President Obama, A Social Worker Is Your Ideal Poverty Czar


Last week, President Barack Obama once again did the unusual by participating in a panel discussion as part of Georgetown University’s Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty. It was a rare setting for a sitting president but proved to be an interesting exchange of ideas with a couple of thought leaders on the subject of why so many (45 million below the poverty threshold) have so little in the land of plenty.

Moderated by Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, the discussion included Harvard professor Robert Putnam, and American Enterprise Institute’s president Arthur C. Brooks. Putnam’s latest book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” has renewed interest in the numbers of American children who are mired in poverty with bleak hopes for the future. Brooks has captured the imagination of many with his own brand of compassionate conservatism which sees free enterprise’s most important work as not generating wealth but creating opportunities for the poor.

It was a bold move for President Obama to put himself on the proverbial hot seat because his administration has garnered criticism from those who believe he could do more for the poor. This appearance prompted Martin Luther King, III to renew his call for a “poverty czar” to coordinate poverty reduction efforts across agencies. King was among those who called for the appointment of a poverty czar during the run up to the 2008 presidential elections. Candidate Obama was noncommittal then, however, candidate Hillary Clinton embraced the idea. Appointing a poverty czar this late in President’s tenure does not seem likely, yet those living below the poverty line can use all the help available.

What other profession equips you with the knowledge and skills needed to bring people together to address issues of great magnitude such as poverty? At the top of the list would be Oakland, California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who currently chairs the Democratic Whip Task Force on Poverty, Income Inequality, and Opportunity. She is the co-founder and co-chair of the Out of Poverty Caucus and chair of the Congressional Social Work Caucus.Should the President decide to appoint someone as poverty czar, it would be wise to consider a social worker for the position. Who else would you appoint? Who better understands the many dimensions of poverty than a social worker?

Reducing and eliminating poverty has been at the forefront of Congresswoman Lee’s legislative agenda. One of the first bills she introduced in the 114th Congress in January was H.R. 258—the Half in Ten Act of 2015 that would establish a Federal Interagency Working Group on Reducing Poverty within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that would develop a national strategy to reduce the number of persons living in poverty in America by half within 10 years after release of the 2014 Census Report on Income and Poverty in the United States. She also sponsored H.R. 1305—the Income Equity Act of 2015 that would address escalating income inequality by denying employers tax deductions on excess compensation. However, Congresswoman Lee has much unfinished business as a Member of Congress and may wish to remain.

One might think retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski would consider taking on the challenge of being poverty czar but that’s probably not in the cards as newly-elected Republican Governor Larry Hogan could appoint a Republican as her replacement diminishing the Democrats very good chance of recapturing the Senate in 2016. Should the President look off the Hill, there are several highly qualified social workers who would fill the role of poverty czar.

Michael Sherraden, the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis is director of the Center for Social Development and has done extensive research on asset development for the poor. Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University, played a significant role in crafting policies that help cut Britain’s child poverty rate in half.

Social workers have provided significant leadership for the federal government, most notably Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins who were key administrators for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the implementation of the New Deal. Social workers are uniquely trained to understand poverty and address it roots causes. If President Obama decides to appoint a poverty czar, he should have social workers at the top of his list.

White Coats for Black Lives Launch National Organization on MLK Day


Upon matriculating in medical school, students recite the Hippocratic Oath, declaring their commitment to promoting the health and well-being of their communities. On December 10, 2014, students from over 80 medical schools across the United States acted in the spirit of that oath as we participated in a “die in” to protest racism and police brutality. In our action, we called attention to grim facts about the public health consequences of racism, acknowledged the complicity of the medical profession in sustaining racial inequality, and challenged a system of medical care that denies necessary treatment to patients unable to pay for it, disproportionately patients of color.

In celebration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we announce the founding of a national medical student organization, White Coats for Black Lives. This organization brings together medical students from across the country to pursue three primary goals:

  1. To eliminate racism as a public health hazard.
    Racism has a devastating impact on the health and well-being of people of color. Tremendous disparities in housing, education, and job opportunities cut short the average Black life by four years. Physicians, physician organizations, and medical institutions must therefore publicly recognize and fight against the significant adverse effects of racism on public health. We additionally advocate for increased funding and promotion of research on the health effects of racism.
  2. To end racial discrimination in medical care.
    We recognize that insurance status serves in our healthcare system as a “colorblind” means of racial discrimination. While it is illegal to turn patients away from a hospital or practice because of their race, patients across the country are frequently denied care because they have public insurance or lack health insurance. We support the creation of a single payer national health insurance system that would give all Americans equal access to the healthcare they need. Such a system would create a payment structure that reflects the fact that “Black lives matter.” Moreover, ample evidence suggests that patients of color receive inferior care even when they are able to see a doctor or nurse; we therefore advocate for the allocation of funding for research on unconscious bias and racism in the delivery of medical care.
  3. To create a physician workforce engaged with the struggle for racial justice.
    Adequately addressing the health effects of racism within and outside of medicine requires a physician workforce that fully reflects our nation’s diversity. Black people currently comprise only 4% of the physician workforce, despite making up 13% of the national (and patient) population; Latino and Native American students are similarly underrepresented. We call on medical schools to improve the recruitment and support of Black, Latino, and Native American medical students and faculty, and to bring their representation in medical schools in line with national demographics. We further call for the creation of national medical school curricular standards that include information about the history of racism in medicine, unconscious racial bias in medical decision making, and strategies for dismantling structural racism.

