Why Social Work Is Needed Now More Than Ever
by Isaac Karikari, Kali Heyen, and Ashley Charwood
Marking social work month in March, the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) selected theme, “Social Work Breaks Barriers” is not just an instance of ritualistic sloganeering. “Social Work Breaks Barriers”, we believe, serves to illustrate why social work is needed (now more than ever).
The NASW states, in the Preamble of its Code of Ethics, that, “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”
This statement pretty much conveys what social work is about – a strengths-based and solution-oriented profession committed to individual, family, and societal/community well-being through collaborative and cross-system engagement, exerting professional influence, harnessing and leveraging intrinsic strengths and external resources.
The poverty referenced in the NASW statement can be viewed literally as a lack of material resources or the means to afford victuals, get clothing, pay one’s rent, pay for medical and dental care, etc. The poverty can also be metaphorical, symbolic of soured relationships, the void created by the loss of loved ones, and a plethora of situations that appear to or actually empty life of meaning and purpose, as well as situations that undermine a person’s agency and capacity for meaningful and productive action.
Social Work’s Early Beginnings and Social Problems. Going back to social work’s origins and the work of its pioneers provides great insight on the vital role of social work back then (i.e. early beginnings of the profession/past), today, and for the future. Jane Addams, popularly referred to as the mother of social work, established Hull House (in Chicago) with programs that included an employment bureau, early childhood education, English language classes for immigrants, health and recreational services. Additionally, Addams, working in concert with her contemporaries like Frances Perkins, the Abbot sisters, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Terrell pushed for better environmental, social and political reforms covering issues like sanitation, labor conditions, juvenile justice, civil rights and racial justice. Dorothy Height, Edward Franklin Frazier, Alfred Neumann, George Haynes and several others helped expand the frontiers of social work with their contributions in education and workforce development, child placement and adoption, immigration, and mental health services, etc. One can surmise that social work’s barrier breaking activities is a long standing hallmark of the profession.
As society has evolved so have the very issues that prompted the development of social work. Several people have been displaced by conflicts as well as natural disasters. Several adults and adolescents are grappling with mental health challenges including serious suicidal ideation. Several people are experiencing housing instability and homelessness. The scourge of substance use and addiction is felt in many areas and undermining the futures of many. To make things worse, there is also limited access and lack of continuity of care. These issues are often more pronounced in largely rural regions like ours in Grand Forks county and Ward county, North Dakota, and Beltrami county, Minnesota where resource deserts abound in view of the rural-urban disparities in resource and service availability. The ripple effects and pervasive impact of some of these issues are well-documented but there are several others that require further examination.
COVID-19. At the risk of sounding too cliché, the Covid-19 pandemic remains a common reference point for illustrating many of the issues social workers deal with. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated already precarious situations due its adverse effects on several social determinants of health such as food insecurity, social and community engagement, employment, education, health care access, etc. The pandemic shook our world and took our society to a place that most of us had never experienced. The trauma endured by so many due to both illness and the ensuing measures to stop the spread of illness, pushed so many people past the boundary of what they were capable of managing. Even those who were not sick, or were not sick to a life-threatening extent, experienced the stress and shock of suddenly being completely isolated from regular human contact and from the security of routine in everyday life. For many people it was the sudden onset of this global crisis that sent them spiraling, and the longevity of it that caused many to enter some very dark spaces. For others who had struggled with mental health, physical health, addiction, and other afflictions before the onset of the pandemic, it was the disruption of recovery and the coping strategies they had worked so hard to put into place.
We may have moved beyond the acute stage of the pandemic but Covid-19’s chronicity across various segments of society remains a major cause for concern and a reason why social work is needed now more than ever.
Social Work Practice/Roles. Against the backdrop of complex problems, social work offers hope. Social work is especially critical at this point in time because with its person-in-environment framework and systems-thinking, it recognizes the complex and multi-level effects of social problems and strives to provide comprehensive and sustainable solutions.
Social workers intervene and host conversations at the micro level in direct practice with individuals and families, validating the experiences of the most impacted. At a mezzo level, social workers engage with groups, communities, and organizations to examine the current climate and culture of those settings, critically examine the programs, policies, and procedures for equity; and to work to dismantle systems that are harmful to those most vulnerable and disenfranchised. On a macro level, social workers address systemic issues on a larger scale through practices such as research and evaluation, program development, lobbying, and advocacy for social and political change. These levels of practice are not mutually exclusive.
Social workers are taught to wear many hats and develop an aptitude for versatility. Social workers collaborate with professionals from multiple disciplines. Social workers team up with public health professionals in a variety of ways including strategizing for health promotion to reduce the spread of communicable diseases, and ensuring the safety of vulnerable populations. Social workers work with health professionals through discharge planning from hospitals, with substance exposed infants, and through hospice and palliative care. Social workers engage with engineers for more human-centered designs. Connecting with educators, social workers help establish new pedagogies to promote learning to elevate social emotional health in the classroom, and to work together to lower educational disparities in the schools. In the legal sector, social workers have been catalysts for important changes in child protection, family, and immigration laws. Conversations are ongoing about social workers’ expanding role and leadership in the criminal justice sector and policing.
Higher Education’s Role. Higher education institutions can partner with federal, state, and local agencies including libraries, police and other first responder departments to support program development and innovation in social work and the human services. This can help attract new students to social work and also encourage current practitioners to upskill to meet the increasing workforce needs of many communities. Further, such partnerships can support public and private agencies in the attainment of their goals.
Notably, child welfare scholars’ programs have become a staple in several social work departments to boost the number of social workers who work in child protection. Additionally, many programs are adding important elements such as Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) assessment to deepen awareness of cultural perspectives and ability to work across cultural differences. This is significant to ensure social workers are examining their own values, beliefs, assumptions, and biases when making important decisions around child removal, child protection, and family preservation.
Further, higher education institutions can incentivize curriculum and program in areas such as Indigenous Studies minors/degrees, and Diversity Certificates to provide the relevant training needed to better work across racial and cultural difference, and Nonprofit Leadership Certificates which can help social workers effectively operate organizations that create a meaningful impact in the communities and regions where they are located.
Collaborations between social work and the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields need to be explored further in the development of modern technological and digital tools. Technology plays a significant role in social work practice and allows for innovation and creative problem-solving. For example, during the pandemic, tele-health became a way to not only reach people in isolation, but a way to reach people living in more rural areas with limited service availability and access.
Institutional support in the way of social work specific scholarships can be helpful for students. Funding students for conferences, study abroad opportunities, organizational memberships, and other leadership endeavors can be a wonderful way to build student’s networking opportunities, knowledge development, and support their growth. Establishing on-campus, and on-line cohorts that are flexible for working adults, and parents is another way to support student success. Alumni can also be helpful in supporting students through the alumni foundation, and through mentoring and practicum supervision.
Society is changing at an ever-fast pace along with multifarious problems that constitute barriers to human well-being and flourishing. Social work can help break those barriers hence the need for social workers now more than ever.
Kali Heyen, LMSW
Assistant Professor, Department of Addiction Studies, Psychology, and Social Work
Minot State University (North Dakota State University Campus)
Ashley Charwood, MSW, LGSW, DSW in progress, Tulane University
Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work, Bemidji State University, MN