The terms social or public welfare (or possibly public well-being) are commonly used to describe a major area of American civic life, although it is seldom dearly defined. Depending on how the term is interpreted, it can be said that perhaps a fifth of the gross national product and a quarter of government budgets consist of payment for an extensive array of services and programs designed to help not only the poor but middle- and low-income working families.
Social work, as a profession, has been identified with the growth of this area of civic life, although responsibilities and roles in it are not easily summarized. Professional social workers have usually had a much broader view of their responsibilities than relieving the poor or helping the troubled and confused. They have sought to address many of the difficult social and economic conditions in modern society that form the environment in which individuals try to shape their lives: poverty, race, discrimination, inequity. These conditions are seen as causing the individual case problems the field is expected to ameliorate or remedy, but their assigned responsibilities and their training seldom go so far as tackling the basic causes of distress.
The gap between aspiration and reality remains a dilemma that continues to be a challenge to professional thinking. As the field celebrates its hundredth birthday and thinks about its future in the next century, the editors had planned a broad synoptic review of past and future, with articles by many surviving editors of the Journal of Social Work whose tenures cover major changes in a turbulent twentieth century. This proved unfeasible because of the death or illness of some editors, and even more by the almost encyclopedic task of reviewing developments in the many kinds of work to which social workers have gravitated. In the end, the editors asked a sample of social work educators and scholars to sum up their thinking.
The result is a stimulating range of viewpoints that represent the dilemmas and internal conflicts and discussions with which the field is slowly assessing (not at all systematically) where it has come to in a hundred years and where it is likely to go in the next hundred years. Although daily tasks are focused on amelioration, the aspirations persist to address the broader issues of social justice and equity.
Hopps, very broadly, and Korr and Brieland, who are more focused on welfare reform and child welfare, consider the field's concern with social justice in a world where public policy wavers between more and fewer public entitlements. They discuss persistence of interest in broad social issues in tandem with narrower definitions of case practices where the social worker is expected to deal with both.
Austin looks to the twenty-first century after examining the past history of the field, stressing that families and children are the focus for social work. While the field needs to devise new approaches to fit the coming century, it still lacks an adequate research foundation upon which to draw evidence to shape them. The approaches developed during the twentieth century were based on social reform movements of the early part of the century, but they have not performed well in the changed conditions of the later years. Thus the need for critical evidence and different concepts in order to introduce more effective means.
Morris reviews the same history from the point of view of strategies used to develop as a profession. He concludes that over time, the field, changed its focus from the individual to the environment, concentrating on the interpersonal services, but without adequate scientific evidence to influence the organizational purposes and structure for practice. In the end, the field missed opportunities to realize its aims and has, for all practical purposes, abandoned the social change (social justice) goal of its origins even though it still espouses them rhetorically.
Rehr and Rosenberg, dealing with health issues, are the most precise in documenting the changes in health care, the achievement of a clear role and function for social work in health services, and for the many remaining problems the field will confront as health services change under the force of technology and economics.
Winters and Gourdine discuss the changing world of public education, especially the variety of family, behavioral, ethnic, and economic conditions that affect the education of children. They discuss the various proposals to expand the public education system to incorporate various social service functions (without specifying social workers as the personnel), including after-school recreation programs, counseling and health services for children, family visits, and more. They argue that social workers, if they are to play a role in education in the future, as they have tried to do, equip themselves for quite different tasks that are conventional, including taking the school out to families and communities. Whether this becomes a teacher or a social work responsibility in a teacher-administered system remains unresolved.
Maluccio presents an approach to a competence-centered perspective for family and child welfare practice that relies on variously formulated human developmental educational theories but makes it clear he believes the field must do better in addressing the external social and economic factors affecting what is actually done. In the end he too stresses that the external factors of public choice and public policy determine what the practice will achieve.
Coulton returns to the persistent challenge faced by communities, and the forces that shape a healthy physical and economic environment for all, with which social workers began their hundred years of evolution.
