New Administration,New Opportunities: Biden-Harris Goals Align With Most Social Work Priorities

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By Alison Laurio

Donald J. Trump’s term as U.S. president left America dramatically divided, with many concerned about our very democracy—from elections to public health and safety, and our role in the world.

In President Joseph R. Biden’s term, social workers in varied roles both inside and outside the administration are helping shape a more just direction for everyone by addressing issues like racial, economic and environmental inequality, to name a few.

The Economy

The COVID-19 pandemic and some Trump administration policies resulted in worsening economic woes for many Americans. Among the social workers Biden has appointed is economist Jared Bernstein, who is a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He has become a public voice for information about where the country’s economy is and what the administration is planning to get us where we want to be.

Bernstein, PhD, MSW, has spoken on television, in webinars, on National Public Radio and during White House press briefings led by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who said Bernstein would appear often.

Bernstein was a Washington Post columnist who on Dec. 3 in a sign-off column wrote “some of what I’ll be thinking about” that included “important ways in which key economic assumptions undermine social justice.” A common critique that “whites dominate the (economics) profession” is an important point and a reason that far too little has been done to address racial gaps, Bernstein wrote. Something foundational in economics structure “is too accepting about embedded racial injustice.”

He said a “can-do-economics” approach to economic policy rejects the view that addressing problems such as inequality, climate change, wage stagnation, financial excess, racial injustice and underinvestment in public goods will backfire. “Even a quick glance at the Biden/Harris agenda ... shows a thorough rejection of the notion that we can’t meet the challenges ticked off above.”

After controlling the virus, he continued, Biden will focus on “building an economy on the other side of the crisis that’s far more resilient to shocks from pandemics to climate-change-induced floods and fires. It is to craft an agenda that takes on inequality, racial injustice and the struggle for working families to get and stay ahead.”

Supporting Black Americans

How can President Biden best help Black communities? Michael M. Sinclair said three major areas stand out: health care, the economy and education.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we need good decisions at the federal level, not only in management of COVID, but clear, understandable information and access to affordable health care,” said Sinclair, PhD, MSSW, associate professor and chair of the Urban, Youth and Families Specialization at the Graduate School of Social Work at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

There have been double-digit unemployment rates, and African Americans had twice the rates of white counterparts, he said. Tax credits for families can help.

“African Americans are interested not only in returning to their jobs, but also in getting support for their small businesses,” Sinclair said. “Barber shops and trades people need help to get back on their feet.”

Trump increased racial division and intolerance, he said. “I think we’re sitting on a powder keg,” but there are steps Biden can take to help, including raising the minimum wage to “a livable wage,” increasing the amount of unemployment assistance, and acting on the housing crisis.

“Unemployment assistance is $300 to $400 a week, and right now there’s a moratorium on evictions,” Sinclair said. “Sooner or later when that moratorium is over, people will be in debt. We have to figure out how to help them.”

Biden proposed nearly $130 billion for schools, and Sinclair believes while some children have fallen behind, many will “get back on the path.”

One concern is that the hopes of some Black students to be spotted and offered college athletic scholarships could be dashed, as many or most school sports remain cancelled. “That disproportionally affects children of color,” Sinclair said. “We have to come up with a plan, find a way to make college affordable.”

Many urban youth see only six ways to become wealthy, he said: professional athlete; professional entertainer; lottery winner; inheritance; a settlement; or selling drugs. Often, they end up selling drugs, Sinclair said, but some will end up in lower-paying jobs because they lack a college degree, which also causes a generational impact. The Biden administration could look at different opportunities, including federal loan payment plans.

Biden is eyeing educational opportunities for prisoners, which the Trump administration dismantled, that would create paths to get people back into society, he said.

Health Challenges for Native Peoples

Native and indigenous peoples face multiple challenges, and health is a big one, said Karina L. Walters, PhD, MSW, the Katherine Chambers Hall University Scholar and professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work in Seattle, where she also is co-director of the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute.

A member of the Choctaw Nation, Walters said the Trump administration was not interested in nurturing the development of tribal sovereignty.

“The previous administration was quite hostile to a lot of native and indigenous issues,” she said. “They were, in fact, more interested in eroding land rights and water rights—in a part of the world where such rights already are different—and conferred a kind of assault on the well-being of people with a history of inequities.”

