How NASW Advocates for the Social Work Profession

NASW’s Director of Public Policy, Sarah Butts, Talks Advocacy

Sarah Butts at Capitol

NASW’s advocacy portfolio is huge. There’s almost no limit to the issues that affect members of the profession or its clients that need attention. We sat down with Sarah Butts, NASW’s director of public policy to understand how the national office navigates issues on the federal level and supports chapters working with state legislatures.

How did you become director of public policy at NASW? How long have you been in this role?

Sarah Butts: I joined the NASW team about three and a half years ago. I’m a macro social worker with experience in management, community organizing and public policy. I’m a founding administrator of the American Academy of Social Welfare and Social Work, which sets a research-informed social policy agenda for the profession.

What is the role of NASW’s advocacy team?

NASW has a national office and 55 local chapter offices. At National, we focus on both Chambers of Congress, federal agencies and the administration. The chapters work with their state legislatures on policies, but there are a lot of dynamics between state and federal.

The NASW advocacy portfolio is huge. We focus on workforce advocacy and because social workers work in many different settings—child welfare, courts, schools, private practices, hospitals, for example—and the scope of what they do is different in each setting, our advocacy efforts need to address each setting. If there is a bill in Congress, we look at who it is covering, who it is not covering and assess if it is doing what we want it to do.

We also advocate on issues that affect our clients and society. We call it our social justice portfolio and it really covers the continuum of issues people face from birth to death. Things like child welfare, health equity, homelessness, immigration and addressing injustice, including racism.

The work NASW does in Washington, D.C. is important to our membership. How do you decide which priorities to focus on?

There are very few issues we don’t get involved with or take a position on. Our portfolio is expansive. What we prioritize, apart from workforce matters, is largely dictated by the external political environment and where there is opportunity to make progress. Maybe there’s a decision that’s going to be made soon, or a public comment period is open, and we are weighing in on it. And of course, we’re guided by the NASW Code of Ethics.

What have been your priorities for the past 12-24 months?

With the pandemic, a lot of our advocacy was making sure the workforce was represented in COVID relief, that they had access to PPE across all settings, that they were benefiting from public health emergency waivers such as telehealth/behavioral health, paused payments on student loans and student loan debt relief. Social worker salaries and reimbursement rates have been a significant focus, as well as making sure that social work positions are funded, across the many settings that we work.

We’ve also weighed in on voting rights legislation and human rights/civil rights issues. There’s been a concerted effort at the state level to restrict healthcare access for LGBTQ+ communities, voting rights and reproductive rights in legislatures.

It’s a really challenging time to have so many consequential issues on the table, from Governor Abbott’s Executive Order to restrict gender affirming care for transgender youth in Texas and Don’t Say Gay bill in Florida, to the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the racial reckoning and the racially motivated hate crimes that continue. It’s had a chilling effect in the legislative world as we work to figure out what policies can address structural racism.

How can members support NASW's advocacy work? What can they do if they want to get more involved?

Being educated about both sides of an issue, the side they support and the opposition. And then understanding where the compromise is. There is value in participating and in increasing the awareness of the profession, our needs and the needs of our clients. Our members should contact their lawmakers and share their experiences on the ground and what they think would make things better. And definitely respond to our Action Alerts where we update on our work and legislation in Congress.

There are more than 700,000 social workers in the U.S. and only 110,000 are members. So, we need all the social workers out there speaking up and advocating for the changes in policy that we want to see.

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