A Step Backward: Social Workers Weigh Impact of U.S. Supreme Court Rulings

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By Deron Snyder

The high court issued three rulings in June 2023 — on affirmative action, same-sex couples and student loan cancellation — that have the potential to disproportionately harm minority and disadvantaged groups. The impact on social workers and clients will be substantial.

”The Supreme Court’s impact on our lives has always been very significant,” says Rebekah Gewirtz, MPA, executive director of NASW’s Massachusetts and Rhode Island chapters. “These rulings are a step backward for social work, social justice and all the things we’ve been fighting for.”

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Some see a common effect stemming from the court’s Roe ruling last summer and its three decisions this summer.

“They create increased demand for social services because more and more people are going to be disadvantaged, hurt and deprived,” says Mimi Abramovitz, DSW, MSW, professor emerita at Hunter College, CUNY and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The pressure (on social workers) is going to increase because Congress is more interested in defunding programs that deliver benefits. So you have a perfect storm of increased pressure.”

The U.S. Supreme Court rulings undid decades of legal precedents and are affecting how social workers practice. The profession is challenged to help ease the pressure on individuals and families stemming from these decisions, which can create ethical challenges for social workers.

“All of these rulings are critical for us to talk about as a field,” says Duane Breijak, LMSW-Macro, executive director of NASW’s Michigan Chapter. “They impact who we see entering our social work programs as well as who can stay in our profession. Social work is the largest mental health field in the country.”

Discrimination Gets Green Light

When the court ruled in favor of an evangelical Christian web designer who refused to work on same-sex weddings, Justice Sonia Sotomayer called it part of “a backlash to the movement for liberty and equality for gender and sexual minorities.” Repercussions were felt days later in Traverse City, Mich., when hair salon owner Christine Geiger posted her intentions to discriminate. A since-deleted post on Studio 8 Hair Lab’s Facebook page indicated that trans individuals were not welcome at the salon.

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LGBTQIA2S+ rights in public accommodations are protected in some form in 29 states. In the remaining states, some local municipalities offer protection, but the high court’s decision puts all such measures at risk.

“LGBTQIA2S+ Americans lack nondiscrimination protections,” says NASW Director of Public Policy Sarah Christa Butts, MSW. “We need to pass the Equality Act in Congress, because our LGBTQIA2S+ community is being denied fundamental civil and human rights.” She sees similar peril for health care access, with numerous states banning gender-affirming care and reproductive services, and isolating transgender youth. “It’s terrible,” Butts says. “It’s actually hard to believe in 2023 this is what’s happening.”

Social work is one of the few professions dedicated to supporting the LGBTQIA2S+ community and ensuring fair treatment. Charles E. Lewis Jr., PhD, DSW, MSW, says the SCOTUS decision makes that work harder and shifts society into reverse.

“When you look at polling, the country has moved dramatically in embracing same-sex marriage and interracial marriage,” says Lewis, co-founder and director of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) in Washington, D.C. “The Supreme Court seems reluctant to bow to the will of the people on sexual identity. With a host of challenges and issues facing these mostly young people, (the court’s ruling is) cruel.”

Assault on Affirmative Action

Lewis sees comparable cruelty in the ruling that struck down affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University, ending the systemic consideration of race in admitting students. He says laws originally meant to defend minorities are now used as weapons, under the guise of fairness.

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“They’re saying white people or any other people should have the same protections that oppressed people have,” he says. “That makes absolutely no sense. White people were never oppressed. There was never a threat of them being harmed by institutionalized racism. What’s threatened is the status quo, their position, and that’s unnerving to them.”

The nation’s most selective universities use some consideration of race to ensure diverse student bodies. Otherwise, acceptance is largely limited to families with means, and students then make bonds to reap further benefits. “There’s a recognition that these schools hold the key to success—monetary success, all kinds of connections and political success,” Gewirtz says. “That can’t be an exclusive offering, only for people who come from privilege.”

In her dissent, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson contradicted the majority’s contention that “race blindness solves the problem of race-based disadvantage. Requiring colleges to ignore the initial race-linked opportunity gap between applicants will inevitably widen that gap, not narrow it,” she wrote.

Unforgiving on Student Debt

Among fields that require a master’s degree, social work isn’t high on the list of top salaries. Recent graduates can have $150,000+ in student debt and make $50,000 a year. The sector is qualified for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which started in 2007. But many workers don’t meet the requirements for length of employment and payments made.

That’s why the workforce was especially crestfallen when the court killed President Joe Biden’s student loan debt relief plan. It would have allowed eligible borrowers to cancel up to $20,000 in debt.

“Debt is a huge burden in our field,” Breijak says. “It feels like we had carrots dangled in front of us, programs to support folks and have student loan forgiveness even at a small scale. And then it gets pared back or ripped away.” Roughly 43 million Americans who would have been eligible felt that pain.