Iatridis considers the field's position against the backdrop of global shifts in thinking about government and the private sector, or decentralization of federal public influence in welfare. His views reflect a confrontatonal approach between two ideologies -- the state as the-major repository of responsibility for individual and group well-being versus the economic market as the producer of resources with which individuals can satisfy their needs equitably. Indirectly he is critical of concepts as expressed by what most social workers do and their inadequacy in coping with the massive shifts in public thinking between the two opposing views. As with the other contributors, he has no concrete suggestions to bridge the gap.
Tucker is critical of the paradigms for practice, especially in family and child welfare and mental health, on which the field has relied. It lacks a solid core for paradigm development and remains scattered and imprecise in concept. After reviewing the literature he concludes that it has relied on a concept of ecology to find consensus about the individual/environment interaction but has lacked clarity about how social, economic, and political conditions affect both organization and practices and about how social workers can deal with such human affairs in persuasive ways. He offers a crisp view about what a true ecology of social work requires: a clear statement about the different levels or circles of analysis, which move from concept to context to policy and program. The open-ended view of the past that "anything goes" and can justify diversity in practices has proven insufficient. Abstract knowledge is the foundation of an effective profession whose function is publicly recognized. We need to separate successful practices from failed ones as measured by outcomes and not input; empirical experience reports are insufficient. At the end he asks whether social work is ready to decide what "its question is."
Epstein carries the discussion further by a thorough review of all research on outcomes of practice. He concludes that most of the research is not scientifically justified, that its claims of successful practices are not convincing, and that the handful of studies that have tried to pin down the results have found only very weak evidence of success. He argues that this lack of solid, dependable findings has frustrated social work's efforts to be effective or compelling in influencing public policy or in establishing that its work produces desired results.
In sum, the authors, surprisingly, agree on the need for a critical conclusion about where the field has come from and what its challenges are if it is to become an effective factor in achieving the social justice it avows as its aim. The articles are, by turn, pessimistic and optimistic, but in the end they offer paths that will require professional aims and the steps needed to be effective in realizing them in the future. Where the field has concentrated its efforts, as in health care, its base is most secure; in family and child welfare, however, it is often unclear. The field has been least effective in realizing its persistent emphasis on poverty and social justice as central to its practice. In education there is a new opportunity to find its way.
Changes in thinking, in shaping agreement about core knowledge, and in supporting scientifically rooted research are recurrent themes. All these changes remain rooted in the original social work aim of linking individuals in a social context, but to be effective in making the link requires more than general assertions.
The authors, taken together, reveal the achievements and the unrealized high aspirations of social work -- to become the profession able to manage the junction of individuals in their most diverse economic, social, and cultural contexts. It has successively narrowed the reality of the training provided and the areas in which its members play a major role. The aim is still to become the profession addressing current economic and social needs, but it lacks the concrete next steps to begin bridging the gap between high vision and modest capacity.
Copyright © 2000 by June Gary Hopps, and Robert Morris
Social Work: A Contextual Profession
June Gary Hopps
The turning of a century invariably draws commentators to a review of the past and speculation about the future. The impetus is heightened by the new millennium and -- for social workers -- observance of our centennial as a profession.
Although social work has had a long history of concerns (for example, child welfare, poverty, and family relations), it has not developed sufficient theoretical and empirical foundations and skills to address social ills comprehensively in an effort to impact and ameliorate problems. The profession must be attuned to its context of time, place, and public awareness if it is to be effective.
Precisely because of this contextual immediacy, we cannot simply invoke history for solutions to contemporary problems. Yet as noted so often, not to learn from the mis-steps and omissions of the past is to ensure their recycling. The centenary's Janus moment provides an opportunity to compare and contrast our circumstances with those of our founders, to note the benchmarks of progress and, most important, to take a candid look not only at the gaps and needs that invite rededicated action, but also at the radical changes in our world that demand major rethinking.
