments of Labor, Housing, Education and Health and Human Services (HHS). In many of these settings, social workers operate under cover. They often do not identify themselves as social workers and they have little or no connection to professional social work organizations. Yet, they are trained social workers with a B.S.W, a M.S.W., or a Ph.D. from an accredited social work school, but you would never know.

The subject arose this week during my lunch with three very special social workers who are at the forefront of promoting greater emphasis on macro social work practice. Darlyne Bailey, dean of the Bryn Mawr School of Social Work and Terry Mizrahi, a professor at Hunter’s School of School of Social Work, are co-chairs of the Special Commission to Advance Macro Social Work Practice formed by the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA).

With us was Jenifer Norton, a doctoral student at Bryn Mawr who provides administrative support for the commission. The commission’s mandate is to examine the state of macro social work practice and offer recommendations on how to strengthen the macro dimension of social work. To date, 46 schools and departments of social work and two organizations have donated funds to support the commission’s work. In addition to 21 commissioners, there are about 50 allies who are participating in the effort by working with one of five workgroups.

The ACOSA group was in DC for a meeting with representatives from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) to discuss the current state of macro social work practice. It is encouraging these major social work organizations are finally paying more attention to macro social work practice. This new found interest in macro social work practice was triggered by a 2011 report by Jack Rothman that concluded macro social work practice was being marginalized at many schools of social work. He and Mizrahi followed that report with a published article quantifying students who are pursuing macro practice.

While discussing the working group I have joined—Promotion and Public Support of Macro Leaders and Practitioners—Terry suggested that identifying social workers in macro settings is often difficult because many of them are hiding in the closet. Whether this is intentional or just a byproduct of being in a non-social work setting, we need to know who these social workers are, where they are plying their trade and how they are providing leadership. Many are operating at high levels and have very inspirational stories that need to be told. Why? Because many are in the closet because they feel their work might be devalued by colleagues who may not appreciate the value of social work.

My favorite example is Jared Bernstein who I have written about on several occasions. Bernstein is the former chief economist for Vice President Joseph Biden and a member of President Barack Obama’s economic team. Bernstein earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University’s School of Social Work and chose to hone his economic skills and practice in that arena. He proudly self-identifies as a social worker but when he is introduced on television programs and in settings where he is discussing fiscal and monetary policies, he is introduced as an economist. Would listeners value his input if he were identified solely as a social worker? His commentary would have the same value, but I doubt that his audience would give it the same weight if they thought his ideas were those of a social worker and not an economist.

We need to identify more social workers like Bernstein. NASW has agreed to work on identifying social workers in these settings. That should help much. If you know of social workers in macro settings—working at the Supreme Court, leading corporations, working in the media and other arenas—please shoot me an email at celewisjr@gmail.com.

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