Economic Demands on Social Work

James J. KellyFrom the President

Just when we thought things couldn’t get worse for our clients, they do. A recent survey and series published by The Washington Post, in partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, chronicles the increasing struggles of our country’s many low wage workers. The stories of working families on the brink of economic disaster—who lack health care, are in danger of foreclosure or eviction, can’t afford gas to get to work and need food assistance—are, unfortunately, not new to social workers.

What’s new is the growing number of policy groups and media people who are pushing conversations about the poor and working poor out of the shadows and into national forums. The Urban Institute, Charles Stewart Mott and Annie E. Casey Foundations have launched a national campaign “Making Work Pay” to promote building a new safety net for low—income families. Mathematica, Brookings, Economic Policy Institute, National Public Radio and Rutgers University have also produced reports about low-wage America. This work is augmented by research at many of our nation’s top schools of social work.

This is also a challenging year for NASW and its members. Current economic realities not only make it harder for social workers to serve those in need, but also to support themselves and their families while helping others. Some members are struggling to pay dues. As a result, our national and chapter offices have reduced staffing to weather the downturn. The association, at both the state and national levels, is searching for the most cost-efficient way to operate while still achieving its goals.

To this end, the NASW Board of Directors has made tough budget decisions in recent months. The first of these decisions is that the Board, by unanimous decision, chose to implement the first ever Virtual Delegate Assembly on Aug. 8 and 9. This decision was very difficult, but by moving the process online NASW saved more than half a million dollars and reduced the organization’s carbon footprint. Delegate Assembly 2008 was a significant milestone for NASW and a testament to the resourcefulness and flexibility of our volunteer leadership.

I must admit that my year as president-elect was a personal wake-up call. There were times in my career when I was content to be an NASW member, letting others do the work, just paying my dues and getting angry when the organization did things I didn’t like. No more. I have spent the last year learning how a large membership organization operates—and now have a greater appreciation for its complexity and success.

The last gift immediate past president Elvira Craig de Silva gave me and fellow board members was a copy of Dr. Dorothy I. Height’s memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates. This social work pioneer’s remarkable life story has important lessons for what we all can do to improve the social work profession, despite a lackluster economy.

For example, the historic Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act (H.R. 5447 and S. 2858) was introduced into Congress earlier this year. The Act seeks national public investments for the recruitment, retention and research of social workers. A July 29 hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives helped key legislators understand the value and impact of the social work profession and more than 20,000 e-mails sent to Congress in support of the act have attracted numerous cosponsors. But we still have work to do to pass SWRA. Please contact your elected officials today and tell them that social workers and the constituents we serve, matter.

Lastly, I will write my next column on the eve of the November elections. My hope is that the majority of American voters believe it is time to implement new strategies that better support families and communities—and improve the country. NASW-PACE has endorsed Senator Barack Obama because he has articulated an inclusive worldview and demonstrated a practical approach to government. To ensure that social work issues gain the attention they deserve, we all should be involved in this exciting campaign.