Editor’s Note: This piece was published in our September/October 2012 issue of our newsletter, Currents. You can access the full newsletter by clicking here.
The upcoming election boils down to a simple question: Does government get in the way of the well-being of its people thereby creating economic hardship and increased poverty, or should government intervene and provide supports that protect and assist those impacted by poverty? Some may say this is an oversimplification. However, this is the fundamental and ideological question that defines the two political parties and their respective candidates for President of the United States. The voters will decide the answer and it will have a direct impact on social workers across the country.
The social policies and programs that have been implemented starting as far back as the Great Depression are coming under fire by ideologues who believe that the economy has not improved because the government is providing services to poor and working class families. Their proposed solution is to cut those services and reduce the tax rates paid by corporations and the wealthiest of Americans in order to create more jobs and provide everyone the opportunity to prosper and thrive. Furthermore, they argue that social service programs only breed a culture of dependency and their elimination will empower a sense of individual responsibility.
This movement is directly at odds with the social work mission to serve individuals, families and communities in order to ensure that basic needs are met so that all can achieve an improved quality of life. Within the preamble of the NASW Code of Ethics, there are six core values identified as rooted in the profession: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. These values are being questioned, challenged and in some cases contradicted by conservative legislators. I’m not questioning the competence of those who want to cut taxes for the rich and eliminate social services and public sector jobs. I have no doubt they will be very good with a budgetary knife.
However, to advocate that addressing issues of poverty is not the responsibility of government, but a secondary by-product of successful corporations fails to recognize the dignity and worth of a person. Further, health and mental health services should not be reserved to those who can afford them. Publicly funded community health centers facilitate positive human interactions and dignify the importance of human relationships.
Most social workers are called to the profession by a deep rooted belief in social justice and a determination to elevate service to people in need. With increasing case loads and fewer resources, it is easy to set aside a coordinated effort for advocacy and change while we work to address immediate needs. However, if we let this trend to abandon the poor continue, we are doing our clients and profession a huge disservice. Further reductions in the publically funded safety net will result in enormous numbers of individuals, families and communities becoming impoverished and falling victim to the far too often violent consequences that accompany financial hardship.
This election is going to be decided by a small number of swing voters who may not be aware of the issues. Those voters might be your friends, families, colleagues and neighbors. Share with others your values and belief that society has a responsibility to respond directly to the privations created by oppressive and discriminating social, economic and political systems. Every vote is going to count, particularly given the highly organized efforts to suppress the vote of mostly low income communities of color.
Regardless of the outcome of this election, our work to advocate for the most vulnerable will be ongoing. Government run and publicly funded programs, although sometimes flawed, are not the cause of the country’s ills. We must do a better job of demonstrating the successful outcomes of social services. Our best strategy is not well-meaning political ideology lacking substance but policy positions grounded in sound research data that empirically documents our values in vital human service programs across the country.
Gary Parker is the Deputy Director of New York University’s McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research located within the Silver School of Social Work. Parker is also an adjunct lecturer at the Silver School teaching community organization and social welfare policy. He is a graduate of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. Previous experience includes positions as district manager for Manhattan Community Board Five and community liaison for New York Assembly Member Deborah J. Glick. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.