10 Things Social Workers Have In Common With The Occupy Wall Street Protests

Robert Schachter, DSW, LMSW, Executive Director

A lot has been going on three blocks from the NASW-NYC office at Zuccotti Park, located at Liberty Street between Broadway and Church Street, since the middle of September.  At its core it is an encampment of protesters but has also become a destination for support demonstrations, including a recent 10,000 person march of union members, community groups and ordinary New Yorkers.

Inspired by the Wall St. protest, similar encampments have been springing up in cities throughout the country including San Francisco, Washington, DC, Seattle and Los Angeles.  It is common for the media to ignore demonstrations, even when they are massive, so it is noteworthy that they are paying attention.

According to the website, www.occupywallst.org, Occupy Wall Streetis a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions.”  As stated on the site, “The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1% . . .”.

What exactly the objectives are may depend on who is being quoted or what news coverage is reflecting, but it is reasonable to discern that the demonstrators are determined to hold financial institutions and corporations, as symbolized by the phrase “Wall Street”, accountable for the current financial crisis that began in 2008 and the growing economic inequality in the United States.

While there are likely to be differences about the best way to seek change, there can be little doubt that many Americans, and New Yorkers more specifically, share the concerns of the protesters about the impact of the economy on individuals and families, the lack of accountability for the crisis, and the prospect of any beneficial change in the near future.

For social workers, the worsening economic conditions of the past three years have only added to the significant challenges faced by the communities that the profession serves.  Whether explicitly articulated by Occupy Wall Street or not, the following 10 points reflect common realities that the protesters, New York’s communities, and the social work profession have collectively experienced:

1.   The country has been experiencing the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression in the 1930s, caused in part by extraordinarily risky investment practices that put major financial institutions at risk of collapse, with world-wide impact.

2.   The federal government has been far more willing to bail out the financial sector than to help low income people and a vulnerable middle class.  Attempts to tighten regulations on risky investments are being resisted by the financial sector and by many in Congress.

3.   The United States has engaged in two enormously costly wars in the Middle East without raising revenues to pay for them.  The total cost over the past 10 years has been estimated at $2.5 trillion.

4.   The President and Congress agreed to cut $2.5 trillion in programs over the next 10 years, with more cuts being considered. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other important social programs are being targeted.

5.   We now have the highest poverty level in US since 1993, with 46.2 million people living in poverty in 2010, or 15% of the population.  This is up from 11.7% in 2000.  In New York City the poverty rate is 20%.

6.   Unemployment in the US is over 9%, and this number is much higher when those who have given up looking for a job is considered.  Joblessness wreaks havoc on individuals and families, both economically and in terms of mental health, including the experience of sustained stress and depression.

7.   New York’s lawmakers passed a budget in the Spring that includes $10 billion in cuts that fall disproportionately on low income communities, including a $2.85 billion reduction in Medicaid.  Proposals to raise significant revenues through taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers were rejected.

8.   Nationally, health insurance premiums rose 9% in the past year in spite of passing a national health reform law, a law that assures higher profits for insurance companies.  The number of uninsured is now 49.9 million.

9.   The principles of democracy are undermined by the influence of corporate wealth in the political arena, resulting in both major parties being dependent on their contributions, making the possibility of significant change less likely to come from electoral politics (as important as this is). That the US Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of unlimited corporate spending on campaigns is further evidence of the threat to electoral democracy.

10.   The social work profession itself is at risk as services and social work jobs are cutback for communities that are suffering from the current economic conditions.  Given the current state of politics today, with a focus on cutbacks with no new revenue, the social work profession will be significantly challenged while the need for services increases.

The bottom line for us is that the real needs of people are not being addressed.  And there are a lot more issues involved than what has been enumerated above.

There come times when protest and demonstrations play a critical role when other institutions are not up to the task, as evidenced by what has been unfolding across the Middle East.  If Occupy Wall Street continues, it can prove to be a valuable moment for our future.

Social workers will make their own decisions as to whether to join with the protestors and the demonstrations that may continue.  Demonstrations carry certain risks, even when the intention is to be peaceful, but those risks are often necessary to seek change.

Please weigh in with what you see happening with these issues and Occupy Wall Street.  Share with us if you have participated and please send us any photos you may have taken.  Please email to them us at contactus@naswnyc.org.

Below is a slideshow of pictures submitted by a member.  Please feel free to submit your pictures!

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16 Responses to 10 Things Social Workers Have In Common With The Occupy Wall Street Protests

  1. I saw humanity. Some protesting and some watching! It’s going to take all of us to change the direction of this ship. I thought to myself… “Those aerial views cannot tell the difference between us”. So come and watch or walk… We all contribute in different ways! Peace!