At first glance, the scope and complexity of conditions at the end of the nineteenth century, which convinced the reform-minded that traditional approaches were inadequate and that the times called for a new, interlocking set of insights and skills, bear uncanny similarities to our own.
The settlement house founders, family visitors, union organizers, "muckrakers" and community workers who formed the nascent social work community attacked the negatives in each scenario, exposed injustices, and advocated for those in need. They also wrote knowledgeably and movingly on social structures and types of responses that could ease or prevent recurrence of the suffering and waste they confronted daily. Much of this century's progress was rooted in their efforts. Yet merely to list the topics, let alone the more specific housing, health, job, and education issues entwined with them, reflects our own experience all too clearly and raises fundamental questions.
Does the continuity or repetition of these problems a century apart indicate that they are, together with the underlying attitudes and triggers associated with them, simply intrinsic to human nature and impervious to remediation? Have reform movements themselves failed to assess the full dimension of the problems? Is their apparent intractability a function of successful efforts to eviscerate reform? (It does not require conspiracy theory to recognize that vested interests play off less powerful groups against each other to maintain or strengthen the status quo and retain power for particular in-groups.) Can research throw further light on historical patterns?
Again it is our primary task to focus on what makes today's apparent déjà vu different from the previous incarnations. Does the growth in scale, as well as the rapidity of change, engender a difference in degree so great as to be a difference in kind? What aspects and dimensions of seemingly perennial threats to social balance and well-being can we approach in innovative and more sustainable ways? Reexamining some of the "common" themes a century apart clarifies the challenges to American society as we have known it, as it is changing, and as social work itself must change to be an effective agent of change.
With the end of the 1800s, not only cities but small towns were confronting shifts from a preeminently Anglo-Saxon population to polyglot ones; from a rural outlook to all the implications of a new age of industry, an unprecedented source of energy in electricity and new modes of transportation in the automobile and soon the plane. The twentieth century was also the first to bring world wars. A slower agricultural economy gave way to excitement, uncertainty, and a frenzied pace, to time lines and stop watches. Capitalism and industrial expansion were powerful forces affecting community as well as individual life. The parallels are striking as we prepare for the dawning of the twenty-first century and the impact of electronic technologies, a global village and marketplace, and unprecedented expansion of wealth for some juxtaposed with increasingly inescapable poverty for others.
The Paradox of Prosperity and Inequality
One of the underlying phenomena common to both eras is the country's ambivalence about wealth and inequality. American society expressed from its founding a contempt for excessive luxury, for the abuses of wealth and degrading treatment of the poor that characterized the European monarchies. The pioneer and entrepreneurial spirit would create a new median of productivity and comfort that would preclude the extremes common to the Old World, but this self-image was compromised in the Gilded Age. At the present time, we have apparent economic and job growth, coupled with the lowest inflation in forty years. At the same time there is the troubling reality that those at the low end of the economic spectrum are not connected to or benefiting from society's general prosperity.
In the course of the twentieth century the country flirted with progressivism, was impacted by World War I, the boom of the Roaring Twenties and economic chaos of the 1930s, enacted Social Security and other legislation as a hedge against financial insecurity, and rebuilt the economy during and after World War II, only to "discover" real poverty in the 1960s.
Again, the important distinction is that this poverty still persists even in the face of unprecedented growth, and there seem to be no programs helping those below the poverty line achieve greater incomes and a better quality of life. While highly educated entrepreneurs, managers, and stock holders are enjoying good fortune, the "faces at the bottom of the well" are experiencing manifestly poor fortune. The problem is compounded by a lack of nontechnological employment opportunities, the inability of certain groups to find and hold jobs, and the absence of bargaining power due to poor education and low status. Not coincidentally, a deliberate policy approach has championed laissez-faire economics as evidenced by deregulation of many industries (airlines, trucking, telecommunication, railroads), union busting, wholesale reliance on imported manufactured goods, growing disregard for the need for and importance of safety nets, erosion of the value of wages, and devaluation of the quality of child care and care providers.
It also cannot be denied that part of the poverty problem is caused by the long-term effects of racial discrimination, still experienced by many, especially the traditional U.S. minorities identified by dark skin: African Americans, American Indians, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans. Reflecting on abandoned ninteenth century reconstruction initiatives to improve the lot of former slaves, W. E. B. DuBois noted in The Souls of Black Folk that "the problem of the 20th century, is the problem of the color line..."
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the Color-line..."
The consequences of three centuries of discrimination still impact many lives, manifest, for example, by the fact that the number of African American males who were in college in 1995 (556,000) was almost matched by the number in prison (511,000). The ripple effect is visible in the family life of millions of children who are increasingly trapped at a level of poverty that isolates them from opportunity because of an absent, unemployed, or even incarcerated father. Communities and institutions are hard pressed to provide the moral foundations that young people are expected to get through family life and education, which is also deteriorating. In fact, child poverty is one of the most pernicious, unsolved problems of our time. What contributions social workers have made to the welfare of children in practice is one of the issues highlighted in this volume. Social work's role as the major professional player in the child welfare field will be increasingly challenged, unless we heed the need for change.
The Structure, Role, and Function of Families
The most basic social institution, the family, has changed. In the mid-nineties, 77 percent of families were headed by married couples. This represents a shift from the 85 percent that characterized the late nineteenth century. The two-parent family in which the husband is the breadwinner and the wife the homemaker is not only no longer the norm but for many, neither a hope nor an ideal. "Alternative" styles now dominate, including the two-parent, two-earner family, the single-parent family (due to divorce or out-of-wedlock births), the blended family, the gay or lesbian family, and the common-law marriage with family. Even though the rate of increase in these pluralistic styles has slowed, their members indicate that people are significantly less affected either by traditional norms or by social stigma, and create family structures that suit their individual needs. Many others now simply defer marriage or remain single.
The role and function of the family have changed as well, with much less time for nurturing and care giving. Though women are disproportionately low-wage workers, they constituted 57.4 percent of the labor force in 1991, and predictions are that they will constitute 63.5 percent by 2005. Obviously there is even less time for child rearing or caregiving to elderly parents, roles traditionally and currently assumed largely by women.
The formal social welfare system now being dismantled was developed with the expectation that it would function merely to supplement strong primary systems, such as the family and the neighborhood. The reality is that the family, in whatever form, is becoming increasingly unable either to give the traditional range of nurturing and care or to provide for economic necessities. Compounding the situation is a government that, with societal approval, has become less willing and less able to provide the financial supports and services that many contemporary families need.
Families in marginalized racial and ethnic groups have experienced a particularly sharp transition from the two-parent to the single-parent family, and poverty is a major challenge for them. The rates of poverty are higher for women who live alone or with nonrelatives in every age group. Further, when a single woman heads a family with children, the chances for poverty increase substantially, one in two versus one in four for male-headed families. Recently it has been reported that the birth rate for unmarried black women of all ages is at its lowest point in forty years, with the decline attributed to sex education, greater reliance on contraception, and emphasis on abstention, all conducted by community groups. The report is significant to national policy, since one of the arguments about causes of poverty in the African American community relates to the birth rate among unmarried mothers. There is currently an increase in the number of children born to single white women resembling what occurred thirty years earlier among African Americans and spurring some concern about the possible emergence of a white "underclass" identified with young, welfare-dependent single parents. Such shifts and changes in the role of family suggest that women are now forced to rely more on their own independence than on government support to buttress personal efforts. This is particularly troubling because these women share meager resources with their children.
The social work profession must prepare to address needs of women who do not have the government supports that were available for the past sixty years. If these clients are to escape the cycle of poverty, this preparation should include a focus on education and employment opportunities in addition to the traditional clinical and macrointerventions. How to multiply options in a period of shrinking resources and empathy will test the ingenuity and influence of social workers.
Impact of New Waves of Immigration and Resettlement
Yet another contextual issue to which social workers are expected to respond is the range of demographic changes influenced by the extensive resettlement of displaced people, both immigrants and refugees. This cohort has nearly doubled since 1970. The Center for Immigration Studies reported in 1988 that the greatest immigration in U.S. history was occurring in that decade. As with the influx a century ago, displaced people have not been universally well received. Established groups in various regions of the country and the general population are having to deal with new cultures, languages, and value systems (including, ironically, a previously respected emphasis on the extended family and the collective good that have since been outrun by individualism in our history) and -- what calls for the most significant adjustment -- to interact more and more with people of color.
Although refugees and displaced persons are motivated to work and improve their status, they are often Viewed as siphoning off jobs, depressing wages, consuming public assistance, and draining social services. In reality, such perceptions are ill-founded. Studies demonstrate that displaced persons are not as reliant on the U.S. welfare system as are native-born citizens. They tend to use kinship and informal networks more than formal supports and, when they do resort to public assistance, they view it as a step to self-sufficiency, which they frequently achieve within five years of arrival. These facts notwithstanding, members of immigrant groups continue to be the targets of violence by those whose fragile toehold on identity and financial security appear weakened even further by the magnitude of social and economic change.
How to prevent and manage violence has been a perennial issue for over two hundred years of national sovereignty. Compared to most other industrial countries, ours has been a violent society owing in part to the traditions associated with moving into a wild and difficult frontier, coupled with a diverse population (and a large number of poor people). The rate of violent crime has been higher than in those countries from which many have emigrated.
Urban riots, which caused much concern in the twentieth century, have been a periodic part of the American scene since colonial times. In the latter part of the century, ethnic and racial problems developed into riots in many cities. Earlier in the century, cities were affected by violence and corruption associated with prohibition. More recently, there has been a strong association between violence and illegal drug activity and labor racketeering.
In addition to collective violence, small group and individual violence tears at the societal fabric to which the country and the profession must respond more effectively. Despite prolific studies on all types, problems are increasing in many spheres, though there is a modest decline in others, for example, homicide rates. One anomaly, however, is that juvenile crime, despite declines in overall homicide, ranks as the second highest cause of death among young people, and death from gun wounds is the leading killer of teenage males.
The Anglo-Saxon and successive white ethnic populations have often resisted persons of color, many of whom have been victims of hate crimes by the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nation, and skinheads. This phenomenon has been growing in this and other Western countries, as well as less known and organized groups.
Another destructive and complex area is family violence, although the actual extent is hard to determine. It is often cloaked in secrecy because of shame or because victims fear reprisal from the attacker. While elder, child, and spousal abuse (as well as sibling violence) appear to be more prevalent, it is child abuse that has been more carefully documented in the last half of the twentieth century.
Yet a third area of concern is violence in the workplace, where much of the hostility is directed toward employers. The numbers for both men and women are escalating, with 1,000 people being murdered at work annually and millions physically attacked or threatened.
This society knows that minorities are at greatest risk of violent victimization and death. (In the last decade of the century, blacks and Hispanics were 41 percent and 32 percent, respectively, more likely to be victims than Caucasians.) Homicide rates are also highest for minorities. While less is known about perpetrators than victims, both tend to share demographic profiles: largely male and disproportionately minority.
Social workers are concerned with all forms of violence and their cause, particularly those that have both psychosocial and socioeconomic ramifications. Aggressive and violent behaviors seem to be learned responses to frustration as well as cultivated for perceived goal achievement, but the role of models in both instances is critical. These are too readily available, and they are observed in family life, peer groups, mass media, pornography, and in the neighborhood environment.
