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Preparing BSW Students to Carry Out the Core Mission of the Social Work Profession
By Laura Lewis, PhD, LSW, and Peggy Black, PhD, LCSW

In the 1990s, Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work Has Abandoned its Mission by Harry Specht and Mark E. Courtney caused quite a stir in the profession, with its claim that social work was failing to fulfill its mission, and subsequent admonishment of the profession. Whether or not one agrees with the conclusions of the authors, their concerns are worthy of consideration. As social work educators, we must continually ask ourselves if we are effectively preparing undergraduate social work students to empower those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. Are our bachelor of social work (BSW) students adequately prepared and committed to challenge injustice and work to create a more socially and economically just society?

The themes that appear in the literature suggest that poverty is not given sufficient attention in undergraduate curriculum, is only superficially covered, and that students lack interest in working with economically disadvantaged individuals (Davis & Wainwright, 2005; Dowling, 1999; Krumer-Nevo, Monnickendam, & Weiss-Gal, 2009; Perry, 2003; & Tully, Nadel & Lesser, 2005). In order to further explore the first two themes, and the challenges faced in adequately preparing students to address poverty, the authors conducted a study of accredited social work programs. They developed a survey and sent it via Survey Monkey in May 2011 to programs chairs at the 470 accredited programs listed on the Council on Social Work Education website. The response rate from program chairs was 33%. The following spring, again utilizing Survey Monkey, a slightly modified survey (aimed at students) was sent to members of the bachelor program directors via Listserv and faculty were asked to distribute the survey link to senior social work majors. Three hundred and forty-two seniors responded.

Given the mission of the profession it would seem that coverage of poverty would be a top priority in all programs, yet in the authors' study, close to one-third of program directors who responded did not indicate doing so was critical. Recognizing all the content that must be covered in BSW programs, the fact that inclusion of poverty content is not viewed as critical for some programs may be a reason that sufficient coverage is not provided. Likewise, given the mission of the profession, it would seem that all programs would make reference to poverty in their mission statements implicitly, if not explicitly, and yet 22% of the program directors indicated their programs did not do so. Is this just an oversight? Apparently including something in a mission does not indicate it is put into practice, so it certainly does not imply that a program is remiss in addressing poverty when it is neither explicit nor even implicit in their mission statement. Still, it is important to ask: Why the omission? 

A positive, and not surprising, finding of the research was that undergraduate programs do include content on poverty throughout the curriculum. However, in responding to overall effectiveness of programs in educating students to address poverty, approximately one-sixth of program directors and more than one-fifth of students perceive their programs as only moderately effective, or less than moderately effective. This indicates that programs need to continually work on the daunting challenge we face in preparing our students to be effective in this area.

Finally, the study suggests that social work educators need to ask if we are connecting with students where they are (e.g., values, attitudes, beliefs, philosophy) in regard to addressing poverty, especially at the systemic level. Only 36% of the senior social work students who completed the survey indicated covering poverty in the curriculum was critical. As educators we must seek to determine ways to reach students and foster values consistent with the mission of the profession. That is not to say our students are not caring and compassionate—they overwhelmingly are—but it is up to us to increase their awareness of the critical importance of social workers in confronting poverty.

This research suggests that social work educators are, to varying degrees, striving to prepare students to empower those who live in poverty and bring about systemic change, but we need to do better. To face this immense challenge as social work educators we need to continually ask ourselves if coverage of content effectively addressing poverty is a high priority in our curriculum, if it is sufficiently covered, and what new and more effective strategies can we adopt to foster student interest. Only by being proactive and intentional in this process will we, as both educators and practitioners, ensure that future social workers will have the knowledge and skills to carry out our professional mandate to address poverty at both the individual and system levels. 

— Laura Lewis, PhD, LSW, is a professor of social work/sociology at Mercyhurst University, in Erie, PA.

— Peggy Black, PhD, LCSW, is a professor of social work/sociology at Mercyhurst University.

Davis, A., & Wainwright, S. (2005). Combating poverty and social exclusion: Implications for social work education. Social Work Education, 24(3),259-273.

Dowling, M. (1999). Social exclusion, inequality and social work. Social Policy & Administration, 33(3),245-261.

Krumer-Nevo, M., Monnickendam, M., & Weiss-Gal, I. (2009) Poverty aware social work practice: A conceptual framework for social work education. Journal of Social Work Education, 45(2),225-243.

Perry, R. (2003). Who wants to work with the poor and homeless? Journal of Social Work Education, 39(2),321-341.

Tully, G., Nadel, M., & Lesser, M. (2005). Providing economics content for the 21st Century BSW student. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 25(3-4),19-34.