Social workers face new challenges

Woman on tightrope over a net with a ripped-out centerMary Adams works full time as a bank teller for Wells Fargo and is a proud mother of six children, who range in age from 7 months to 23 years old. Her oldest son is in college, and Adams goes to church every Sunday, where she’s famous for her homemade banana pudding. She’s a positive and outgoing 40-year-old woman, and she radiates an enthusiasm for life that’s contagious.

But Adams also is a single mother, who, despite having a steady job with benefits, was evicted from her townhome and is now homeless. She lives with her young son and 14-year-old daughter in a shelter run by Northern Virginia Family Services while her other children are living separately with family members or friends. Adams rarely gets to see them, and she looks forward to a time when her whole family can be under the same roof once more.

“I never thought I’d be in this position,” Adams said. “Even though I was living from paycheck to paycheck, I was able to get by and provide a home for my kids. We weren’t rich, but we had what we needed. But once I went on maternity leave, my pay was cut and I fell behind on my bills and couldn’t catch up. Things happened fast ... my car got repossessed; I fell behind on my rent. Now I’m living in a shelter.”

Adams is one of many Americans who have had to change the way they live over the past few years. According to an Associated Press report on the 2010 U.S. Census data, nearly one in two Americans is in poverty or considered low income. The latest Census results also show increases in the number of single mothers in America and the number of people over the age of 65 who are still in the work force instead of retirement.

Economic challenges

The quintessential American dream has dissolved into meaning something entirely different than it once did, challenging social workers as they help an increasing number of clients who are suffering from the negative effects of a strained economy.

“The idea used to be that if you worked hard and invested in education, you could earn a living wage,” said Mary Agee, MSW, the president and CEO of Northern Virginia Family Services. “Now in different pockets of the country, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to afford living and quality of life. Even though people are working, some are simply not able to make ends meet.”

“We have seen an increase in food stamps and a 126 percent increase in caseload,” said Uma Ahluwalia, MSW, head of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services in Maryland. “There is definitely an increase in people seeking aid from the public and nonprofit sectors.”

High housing costs also have put many Americans in situations where everyday living is challenging, according to NASW student board member Sarah Petela, project coordinator for the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness. In areas such as Fairfield, Conn., where the cost of living is high, it is now necessary to maintain an income of about $73,000 a year to cover basic rent or mortgage and utilities, she said.

“Huge housing costs have put many families in precarious situations” Petela said. “Obtaining an education may not lead to a job and housing. There is a true lack of a safety net.”

There is help, however, and Adams said she is grateful for that as she works to get back on her feet.

“If it were not for the help I receive now through working with my social worker and through NVFS, I don’t know where I’d be,” she said. “I’d probably be on the street because housing is so expensive now.”

Postponing retirement

Forrest Hong, a social worker in the Los Angeles area who specializes in working with retirees, said he sees a trend in how baby boomers are dealing with recent challenges. Many are putting off full retirement in favor of the more economically savvy semi-retirement, he said, where retirees continue to work part time after they have established themselves as retired from their regular full-time careers.

“Many of my retired clients have good savings, pensions and invested income from properties, but that will change for future generations,” Hong said. “There is a population out there working in multiple jobs to fund retirement, and our job is to help people invest wisely and plan for semi-retirement at around age 65 where they seek part- time work in an area that they could enjoy. The retirement dream of seeing grandkids, going on cruises and enjoying free time is not so much a reality anymore, unless you are making millions.”

The core of social work

Getting back to some of the core basics of social work — namely listening and relating without judgment — is a practice that Sarasota, Fla.-based social worker LeslieBeth Wish feels will always help in effectively and efficiently serving a client.

“I deal a lot with single mothers in my practice,” Wish said, “and it’s an issue that is steadily on the rise, a result of a bouquet of many complex factors. I always put in the back of my mind that I don’t know how the client feels to be a single mom. For social workers it’s better to keep your biases in check and to create an environment where your client wants to talk. The goal is to always get enough information so you can help your client.”

Advocacy is the cornerstone of the social work field, and Agee and Petela both feel that now is a crucial time for social workers to raise their voices in order to keep programs and aid from being cut even further.

“Advocacy is key,” Petela said. “Social workers should play a lead role in getting out there in the community and building relationships with civic leaders. If not engaged, we can’t move people out of homelessness, among other issues.”

“Social workers must use their voices to say what is needed for change, and what support is necessary for individuals and families,” Agee said. “We can benefit from figuring out how to deliver tangible services in new and innovative ways.”


As social workers may find themselves under more stress as they navigate through new methods and adapt to changes, NASW New York City Chapter Executive Director Robert Schachter emphasizes the need to make self-care a priority.

“Pressure at work for social workers is greater than it’s ever been, and it can take a toll on job satisfaction,” Schachter said. “They need to implement strategies for themselves. Self-care is very important. And for those newer to the field, they should try to find a mentor.”

“Active communication between social workers and clients is so important,” Adams said. “If I wasn’t so proactive and I didn’t keep asking my social worker lots of questions, I probably wouldn’t have been able to take full advantage of services offered to me because I wouldn’t know about them. It’s a two way street ... clients need to help social workers in order to help themselves.”

But despite all of the challenges and issues, social workers need to remain hopeful that things can and will get better, said David Berns, MSW, director of the Department of Human Services in Washington, D.C.

“It’s important to keep a positive attitude and focus on the opportunities and chances for success,” he said. “I like to focus on the abundance of the aid we can offer.”

Adapting to changes

“There is a cycle of change under way as we’re becoming a technology-based world,” Ahluwalia said. “Much like during the industrial revolution … technology is creating new job opportunities. We need to anticipate these opportunities and work in the community to ensure work force readiness among those most impacted by lost jobs and changing demographics. In time a new equilibrium will get established.”

Petela said, “The American dream will still be something that people believe in and work towards, no matter what their current living situation is.”

And Mary Adams, who represents the many Americans who have fallen on hard times, also stands as an example of this ideal.

“It can’t get any worse!” she said with a laugh. “This is just my circumstance right now, and circumstances change. I don’t call myself a victim, and the way I see it I’m blessed to have a roof over my head. I’m working hard and doing everything I can and I know things will get better.”