  2. Liza says:

    The governements greed has caused people from across the nation their jobs, homes, and financial security. But the one thing the government cannot take away from us is our faith in knowing that good will once again prevail. The people of the USA and the world need to join hands in peace and solidarity. War is not the answer, Peace is the only way. God Bless Us All!

  3. Steven D. Brown LSCW, CPsyA says:

    Thank you Dr. Schachter. You cast a new meaning from and greater significance about the protest.

  4. Shyvonne says:

    I hope this movement is used as a teaching tool in schools of social work at as a reminder that our profession’s foundation is rooted in community organizing and that we have long fought to bring to light social problems that have long plagued our nations’ most neediest. We help give a voice to the poor, needy, disabled, elderly and minority groups. Our social work profession is dedicated to upholding social justice and I hope that one day we reach a goal of ensuring all have equal access to resources to have a dignified and productive life. It is not an easy battle but one that someone has to fight and who better that social workers!

  5. Hyacinth M. Graham says:

    As an African American LCSW, I identify more with the radical social workers. The activism of OWS is more representative of the activism that is needed in many areas of our profession. Where is the profession in profiling in the news letter the social workers who are fighting for social justice. You are too tame in your journalism. Highlight more of the social justice issues and then you may begin to have some likeness to OWS. It is premature to draw similarities at this time.

  6. Daniel Shaw says:

    The importance of these expanding demonstrations, seeded at Wall Street and and now self-populating across the country, cannot be overstated! These are far more than simple “picket lines”. When we connect the energy and perserverance of these courageous people to the concurrent civil protests in Madison, WI, what we finally have is a powerful political voiice from a large, but far too long ignored silent majority. Now is the time to increase the pressure on that 1% of the wealthy that has purchased the political direction of our government since General Washington took the oath of office on the steps of Federal Plaza, to become our first President under the Articles of Confederation. Finally, the forces of the five “too big to fail” banks and the forces of the greedy few who control access to the basic rights and lifestyle for which we have labored all our productive lives are clearly caught up in a process of negative entropy. Likewise, the small handful of insurance companies that control access to our right to affordable, competent healthcare will begin to feel the heat, which carries the message that their days are numbered. Finally, we need to keep in mind that the Federal Reserve, an entity that exercises complete control over this country’s financial policy, is an agency that is not elected, but appointed. Keep up this important work! Daniel Shaw, MA, MSW, LMSW, ACSW

    • Carol Smith says:

      This growing protest over the inequities of our severely flawed financial system is so long overdue. Thank you for your eloquent description.
      Carol Smith, LCSW

  7. Alicia Fry, LMSW says:

    Thank you, Dr. Schacter, for your eloquent, empathic and succinct comments on the current state of our country, and Occupy Wall Street’s strong response to the “Reverse Robinhood” (rob from the poor, give to the rich) mentality and reckless self-centered behavior that is destroying the middle class, and pushing good, hard working Americans into poverty and despair. I have been down to the demonstration twice so far, and I was struck by the diversity, passion, and positive energy of the people there. This movement is doing what social workers have always tried to do-the make the invisible visible, and to give a voice to those who have been sidelined and silenced. There truly is power in numbers, as proven by the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the labor movement. These movements not only shaped public policy, they changed the moral fabric of our society. Social workers were front and center during these movements, and I believe we should be now as well. As a member of the NASW/NYC PACE Committee, I plan to attend the meeting on 10/12/11, and I urge as many of you as possible to lend your support. I would love to hear everyone’s ideas on how we, as social workers, can help achieve the goals of this pivotal movement, and improve the lives of our clients and ourselves.

  8. Iris says:

    It is a sad sight indeed. The capital gains of the 1% have taken such priority in our government that our …”justice for all”… is being obliterated.

