Social workers rolled up their collective sleeves and joined in making a difference when President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty 50 years ago.
Interviews with social workers targeting poverty alleviation today make it clear that just as society evolves, so do the challenges of poverty. However, they say giving up is not an option.
The widening gap
It is imperative that the social work profession seeks system-level approaches to alleviating poverty, said Michal Grinstein-Weiss, a national and international expert in social and economic mobility and an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work. She is also associate director at the Center for Social Development.
Grinstein-Weiss says progress has been made to mitigate severe poverty in the U.S. since the 1960s, through the creation of Medicare, Medicaid and increased funding for housing and food subsidy programs. But many battles remain, she said.
“What I find more troubling than the U.S. poverty rate — which measures the adequacy of income — is the increasingly widening gap in America between the resources held by the rich and those held by the poorest,” she said. “That gap has continued to grow since we began measuring net worth in the early 1980s. Last year, the top 10 percent of American families held 75 percent of the nation’s net worth — the bottom 50 percent held only 1.1 percent of it.”
There is also a pronounced gap between racial groups, Grinstein-Weiss said. In 2013, white families held 90 percent of the net worth in the U.S, black families held 2.6 percent, and Hispanic families held 2.3 percent, she said.
“Access to financial resources — or lack of access — has consequences that reach into every aspect of an individual’s life and into subsequent generations,” she said.
Social workers have been developing innovative approaches to help lessen poverty levels, Grinstein-Weiss said, but the profession must also face increasingly complicated challenges.
“As advocates for vulnerable populations, social workers must continue to make contributions in the conversations surrounding poverty, and the profession must engage more actively in policy discussions,” she said.
There is good news to report. Grinstein-Weiss pointed out several policy proposals that have the potential to substantially improve the lives of low-income families, including the proposal to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and President Obama’s new retirement savings program, myRA.
In addition, the research by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is investigating ways to educate and protect low-income consumers and the Center for Social Development is conducting research on universal Child Development Accounts, which holds promise as a policy to help close the gap in net worth.
“It is critically important for social workers to engage in these discussions,” Grinstein-Weiss said. “In part, their involvement is needed to ensure that the human face of poverty is not overlooked.”
Poverty tool kit
Social workers in the New York City area are working on one solution to the problem by putting together tools to help others understand how poverty can be lifted.
The NASW New York City Chapter released a poverty tool kit in June called “Worse Than You Think — The Dimensions of Poverty in NYC: What Social Workers See.” It is available for free download.
The tool kit aims to mobilize a multilevel response to poverty.
“We need a better understanding of the extent of poverty, how it disproportionately impacts some groups, and what systems and policies maintain poverty and disproportionality,” said Martha Adams Sullivan, executive director of Gouverneur Health. She is the past president of the NASW-NYC Chapter and served on the tool kit’s steering committee.
The tool kit authors are social work experts from a variety of fields and communities who help shine a light on the extent of poverty in the city, its consequences, and to debunk false notions about its causes. Broken into two parts, the first section of the tool kit is devoted to addressing “myths and facts” of poverty from a national perspective.
One of the authors is Mimi Abramovitz, the Bertha Capen Reynolds Chair of Social Welfare Policy at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. She notes in her entry that the U.S. poverty question “has virtually disappeared from the public policy agenda. The vacuum has been filled with a series of myths that the social work profession is obliged to counter with facts such as those provided here.”
“One common thread that underlies many myths is that of blaming the victim for the problem,” Sullivan explained. “This allows us to avoid taking responsibility. Also, the disproportionate impact of poverty on some groups, e.g. African-Americans, is evidence of another common thread: oppression. There is a tendency to avoid acknowledging racism, sexism, class oppression, etc.”
The tool kit is designed for a broad audience so that direct-service practitioners, legislators, policymakers and advocates, as well as educators, researchers, students and the general public will find it accessible, Sullivan said.
“It is hoped, that armed with accurate information, the tool kit will be a resource to help to debunk myths and stereotypes about the poor that too often blame the victim, and impede the development of effective and humane programs and policies that can lift families from poverty,” she said.