Social workers of color have disproportionately more student loan debt than white social workers. While the Biden administration works on alternatives to provide relief, the prospect of student debt can dissuade good candidates from entering the field. “You know there are some social workers who might have debt their entire career,” Breijak says. “That’s a huge problem not just for social work, but for our education system.”

NASW has spent a couple of years working on student debt reforms alongside partners like the Student Borrower Protection Center and the PSLF Coalition, and recently joined United for Democracy, a new coalition that seeks to address the overreaching high court.

“The Supreme Court is a weapon of right-wing extremists who’ve spent decades trying to capture the court to do their bidding,” says United for Democracy’s Jennifer Mandelblatt. “We are seeing that effort pay off in these extreme and dangerous rulings.”

Butts says too many people who agree with government bailouts for industries don’t understand the benefits of government assistance for higher education. “It’s not a handout, particularly when you’re in public service,” she says. “These workers are helping to strengthen the fabric of our society.”

Fearing a Chill in the Air

In today’s political climate, teachers and professors in some states can face repercussions for classroom discussions about race or sex. As judges and lawmakers seek to increase restrictions, Abramovitz is worried about social workers perhaps growing fearful and holding back.

”It has a chilling effect on what they can do to fulfill their mission, like CRT (Critical Race Theory) has a chilling effect on faculty,” she says. “It stops people and they say, ‘I better not talk about abortion, because I might get in trouble.’ Maybe they don’t do everything possible to help a client because the agency tells them not to, or they’re afraid of losing funding.”

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NASW and other advocacy groups are sorting through strategies to counter extreme moves around the country. “The shock is kind of wearing off, because we’re really challenging legislation proposed at the state level,” Butts says. “And then we have these national decisions coming out of the Supreme Court which are very disturbing. The first step is calling out the problem and getting as many organizations on board as we can.”

Abramovitz says the workforce operates in the context of society, which creates the conditions for effective or ineffective social work. Recent rulings undermine the conditions and can sow confusion among young people entering the profession. “If they hear it’s OK to discriminate against LGBT people, how do they assess that? The context shapes how they think and shapes what they can do. These laws make it harder for them to be effective practitioners.”

Lewis says more fearlessness is needed on campuses, too, but universities are reluctant to loosen their grip on social work professors. “Some of our best thinkers are stuck in the academy,” he says. “Their universities think they’re too engaged in the political space. We need to do more pushback against that.”

Fighting to Reverse the Tide

Breijak never intended to practice clinically when he pursued his master’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan. He was drawn to a specific section of NASW’s Code of Ethics, the section he believes is essential for social workers’ battle against injustices.

”We have an ethical mandate to be politically and community active,” he says. “That’s what makes social work different from many of the other health fields. We have to be engaged and know what’s going on politically, because access to funding is usually tied to the legislative landscape. Access to services is often tied to the political and legislative landscape. We have to be aware at the larger level of what’s going on and (stay) connected to people we serve.”

Paying attention to national trends is imperative, but so is monitoring rulings and activities close to home. For instance, NASW-Michigan played a role last year in generating the record voter turnout that flipped the state legislature and secured ballot initiatives to protect abortion rights and expand voting rights. NASW-Massachusetts, which has supported the Healthy Youth Act that’s languished in the legislature for over a decade, helped push Gov. Maura Healy to update sex education guidelines that achieved many of the same goals

In our statehouses and at the local level is where a lot of positive change can happen,” Breijak says.

While a small percentage of social workers are actually activists, organizers and lobbyists, the workforce’s collective strength can sway policy. Even individuals who don’t consider themselves “political” can play a part.

”Even if it’s just getting to know your state representatives and senators,” Gewirtz says. “Send them an email. Get involved with NASW. Know what bills we’re working on at the chapter level. We’d be glad to plug you in and make it as simple and easy as possible.”

Individuals have choices if they choose to vote, but elections have consequences for everyone, regardless. Abramovitz co-chairs the National Social Work Voter Mobilization campaign, which strives to integrate voter registration and engagement into social work education and practice. “Registration isn’t the beginning and the end, but it can make a difference,” she says.

Mandelblatt acknowledges the sense of fear and foreboding brought about by recent court rulings, but reminds people that they’re not helpless. “We must remember that Congress has the ability to pass legislation and rein in the court,” she says. “They are our elected representatives and we can make our voices heard, call on them to take action.”

Butts notes that the nation has roughly 700,000 social workers and NASW represents all of them—with roughly 110,000 members. She says avoiding discouragement can be difficult in these challenging times, but workforce engagement is crucial.

“Sometimes social workers are so busy in the work they’re doing, these larger issues feel overwhelming,” Butts says. “So we try to fill that gap and represent the profession’s interests.

Breijak says joining the association and other organizations is a remedy if you don’t think activism is your thing. “Being part of a group where you’ve got other people in their passion area is going to help you along the way,” he says. “Find a mentor. There are lots of folks on the ground doing some amazing work all across this country.”

Deron Snyder, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., is an award-winning journalist and Howard University graduate who lives in metro Washington, D.C.

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