Tough Times Bring Out Our Best

Elizabeth J. Clark, Ph.D., ACSW, MPHFrom the Director

We all recognize that time is continuous, that the separation of time into days, months, years and centuries is artificial, an invention of society. Yet, these time boundaries take on great importance in our lives.

We count our birthdays in years, our months in days and our workweek in hours. There are privileges attached to some time milestones. After 16 years you can drive. At 18 years you can vote.

For several generations, we have used 65 years as the start of retirement and the beginning of Social Security benefits. There hasn’t been much attention to the fact that you actually need to be 66 now to draw full benefits, and debate continues about raising that further.

By most measures, the year 2011 was a tough one for America. Unemployment rates remained high and families lost more ground. Homes were foreclosed, cars were repossessed and people went without medical care because they had no health insurance.

We labeled it the worst recession since the Great Depression, but many of our citizens would be hard pressed to tell you the difference between a recession and a depression.

We acknowledged the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, and the 10th anniversary of the never-ending war in Afghanistan. We witnessed the Arab spring, and the assassination of Osama bin Laden. We watched as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes took their toll.

Our prison population reached record numbers, and 2,500 children died at the hands of loved ones. Our 24-hour media was filled with tragedies and disasters. Television shows, movies and video games were filled with violence.

In all, 2011 seems like a year we should put behind us and forget as quickly as we can. Surely 2012 can’t be as bad.

Let me offer another side, and view it through the lens of the social work profession.

We estimate that social workers in the United States helped 10 million people per day last year. In addition to their jobs, social workers performed untold hours of community service.

Our colleagues were at every disaster, and we sent assistance to our Japanese counterparts when their country was devastated by earthquakes. Social workers comprised about 40 percent of the volunteer work force for the Give an Hour program, which offers free counseling to returning veterans and their families.

Harder to count, but no less significant, are the community support and educational groups social workers conduct in their “free time” — the hundreds of events for charitable causes social workers organize, and the ways in which they participate in their communities, their children’s schools and their local hospices and nursing homes.

Additionally, social workers take advocacy and social justice seriously. Advocacy is what differentiates social work from other professions. It is the cornerstone, the bedrock, of what we do.

In 2011, more than 21,000 letters were sent to Congress through the NASW advocacy listserv. Social workers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with unions in Michigan and Wisconsin, and with the Occupy Wall Street organizers across the country. We worked on women’s rights, child fatalities, same-sex marriage, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

We voiced our concerns around affordable care and immigration, poverty, early childhood education, prisoner re-entry, and the need for more mental health services.

There wasn’t a social justice issue that lacked support from the social work profession.

All of this took place despite social agencies being unfunded and social work jobs being eliminated. The profession itself came under attack by conservatives and budget slashers.

This didn’t deter our advocacy efforts or our commitment. Social workers are often at their best in times of unrest, uncertainty and high need. We don’t give up; we don’t give in.

In that respect, 2011 was a banner year for social work. As one year draws to a close and another begins, we will redouble our efforts and our input.

Without social workers, life in America would be much less hospitable and less caring.

Happy New Year to all of you who do so much.