Health and mental health were impacted too, Walters said. The current administration is concerned not only with health equity in indigenous populations, “it is interested in looking at the root causes of cultural and social factors in which health can take root and grow at both the individual and population levels.”

Tribal and Black communities bear the biggest burden in mortality, chronic racism, higher rates of trauma and violence, and lower wages and employment rates, Walters said.

“Native people have one of the highest (combined) rates of death at the hands of police,” she said, because Black men top that list, followed by indigenous men and indigenous women, then African American women.

Indigenous people also are more likely to be living in contaminated areas without access to food and water—issues the Biden administration said it would attempt to address, Walters said.

“We need to look at the economic impacts,” she said. Social, cultural and environmental impacts are “factors in the determinants and the conditions of places where people work, live, play and pray.”

Focusing on the settings and environment where people live can help elevate the health of the population. And, she said, “they are opportunities to bring change.”

Foreign Affairs

Biden has named Wendy Sherman, MSW, deputy secretary of state. During the Obama administration, Sherman was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and led an American team through six rounds of negotiations with Iran to ink the nuclear agreement in 2015. Trump announced in 2018 that he was withdrawing from the Iran deal, but Biden has pledged to restore it.

Sherman most recently was at the Harvard University Kennedy School, where she was professor of the Practice of Public Leadership, and director of the Center for Public Leadership. After her Cabinet appointment was announced, she spoke with WBUR Boston’s National Public Radio station.

“At Harvard Kennedy School, we teach that there is no higher calling than public service,” Sherman said. “Over these past two years, I’ve been humbled by our students, who understand this with complete conviction and commitment. I am grateful to have been a part of it, and to now, once again, have the opportunity to represent this country, our people and the democratic values around the world.”

Preparing Practitioners

Margaret Sherraden, PhD, research professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Social Work in St. Louis, was among the 19 Fellows inducted into the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare in January 2020.

She was co-lead on the Social Work Grand Challenge to Build Financial Capability and Assets for All, and wrote the textbook “Financial Capability and Asset Building in Vulnerable Households: Theory and Practice,” with co-authors Julie Birkenmaier and J. Michael Collins.

Financial information is essential for students, because “social workers are working with people who are on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder,” she said. Clients frequently are experiencing low income and low wealth, and often are people of color dealing with structural inequities. So, practitioners need to put economic issues front and center in a social work practice, she said.

“The presenting problem could be child violence, but one of the big contextual factors is economics,” Sherraden said. “Things are getting harder, and people are faced with financial issues they didn’t have to face before.”

These issues can include the inability to attain insurance, or gain access to safe credit and affordable housing.

“They’re dealing with complex debt situations, and on top of that, the pandemic,” and it all can make life challenging, she said, so economic understanding has to be core in social work learning.

Not many people understand all the financial instruments, Sherraden said, but “we are a financial society now, and much of daily life is taken up with financial questions. People without resources can’t afford a financial adviser, so they go to a social worker.”

“We’re trying to get social workers to understand how to talk about money” she said, “and people don’t want to talk about it because (they) feel responsible for their problem.”

An additional factor practitioners should be aware of is “the presenting problem may not be out front, but it plays a role,” she said.

Adding a financial course may not be feasible for all social work schools, so infusing some financial material into several other courses may be more practical, Sherraden said. “This is part of interpersonal practice. (Social workers) have to know how to bring it up, and they need to have answers.”

Reducing Inequality

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Michael A. Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH, is executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty, Policy and Research at New York University. He also is the Constance and Martin Silver Professor of Poverty Studies at NYU Silver School of Social Work, where he leads the university-wide Strategies to Reduce Inequality initiative that focuses on the root causes of poverty.

He said the last four years of the Trump administration have shown that social work has a critical role to play, not only in the health and well-being of citizens, but in what has transpired with the COVID-19 pandemic, and with race and subrogated, marginalized groups; and in reflecting on what we all want our lives in America to be.

“These are huge issues, and I think social work plays a critical role,” Lindsey said, adding that no other profession stands on the mandate of putting persons in their environment. But now Lindsey believes it’s a time for more focus on the environment and its impacts on people.