For some social workers, the quest to alleviate large-scale problems serves as an inspiration.
That has been the case for Lawrence Berger, a professor and chairman of the doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work.
During his postgraduate education, Berger said he “became fascinated by how much human issues overlap with almost every other social problem that social workers are thinking about.”
“I became really motivated to try to understand these relationships — how poverty and policies play out in people’s lives,” Berger said, whose years of research have focused on improving child and family development.
This past summer, Berger became the director of the Institute for Research on Poverty, or IRP, the nation’s original poverty research center, which is in its 48th year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
IRP is one of three National Poverty Research Centers sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and it has a particular interest in poverty and family welfare in Wisconsin as well as the nation.
Berger said the IRP is a product of the War on Poverty initiatives that began in 1964. An example of one of the unique research studies that IRP is currently involved with is a randomized experiment with the Milwaukee Community Response Program.
Berger and other researchers are testing the theory of whether some child maltreatment cases could be avoided by providing families access to economic resources and addressing their economic challenges through policy improvements. NASW highlighted this research at the Congressional Social Work Caucus Briefing last fall on the Intersection of Poverty and Child Maltreatment.
“When money gets tight it creates stress,” said Berger, who noted his Ph.D. dissertation examined the role of economic factors in child maltreatment cases. “Research says it’s harder to make rational decisions under economic stress.”
Social work and poverty research has evolved since the 1960s by including expert analysis of those involved with economics, sociology and other professions, Berger noted.
“We’ve been able to take the best theoretical elements from other fields and apply them to poverty,” he said.
Another way poverty alleviation efforts have evolved is from the active efforts of schools of social work, Berger noted.
“I think social work schools play a huge role in (poverty research) and they do a lot of the evaluations of welfare reform, policy development and support,” he said.
A look into the future
Just as social work was a catalyst for alleviating poverty conditions in the 19th and 20th centuries, social workers today need to be at the forefront of tackling today’s poverty challenges, said Yolanda Chávez Padilla, professor of Social Work and Women’s Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
“Like (social workers of the past) we need to invent new and creative approaches to emerging problems,” Padilla said. “We understand deeply the consequences of poverty for all aspects of life and through the life course, from child development to mental health, from healthy relationships to school achievement. We have the unique ability to make sense of cumulative evidence and explore different dimensions of problems on multiple levels.”
Social workers on the front lines can and do make a difference in poverty alleviation, she said.
“In addition to the important role of helping meet the urgent material needs of people in poverty, a unique role that social work can take in alleviating poverty at the micro level is that of serving as case advocates for their clients as they navigate hostile systems,” Padilla said. “To the extent that poverty represents diminished access to resources and power, it is the role of the social worker to help a person caught up in the criminal justice system, a child with special needs in an inner-city school, an undocumented immigrant in a new community.”
Vigilance and leadership
Mel Wilson, manager of the NASW Department of Social Justice and Human Rights, said that while the War on Poverty effort helped lift many Americans from despair with the creation of social safety net programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and housing and food subsidy programs, socials workers must help preserve them.
“There has always been efforts to counteract, dismantle or curtail safety net programs,” he said. “Vigilance is absolutely necessary. Social workers should always be there from a macro standpoint that any effort to dismantle these safety net programs should be met with organized pushback.”
One example of such vigilance is the work of the nongovernmental Transportation Equity Caucus, which advocates for the needs of low-income Americans when federal and state governments set their funding priorities for public transportation. Wilson said many people do not realize how important access to public transportation is to low-income people who live in both urban and rural areas.
He suggests visiting Policy Link for more information about promoting fair and just inclusion of low-income people in policy decisions.
Michael Sherraden, the George Warren Brown Distinguished University Professor and founding director of the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St Louis, said social work must lead the effort to address poverty alleviation in the future.
“In my view, applied scholarship and professional action on poverty and development remain central to social work,” he said. “Social work can and should lead. Indeed, if social work does not lead, it is unlikely that significant progress will be made.”
Editor’s note: The NASW News highlighted social work efforts in a series of articles this year in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. The stories are available to members at the following links: