Social workers empower people, comfort them during life’s most vulnerable moments, and help them navigate some of life’s most complex parts. March is Social Work Month. We’re a humble lot, so during this time we usually just talk about the work; however, we are a somewhat misunderstood and undervalued profession.
All too many people think of us as “those people who take kids away.” Protecting children is indeed one aspect of our profession, but we’re so much more than that. We were founded through radical acts of kindness, we’ve been carried on by change makers and pioneers, and today we’re at the forefront of important solutions and movements.
Each year, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) gives a theme for Social Work Month, and this year is “Generations Strong,” so today I’m sharing some of the wonders of social work with you, then and now.
For many decades, social workers have worked tirelessly to improve society and make our country a better, more equitable place to live. Some of the most renowned social workers include Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, who pushed for a minimum wage and Social Security; Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, who is considered the mother of social work; Civil Rights leaders Dorothy Height and Whitney Young Jr.; and Maryland’s treasured Barbara Mikulski, who holds the record as the longest serving woman in the history of the United States Congress (in addition to her countless other substantive contributions.)
You may not realize it, but social workers are all around you. We work in hospitals and mental health facilities, helping place people on the path to recovery from sickness and mental illness. We support our brave military personnel, veterans, and their families. We are in schools, helping students overcome issues which prevent them from getting a good education and adjusting to life’s more tumultuous elements. We protect children who have been abused or neglected and help those who need it to find new families through adoption. We also help people through all these various life transitions, all the way up to life’s ultimate transition: aiding individuals – and their families – to prepare for life’s end.
Yet with all this breadth and depth to the profession, we’re still often cloaked in mystery and misunderstanding. One of the interesting things many people don’t realize separates social work from other helping professions is that we look at issues holistically. We see many of society’s people and problems as interconnected, and we see who falls through the cracks. This puts us in an excellent position to help find solutions to society’s most troubling problems. We help craft laws and advise on innovative policies. We run for office, even in Congress (we currently have six social workers in the 116th Congress.)
While NASW-National does a great deal on the federal level, each year, state chapters do a lot of good too. In my state of Maryland, NASW-MD works hard in our legislature to get laws passed that will protect social workers, our clients, and many vulnerable populations. For example, last year we were part of the coalition which helped pass the $15 minimum wage and this year we’re working on important issues like Overdose Consumption Sites (shown to have a host of positive benefits for individuals and communities.) Additionally, we have a Political Action Committee to support candidates who lift up issues important to our profession and those we serve.
Perhaps most impressive of all? Everything I have described is often done with too few staff and a shoestring budget. As an example, the recommended ratio of students to school social workers is 250 to one (or 50 students to every one social worker when it comes to high intensity needs). Yet, only three percent of schools nationwide have been able to meet this ratio. Nationwide, the average ratio is 2,160 students to one school social worker! Can you imagine the burden on those social workers, students, and communities? Yet social workers always do the best we can with what we’ve got, while fighting for a future where everyone – including ourselves – has the resources they need. And with the number of social workers projected to enter the marketplace in coming years, these goals are a definite possibility! According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work is one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States, with job outlook expected to grow 11% in the next decade.
I welcome these future social workers to our historic and honorable profession. As a social work educator, I have the supreme joy of sharing the experience, wisdom, and hope of our profession’s pioneers with the social workers of tomorrow, and today I’m happy to be sharing some of that with you. As this next decade starts, we remain deeply committed to our founding principles: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. In closing, please know: social workers are constantly standing up for you. During this Social Work Month, please stand up for us by learning a little more about what we do and helping ensure that society sees us and values us for all that we do.
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