In founding White Coats for Black Lives, we hope to add our voices to the growing national movement demanding accountability, justice, and an end to racism, and we seek to honor our profession’s pledge to counter those forces that might unduly or unjustly cut short the lives of our fellow human beings.

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Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Quest for Social Justice

Reagan signs bill
President Ronald Reagan signing law establishing a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as his widow Coretta Scott King looks on.

Those of us who have been around for a few decades can remember when having this day to reflect on the transformative life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared to be another dream just beyond our grasp. But thanks to many Americans, most notably Congressman John Conyers, the late former Senator Edward Brooke, and composer-musician Stevie Wonder, we have this day to remember a man who was the personification of social justice. His assassination on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39 years shocked a nation that was still trying to heal from the death of another iconic figure President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated on November 22, 1963, less than five years before Dr. King was killed. Fifteen years later, President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 98-144 designating the third Monday of January as a national holiday honoring Dr. King.

More than any profession, social work embodies Dr. King’s commitment to social justice. Today is a fitting time to focus attention on a particular section of the National Association of Social Work’s Code of Ethics: “Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision-making for all people.”

From the time Rep. Conyers introduced a bill to establish a holiday in Dr. King’s honor four days after his assassination until the signing of the legislation, countless debates took place, heated arguments flooded the airways, and many protests were held on both sides of the issue. One turning point in the effort to establish a day in Dr. King’s honor was the release of Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” in 1980 that became the rallying cry for millions who believed Dr. King deserved a holiday—not just because he was a great man—but that the nation needed a day to reflect on why his life’s work was needed and some time to consider the progress that has been made. Stevie’s musical tribute and six million signatures on a petition to Congress paved the way for passage of the legislation. There has been some progress made in advancing social justice since his Dr. King’s death, but we still have much more to do.


As we remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this holiday, let us renew our commitment to his dream of social justice. Let us take pride in the work social workers are doing at all levels of services. Social workers empower individuals and families. Social workers manage agencies and organizations. Social workers build communities. Social workers craft policy and legislation. Be proud to be a social worker on the frontlines of the fight for social justice.This is a new year and I will be changing the name of my blog. Beyond Advocacy speaks to the need for social work to flex its policymaking muscles in order to address some of the most vexing problems confronting our society—many negatively impacting low- and middle-income individuals and families.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how—in my humble opinion—the Democratic Party seems to be lacking a compelling message of hope that would draw people to the polls to support progressive candidates. Since social workers regard ourselves as purveyors of hope, we need to have a stronger voice in the policymaking process. It is critical that our researchers provide meaningful justification for policies that will reduce economic inequality, protect workers’ rights, limit the amount of money flowing through the political system, and decrease the number of Americans being locked behind bars. These are just a few of the issues that we face in the coming years.

CSWE Coordinates First White House Briefing for Social Work Education

Dr. Darla Coffey, President of the CSWE
Dr. Darla Coffey, President of the CSWE

Every fiber weaving together today’s social safety net for our most vulnerable populations included social workers in the development of those historic legislative pieces.

On September 25, 2013, the White House Office of Public Engagement coordinated the first-ever White House Briefing for Social Work Education with the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) led by President Dr. Darla Coffey. The purpose of the briefing was to address the social determinants of health in a new era and the role of social work education.

As Editor-in-Chief of Social Work Helper, I had the opportunity to attend this historic event. Presentations were given by federal officials from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSHA), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Before I begin my ongoing series of articles to discuss the resources provided during each presentation, I wanted to adequately document the historic value of the event. Moving Americans closer to universal healthcare with the rolling out of the Affordable Care Act to full implementation, those of us in attendance had a curbside seat to history.

Dr. Coffey and her efforts as President of CSWE will hopefully move social workers closer to reprising their role as leaders in the development of legislation and policies affecting vulnerable populations. According to the CSWE’s website,

CSWE is a nonprofit national association representing more than 2,500 individual members as well as graduate and undergraduate programs of professional social work education. Founded in 1952, this partnership of educational and professional institutions, social welfare agencies, and private citizens is recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation as the sole accrediting agency for social work education in the United States.

Social Workers have always been instrumental in the development of landmark legislation. Social Workers’ influence in advising Presidents is documented as far back as 1933 when President Roosevelt appointed Social Worker, Frances Perkins, as the first female cabinet member who some say was the architect behind the New Deal. In 1939, Social Worker Abbott Grace has been credited with helping to draft the Social Security Act.

White House Briefing Social Work Education

During the Civil Right’s Movement, Social Worker Whitney M. Young was an advisor to President Lydon B. Johnson alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the creation of legislation that has come to be known as the War on Poverty which includes Medicaid, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act 1964.

In 2010, Social Work Professor and leading Child Welfare Expert, Bryan Samuels, was appointed by the Obama Administration and confirmed by the Senate to serve as commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

My impressions, from the presentations and Q&A sessions that preceded each, give me hope that the current White House Administration and the social work profession will work towards bringing social workers’ influence back to the policymaking table. View below for a list of the attendees who were apart of this moment in history.

The Department of Health and Human Services have put together videos, webinars, toolkits, and state by state fact sheets to help you better understand the changes being implemented.

View all resources using this link:

Hate Movements by Neighbors Against People With Disabilities

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

There seems to be a hate movement by neighbors that is taking place in our communities against people with disabilities.  Two letters have spread across social media like wildfire that displayed the distasteful feelings some individuals harbored against those with disabilities who reside in their neighborhoods.

The first letter that surfaced on social media came from Portland, Oregon two weeks ago.  This particular letter disclosed the names of 19 individuals who received cash disability benefits.  There is reportedly a hate group in Portland that is targeting people with disabilities, and this letter seemed to be one tactic undertaken to expose their discriminatory “message” to the masses.  The person(s) beyond the letter were perpetuating the stereotype that somehow people with disabilities are a “threat” to the liberties of the democracy of this country.  According to the letter, those who are taxpayers have the “right” to know who were receiving these benefits in their community.  The hate group believed that by exposing these 19 individuals, taxpayers would have the opportunity to judge for themselves who is “truly disabled.”


The letter is an example of the tug-of-war between “deserving versus undeserving” in regards to who truly “qualifies” for governmental assistance.  Spreading this kind of propaganda can potentially ostracize individuals who may not be physically disabled, but do indeed qualify for such assistance.  We cannot judge a person’s level of impairment based only on what our eyes can see.  There are many medical and psychological conditions that can qualify an individual for disability benefits that do not cause an individual to have a physical anomaly or use assistive devices to move about.  For example, those with debilitating types of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can qualify for disability benefits, even though they may seem physically “well” or “able.”

The second letter that has gained social media and news media attention came from Ontario, Canada.  The letter showcased one mother’s disgust with an autistic child that she believed was responsible for “terrorizing” her neighborhood.  In the letter, the mother wrote about the “vile” behaviors this particular child displayed in front of her, her children, and others in the neighborhood.  One such “atrocious” offense were the “dreadful noises” the child made when he was outside that apparently “scared” her “normal” children.  The letter continued on to insult the child by calling him an “idiot,” stated that they “should take whatever non retarded body parts he possesses and donate it to science,” and that no employer would hire him and that he would never marry.  The letter also stated that the child’s mother should deal with her “retarded” child “properly,” and that working people in the community were “suffering” because her child was a nuisance.

Courtesy of @LENNONANDMAISY / Via Twitter

Reading the letter left me, and apparently others online, at a loss for words by the level of insensitivity, disrespect, and hateful speech that came from someone who claimed to be a parent.  For an adult to target a child in any way is unacceptable, but to target a child that has severe developmental delays, and thus incapable of controlling himself is downright cruel.  There is tremendous outrage concerning the emotional distress the mother of the child has endured since she received the letter.  The mother of the targeted child stated in one interview, “Who says that about a child?”

In both cases, investigations are underway to discover the person(s) responsible for spreading such hateful messages about people with disabilities in these communities.  My concern is, where else are such hateful ideology about people with disabilities being shared that is NOT trending on social media?  How common are such incidences in our communities?  If such messages are running rampant in our areas, what can we, as neighbors and advocates, do about it?  Reading both letters fired me up both as a person with a disability and as a Disability Rights Consultant and Advocate.  We should not tolerate such offenses in our neighborhoods. Neighbors are supposed to help each other, not spread hatred, fear, and isolation.  Such discriminatory and hateful actions must be taken seriously and extinguished, in order to show perpetrators that there is absolutely NO room for hate in our communities.

I have decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of

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