One of the hotly debated issues going into the millennium centers on whether more stringent gun laws or more widely legalized possession by ordinary citizens is the greater deterrent to crime. Baffling gun control proponents is the renewed argument for More Guns, Less Crime. The argument inflames the discussion by maintaining that gunmen are more likely to attack individuals whom they view as weak (that is, unprotected) and that states enacting "shall-issue-laws" for guns have drastically reduced multiple-victim shooting episodes. The extension of this reasoning would suggest that Certain personnel in schools (and presumably other types of institutions in which there have been several recent multiple killings, such as social service agencies and hospitals) should have quick and ready access to weapons as a way of thwarting attacks. Given public frustration, the idealized western pop-cultural symbol of the "equalizer," and beliefs in exaggerated individual freedoms, the proposal may well become a rallying point. Professionals either have to pay attention to or be objects of the trend, as so many of our positions (both in terms of ethical stances and employment) are involved, it is impossible to remain neutral.
The Challenge of Racial and Gender Diversity and Leadership
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the predominately influential population in the United States was Anglo-Saxon, faced with adjustment to new ethnic groups and unresolved longtime color issues. At the turn of the twentieth century, the nation is in an uneasy embrace with a significantly more diverse racial and ethnic polyglot, that poses challenges in numbers and shifts in power structures. Several prominent cities no longer have a racial minority, as such, but a people-of-color population in the majority. Detroit, Los Angeles, and Gary, Indiana, as well as other urban centers, have or are approaching "minority" majorities. The results are political structures in which persons of colors hold top elective municipal and state legislative positions. Large peoples-of-color districts also send representatives to the U.S. Congress, where many have been in office long enough to hold key committee chairmanships. People-of-color communities are now in a position to insist on powerful executive appointments by governors and even the president. As much as proportions have changed, the growing numbers of minorities have not resulted in comparable everyday political clout and certainly not in economic power. Many of the gains noted above were the result of the prayer and protest model of change used by civil rights groups in the last half of the twentieth century. We can expect the goals of prosperity and local policy to be added to the model in the twenty-first century.
In addition to people of color, women -- marginalized as a group from public power in virtually all cultures -- have demanded recognition and sought it mostly in the workplace. In the latter part of the twentieth century women challenged the "pink ghetto" and "glass ceiling" demanding more opportunities and respect as equals. Although the majority of women have faced discrimination based on gender rather than race, they have won protection through the laws achieved by the long civil rights struggle against the color bar and have benefited from the affirmative action policies now under attack. White males may be the world's numerical minority in comparison to all women as well as to men of color but they still hold political and economic sway. As with holders of power in any venue, many are willing to "give" a little, but few would give it up. There is much anecdotal report of conscious alliances to retain white male hegemony in corporate and political circles, but little documentation and less public awareness or discussion of the growing discordance between presumed ideals and actual practice. While individual patriarchy may not seem as overwhelming as in the past, it is structural patriarchy that must receive greater focus if issues of inequality and justice are to be resolved.
An emphasis on ways in which power sharing can be seen as expanding the well-being rather than simply threatening that of the current holders is one that needs to be developed now if progress is to be genuine in the early decades of the new century. The setting for this recognition and debate will be largely in the workplace, including the political arena. Except for those born into great wealth, work has been central to class, status, and the mental as well as physical well-being of Americans. It has even been considered noble, but that image cannot survive if job categories continue to be structured and designated by race and sex. We will also need to confront the continuing devaluation of women in the home when their caregiving work is neither reflected, valued, nor credited toward Social Security or accumulated resources that can lead to power.
Power sharing in the workplace has not been sufficiently addressed and keeps blacks, other people of color, and women marginalized. Women are not immune from oppressing other women, since in hierarchical organizations those who manage to obtain top positions can -- and too often must -- exploit those in lower positions if they are to retain their own. The same observation holds for women who employ domestics and child care workers. Women of color often sense a distancing from majority women who they feel exclude or distort their experiences. Acknowledging such distinctions makes us more aware of the powerlessness that is associated with poor work options or the absence of work.
Historically, practitioners have overlooked the centrality of work in defining the extent of clients' self-esteem and life satisfaction. This omission can keep practitioners and the profession out of an important political debate. It can also help ensure low rank and benefits for practitioners who are mostly nonminority women carrying out administrative policies of mostly nonminority males. Contrary to its goals, and however inadvertently, the profession helps to prolong the marginalization of a portion of the population and, therefore, needs to consider the extent to which it contributes to it.