  9. Thank you for your support of Occupy Wall Street. I have spent much of my free time in the past weeks participating at Liberty Plaza. I believe that NASW members and NASW can have an important role here.
    (1) I was nearly arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. My first thought was how a disorderly conduct arrest would look to the licensing board. Knowing the answer would help determine whether I can participate in non-violent civil disobedience. NASW support could be important.
    (2) Zuccotti Park is overcrowded and noisy, which makes it difficult for working groups to hold meetings. Use of a meeting room or a seminar room at 50 Broadway would be very useful. Use of a copying machine would be spectacular.
    (3) Though most of the occupiers are doing very well under difficult conditions, the constant noise and activity is taking its toll. Would anyone be interested in offering an occupier a day of respite? We would have to figure out how to coordinate and manage this.
    (4) Most news sources are doing their best to portray the occupiers as punks and neo-hippies. This makes it difficult for the middle-class, middle-aged average person to identify with the movement. I really want a t-shirt or a button that shows my NASW affiliation in support of Occupy Wall Street to the world.
    (5) The Outreach Working Group is becoming active. I am personally interested in gathering together an affinity group of people who would enjoy street-singing in support of Occupy Wall Street. Street singing is a legal activity that helps engage the general public and promotes identification with the movement. I’ve been reworking 1930’s labor movement songs and civil rights hymns for the movement.
    (6) The organizational and consensus decision making techniques of this movement are worth studying. Is there an interested professor or grad student out there who is interested in doing engaged qualitative research?
    (7) Is there interest to form a social work professional’s affinity group?

    Finally, I want my fellow social workers to understand that this is a movement that thrives on diversity and minimal organization. Many political opinions are represented, agreeing only on the most basic issues. Most of the people involved are really endorsing something similar to FDR’s Second Bill of Rights. They are in favor of radical ideas like: a return to effective, pre-Reagan, progressive taxation for individuals and corporations; re-regulation of the financial industry; and universal, government sponsored, health care (Medicare for everyone).

    Please feel free to contact me at: etan.benami@gmail.com or via the information on my practice website (www.effective-therapy-ny.com). Thanks.

    — Etan Ben-Ami, LCSW

    • Bob Schachter says:

      What happens if you are a licensed social workers who is arrested for civil disobedience?

      I asked Dr. David Hamilton, Executive Secretary of the State Board for Social Work, if he could clarify how licensed social workers are affected if the are arrested for civil disobedience. What follows is his reply, which could be used as a guide.
      Bob Schachter, NASW-NYC

      When an individual applies for licensure or a licensee applies for triennial registration, there are “moral character” questions. The registration application that is completed by a licensee every three years includes the question: “Have you been found guilty after trial, or pleaded guilty, no contest or nolo contendere to a crime (felony or misdemeanor) in any court?” and “Are criminal charges pending against you in any court?”

      If the answer is “yes” the licensee is instructed to provide a brief explanation of the action and circumstances, along with a certified copy of the court records. The registration application notes that minor traffic violations, charges that were dismissed, and acquittals do not come under this category.

      Each case is individually reviewed by the Office of Professional Discipline, as the facts and circumstances will vary based on the case. However, it is not likely that a charge of civil disobedience would result in prosecution by the Office of Professional Discipline, as it would be closer to a minor traffic violation

      I hope this is helpful.
      David Hamilton, Ph.D., LMSW, ACSW
      Executive Secretary
      State Board for Social Work
      State Board for Mental Health Practitioners
      Office of the Professions
      New York State Education Department

  10. Dana says:

    I too have been an active participant in a local offshoot of OWS- Occupy Cincinnati. As a social worker, This sort of activism is truly at the very root of our profession. I strongly agree with Hyacinth M. Graham on this- social justice and activism as an ideal and principle of the social work profession has not been stressed enough. If we want social workers to feel empowered to advocate for their clients on a policy level- fighting the injustices of the system and fighting for access to services- then we need to see a strong representation of social activism and community organization in our newsletters, conferences, etc. While support for the Occupy movement is an individual choice, I highly recommend social workers find their own local offshoot (they’re everywhere!) and get involved. This is a movement that has social work written all over it.

  11. Pingback: News Items – October 20, 2011 | Social Workers Speak

  12. fed up says:

    NO discussion of this had made any of my NYU social work classes (To be fair–I am not taking any ‘policy’ classes this semester). But clinical work must go hand and hand with policy and the conversation of ‘redistribution of resources.’… But then again, NYU is part of the machine that eats up landmarks and once affordable housing, ripping it down to make buildings to line the pockets of administration and full-time faculty. Occupy NYU? Not a bad idea.

  13. i am proud of being A social worker and a 30+ year member of NASW. let this be a lesson that when you buy political favors based on money and not principle u are playing the corporate game. when u believe that licensing social workers is not for everyone that is a MSW and pass a licensing law this is also the corporate way. elitism is the corporate way. i look forward to marching with nasw as a latino social worker for change.

  14. Elana Stanger, MSW says:

    I appreciate Robert Schacter’s articulate rendering of the situation we are all faced with. It is up to us to make a critical personal decision to stand at this time with this movement and take back our voices as members of the 99%. I have been to Occupy Wall Street. What I found was an inclusive, sincere group of like-minded people all trying to make a difference. I am glad that NASW is going to March this Saturday October 29th. This is the heart of social work.

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