Social Work’s Poverty Imperative

Elizabeth J. Clark, Ph.D., ACSW, MPHWhen I entered social work in the 1970s, the “War on Poverty” was almost a decade old, and it seemed to be working.

It had been introduced in a State of the Union address by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Jan. 8, 1964. Historians claim he introduced it to expand his Great Society and to persuade Congress to authorize social welfare programs. Critics define it as the beginning of a new era for American liberalism, and they point out that Johnson introduced it when the poverty rate was already in decline, from a high of 22.4 percent in 1959 to 19 percent in 1964.

In the decade following the implementation of the Equal Opportunity Act, the poverty rate had dropped to 11.1 percent, the lowest rate since recordkeeping began.

Two recent things made me think back to the War on Poverty. One was meeting an incredible individual. The other was coming across an article I had saved.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to see a clinic for the rural poor in Upper Mud Creek, Kentucky. The purpose of my trip was to meet with social workers who have put into place innovative and effective community programs to help combat type II diabetes. Everyone we met emphasized that we needed to see the clinic in Mud Creek and meet Eula Hall, the woman who founded it.

Dr. Hall might best be described as a folk hero. As we drove to the clinic, we noticed that the road was called the Eula Hall Highway. The clinic is a modest square structure, very average. The founder was anything but.

Eula Hall is 82 years old and still comes to work each day. She describes herself as a “hillbilly activist,” and the walls of her office are covered with awards and with photographs of her with well-known individuals such as Teddy Kennedy, Jesse Jackson and Desmond Tutu. Dr. Hall seemed unassuming, pleasant and dedicated, but perhaps better descriptors would be tenacious, forceful and powerful. The clinic opened in 1973, and she has been there since.

We asked Dr. Hall — who has received three honorary doctorates — what made her spend her career and her life working for the poor in Mud Creek. She replied that when President Johnson declared the War on Poverty, she thought, “If we’re gonna have a war, we ought to make it a good’un.” She noted that the war is still going on, and that the needs are greater than ever.

Dr. Hall’s statement reminded me of an article by Anna Quindlen. Written in 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Quindlen, an astute social seer, titled her article “The War We Haven’t Won.” She quotes two statements Johnson made when introducing the reform effort: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America” and “The richest nation on earth can afford to win it.”

Almost half a century later, the statistics are almost too much to take in. The Center for American Progress reports that our nation is witnessing one of the worst labor markets since the Great Depression. We have nearly 15 million jobless people and an unemployment rate just below 10 percent. Similarly, the Current Population Survey describes the number of people in the U.S. living in poverty in 2009 — 43.6 million — and further notes that this is the largest number in the 51 years since poverty estimates have been published.

Income inequality in the U.S. is also at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income. CBS News reported in September that the poorest poor are at record highs, and safety nets are helping to fill health gaps. We have long maintained that our profession is the social safety net.

If we look beyond our own country, the statistics are grimmer yet. More than 1 billion children live in poverty. That’s one in two children in the world. Almost half the world lives on less than $2.50 per day. If you apply the concept of absolute poverty (defined by the World Bank as living on less than $1 per day) the total figure might sound a bit better, but it still sounds abject and desperate.

Is it any wonder that 22,000 people die as a result of poverty each day? That totals 8 million people a year, many of them children.

As a profession, we have been dealing with poverty since social work began. Many social workers staff agencies or NGOs focused on providing food, shelter, and other basic necessities for those in need. Many more social workers volunteer their time at shelters, food kitchens, churches and other places in their communities to help address these growing concerns. These efforts are repeated daily by social workers around the world.

What can be done about poverty? Is there more that we, as individuals, can do? Is there more that the profession of social work can do and ought to do? Can we write more letters to newspapers, organize community town halls, meet with our legislative representatives, and urge our government to meet our national financial commitment to other countries?

Yes to all of these. But perhaps 2011 is the year the social work profession declares its own war on poverty. If we did, what would that war look like? What strategies would we use? How would we know we were making a difference? We welcome your thoughts and ideas at the NASW blog.

Happy New Year to you all.