Reexamination of the task ahead is not just for clinicians. For the future, we can expect marginalized people to seek out new paths for organizing and joining unions as a way to ameliorate their dismal workplace status. This presents an opportunity for the profession to use its macro-knowledge and skills to help facilitate change. For professional women, mostly Caucasian, the task involves transcending old status perceptions (salary/benefits, higher positions) and embracing the concerns of the poor and marginalized.
One cannot predict in the decades ahead whether schools of social work will be educating people of color in numbers sufficient to carry out the needed change strategy for improving work opportunities. Despite several decades of calls by the Council on Social World Education for greater diversity, the response does not bode well. In most schools of social work, minorities comprise less than 25 percent of the graduating classes. This is not to suggest that only "minorities" can be of assistance to minorities, but it is one more demonstration of the need for cooperation by all in working for the good of the whole.
Increasing Longevity and National Goals
Another dramatic difference from a century ago is life expectancy, which was forty-seven years in 1900 and is now nearly eighty. The largest age cohort in America (those born from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s) can expect still greater longevity and are demanding that the country give major attention to health and health care. Hi-tech medicine is already prolonging aging beyond our ethical consensus for relevant decision-making on the meaning and quality of life. Questions have multiplied about the cost of quality and how best to manage the health care needs of individuals. Cost containment is a highly volatile issue posing ethical dilemmas about who gets what, when, for how long, and at whose expense.
So far, longer life has meant extension of its most fragile phase rather than its most productive. For a society that values doing over being, the distinction is critical. Elders are viewed increasingly in economic and primarily negative terms, the healthier ones as holding on to jobs that prevent younger persons from advancing and the more sickly as leaving the ranks of productivity and multiplying the burdens on their juniors. The highly politicized and even misleading debate on proportions of expected reserves, contributors, and recipients for the future of Social Security polarizes discussion and threatens to contaminate intergenerational relations. Social work research can help restore perspective here.
As medical breakthroughs extend life, the range of choices and decisions multiplies; whose life is valued in society and who makes decisions regarding the access and distribution of medical goods and services are critical issues that influence all other systems.
Social workers, among others, have rapidly shortening time to influence perspectives on longevity, the ways it can be viewed as contributing to a different kind of productive opportunity, the relational quality of human interactions, and a broad understanding of community that could be enhanced by those who now fear they will be seen only in negative economic terms. Critical to any resolution of this issue is the operating definition of productivity. If human value is limited to commercial utility alone, then the tendency will continue to reduce all considerations to material goods, bottom lines, and profits. Just as Oscar Wilde a century ago chided those "who know the price of everything and the value of nothing," we can challenge those who limit people's social worth to productivity for profit rather than for quality of human life.
More mature individuals are now, and will continue to be, available for compassionate as well as simply commercial roles. What this can mean for countering the mechanistic trends in schooling, medicine, social service delivery, and communities at large invites exploration.
Caring roles provide not just a mechanism for material help to others in need, but offer useful channels to apply knowledge and relational competencies in unique ways that make the process itself life enhancing.
Social work has a substantial foundation in concepts of spirituality and, historically, in organized religion. The profession has been moving away from this orientation for some time. More recently, however, there have been growing tendencies, apparently responding to our oversecularized, impersonal, and corporate world, that challenge us to give more concerted thought to the spiritual needs of individuals and communities. This broadened awareness should not be confused with the fundamentalism of the religious right, with which it often has been in sharp contrast. It has not been based on ideological conservatism or exclusivity but rather on greater fellowship and acceptance of all human beings. Spirituality has been defined as "the underlying dimension of consciousness which strives for meaning, union with the universe and all things. It extends to the experience of the transcendent and those beyond us."