Some Trump administration changes, including food stamp eligibility and welfare slashes, were harmful. One issue under study is the increased rate of Black youth suicides compared with the prior 20 to 25 years. Lindsey expects the data to show the trend escalating even more because of the pandemic, and asks “how do we help food inequity trends that have been happening over that same time?”

He said schools are “one important contact,” and would like to see more behavioral health professionals in them.

“That would ensure more kids have access to behavioral health support,” said Lindsey, who added that the Biden administration should consider the effects of the virus on youth. “The impact of loss of life weighs heavily on kids who have been traumatized. So, how do we help those kids?”

All those issues are important and can be addressed by school social workers, Lindsey said. An essential aspect of that is having the right number of professionals for the number of students, so all who need help can receive it.

“I do think that matters of recovery and healing and mental health coming out of this are really going to be key,” he said. “I think that social work is in a really important place to be responsive.”

Legislating Change

Charles E. Lewis Jr., PhD, DSW, MSW, is director of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) in Washington, D.C., which he founded in 2012. Its nonprofit 501-C4 status allows lobbying, and it does so in federal-level work—encouraging and assisting social workers to engage with Congress, he said.

“We also do things to make social workers more aware of specific legislation that’s important,” Lewis said. “In our efforts to keep social work professors and social workers informed, we like to do informational activities,” like congressional briefings.

Those have included a December briefing about a bill introduced by the late Congressman Elijah Cummings to provide expungement for federal nonviolent felony holders, and news about research by Carrie Pettis-Davis. “Her research was instrumental in the creation of the First Step Act,” Lewis said.

In March, the annual Social Work Month’s “A Day on the Hill” was held online, and included Zoom appointments with Hill staffers, he said. One of the events was a policy and politics forum titled “Social Work and the Future of Democracy,” which was live streamed on YouTube and LinkedIn.

President Trump “did a lot of damage,” he said, like hampering enrollment in the Affordable Care Act and pulling out of the Paris Agreement. Now, he said, so many things, including job losses, need repair because millions are out of work.

Lewis hopes Biden will come up with an infrastructure bill and said one of the most damaging and unconscionable things from Trump was his failure to address infrastructure.

Social workers have a “service perspective,” Lewis said. “We have to invest a lot of money for mental health. There’s a lot of strain and anxiety because of the pandemic. Kids are not able to go to school—that has to be addressed too.”

Some losses are more personal. After losing his brother to the coronavirus, Lewis addressed it in a CRISP website blog post titled “When COVID-19 Strikes Home.”

He believes the damage inflicted by the Trump presidency will be long-lasting. “I’m hopeful, but he’s got a significant number of Americans who believe this election was not legit. That’s going to have a lasting effect, especially when some of our leaders say the same thing.”

Lewis mentioned reading that during the pandemic a number of billionaires doubled their wealth in what was “already a very unequal system. This is going to be damaging to millions of households that are already struggling. When the pandemic goes away, people are going to be left with all sorts of problems. All these things are going to plague us for a long time.”

Social workers can help by being more engaged in the political arena, Lewis said. “We need to hold our representatives accountable. We have to know who all our representatives are. We need to be very knowledgeable about our government, and it will pay off.”

“When you know who will help, that’s just a first step. But it’s an effective step.” Resources:


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What should be the Biden administration’s top three priorities?

Students at the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work in Hartford voted on that question during a recent campaign class. The students were each asked to identify their top three picks from these 11 issues:

Racial justice and equity received the most votes, with COVID relief second, and health care third.

“Social Workers are rising to the call of democracy, and not just defending it,” said Tanya Rhodes Smith, MSW, the institute’s director and instructor in residence in the Policy Practice Concentration. “They’re seeing their role in creating a more inclusive, responsive democracy.”

The Humphreys Institute “works to increase the political participation and power of social workers and the communities they serve so public policy reflects our profession’s values and commitment to social justice.”

Smith believes the students’ desire to take their role is why classes have been really full, with 200 in one of the February groups, she said. Smith also is seeing more involvement.

“They see the importance of policy and addressing issues of equity,” she said. “I think social work schools and students want more skills to engage in democracy.”

From what she hears in her political classes, there is an interest in building sustainable power and equity and “creating a society to dismantle the racism Donald Trump revealed to Americans.”

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