The desire to realize one's own nature, fully, and the need to connect with an entity greater than the individual self are two fundamental aspects of human nature. These tendencies are recognized unevenly in Western psychology (with the focus on the individual) and Eastern psychology (with the focus on being part of a larger entity). The effort to integrate these within the person and among cultures is seen as related to spiritual awareness. Increasingly, social workers view spirituality as an essential component in the healing process. Often, family and community supports are mobilized in the healing process in work with several diverse ethnic groups.
The Road Ahead
In the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth, the Progressives and incipient social work professionals were among the few keenly aware of the irrevocable alterations to society following the industrial North's defeat of the agricultural South, the closing of the frontier, and the growth of urbanism as the dominant way of life. As our fin de siècle comparison indicates, however, neither they nor we foresaw how quickly or completely the subsequent social welfare mind set and monumental legislation designed to end the old inequities could be reversed. Child and sweatshop labor has simply been internationalized. Criminal trial of children as adults, thought to have been ended by Dorothea Dix ninety-nine years ago, is being reinstated. Immigrants are denied food, as are many indigenous poor. The mentally ill are returned to the streets, and other aspects of an 1890s déjà vu are too apt.
The pressing contextual concerns identified earlier will weigh heavily on the profession in the coming century. Collectively, too many demonstrate a decline in the fabric and "spirit of the American community." What has to be undertaken in the years ahead is not just a reexamination of our roots and paradigms, but a commitment to pull together forces that redefine and rebuild community.
Not only compassion but enlightened self-interest and an awareness of fundamental human interdependence argue against the renewed indifference to the poor and to long-term economic reality. The cultivation of individualism has dulled that awareness. Social work's understanding of the necessary interplay of genuine autonomy and community can contribute greatly to the needed arguments. Asking people to surrender cherished ideas, perceived advantages, and hard-earned wages in the interest of an elusive equity is a formidable task. Arrayed against financial and physical forces, social workers and their allies have only the power of persuasion at their command, Authenticity is key.
The arena for decision making has changed radically. International conglomerates with no community loyalties, elective mandate, or accountability can intimidate or destabilize most governments. Few nation-states have the power or the political will to put the commonwealth, much less their neediest citizens, first. As the sensed but unfocused economic anxiety grows around the world, demagoguery and tribalism tend to drown out reasoned discourse.
How to reign in the irresponsibly destructive forces and maintain the desired economic benefits that accompany advanced economies while reembedding them and helping them to become more aware of and sensitive to undergirding cultures, is not only a central political task but a necessity. If social workers are to have a place at the drafting tables rather than the triage rooms, we will have to (1) incorporate in our decision making and practice far more in-depth study of economic realities that until now we have left to interpretation by others, and (2) develop new levels of sophistication in presenting our knowledge to a media-saturated and distrustful public. To be credible, that knowledge must evidence theoretical and experiential validity, backed by research that is relevant to the lives and quandaries of the real people being asked to fund and respond to it.
It may still be possible to help redirect and move to positive change, wrenching changes in our pet theories and priorities. How to maintain services to those desperately in need now, while mobilizing for a creatively new systems approach, calls for much wider cooperation within the profession as well as with other disciplines. The questions. preparatory to practical engagement are largely ones of vision, ethics, commitment, and will. In their absence, what kind of society will we be existing in and fronting for -- if there is to be a social work profession in the new millennium?
Copyright © 2000 by June Gary Hopps, and Robert Morris
Critical Reflections on the Future of the Profession
Social Work At The Millennium
Critical Reflections on the Future of the Profession
Along with two chapters by the editors, June Gary Hopps and Robert Morris, Social Work at the Millennium includes ten chapters from an exceptionally strong group of contributors, offering a range of interpretations of the future of social work.
By looking with a critical eye at the past century and at the present day, the authors come to varying conclusions that will stir debate within the field for years to come. But all agree that social workers need a place at the policy drafting tables as well as in the human services triage rooms, and that much work needs to be done to ensure that this happens. Social Work at the Millennium presents the top voices of the social work field as they begin to craft the future of the profession, and issues a challenge to social workers, students, scholars, and policy makers to continue the discussion to shape a better future for the profession and the people it serves.