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Why Our World Needs Social Work

By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD

In January came the disquieting and painful news that Chicago’s famed Hull House, founded more than 120 years ago by social work pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, closed its doors due to persistent and relentless financial woes. For social workers who truly grasp the profession’s storied history and inspiring mission, news of the shuttered Hull House hit like an unexpected and destructive tornado, tearing asunder a lifetime’s worth of memories and precious possessions. In important respects, Hull House has served as social work’s spiritual home and totem.

What’s particularly poignant is that Hull House—the best known of this nation’s settlement houses that proliferated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries—and Addams serve to remind us of what social work is, and needs to be, all about. Addams was one of social work’s principal lodestars, understanding with remarkable prescience how social work’s unique place in the world would be rooted in the profession’s simultaneous commitment to individual well-being and broader social justice issues. In fact, no other human service profession can lay claim to what social work has stood for with its enduring commitment to our world’s most vulnerable citizens.

Indeed, social work is the one helping profession whose revered code of ethics is clear about its moral mission to empower clients and address both private troubles and public issues, particularly for those who are the least advantaged:

The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living. Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients. (NASW Code of Ethics)

The Past as Prologue
The sad demise of Hull House should lead to more than mourning. Indeed, this is an opportunity for social workers to search their souls about the profession’s moral mission. Contemporary social workers must look to Hull House as an opportunity to redouble their commitment to Addams’ insightful and inspiring vision. Certainly today’s social challenges are no less daunting than those that loomed in Addams’ time. Our world needs social work’s determination to confront nagging social ills that undermine so many lives and communities. Here are but a few compelling examples of social work’s contemporary challenges:

• According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. People living in poverty need social workers to help them cope with the overwhelming challenges of homelessness, unemployment, underemployment, and poor health. And as Addams understood, social workers must confront broad social justice and policy issues that exacerbate poverty throughout our nation.

• Few families are untouched by mental illness. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, about 20% of the U.S. population is affected by mental illness during a given year. Social workers are critically important providers of clinical services to people who struggle with mood disorders, anxiety, psychoses, substance abuse, and other serious forms of mental illness. At the same time, social workers must be at the forefront of ambitious efforts to ensure adequate funding of mental health services, promote parity in insurance coverage of health and mental health services, and confront discrimination toward people with mental illness.

• According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2010 child protection agencies received nearly 2 million reports of child abuse or neglect. Of the nearly 1.8 million reports that were investigated, 436,321 were substantiated. Throughout the United States, skilled social workers provide critically important clinical services to protect abused and neglected children and help families cope with the stressors in their lives. Social workers also must address broader social and public policy issues that increase the risk of child abuse and neglect, including poverty, unemployment, and homelessness.

• The Pew Center on the States reports that, for the first time in history, more than one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison. Social workers employed in correctional institutions provide vitally important social and counseling services to inmates whose personal struggles have landed them in trouble with the law. And social workers must be at the forefront of efforts to mount ambitious crime prevention and restorative justice efforts, enhance the use of community-based services, and promote constructive sentencing reform.

Social Work as Calling
The concept of calling may seem antiquated to today’s social workers, especially considering what John Calvin had in mind in the 16th century when he referred to the “secret” and “churchly” call of the clergy. Yet the spirit of calling, in its secular sense, seems to be what inspired Addams and is as relevant today as it was in her time. For social work to maintain its moral purposes, today’s practitioners must embrace Addams’ mission and replicate her zeal. Social work must be as much a calling as a career, characterized by practitioners’ commitment to altruism, social justice, and service to the commonweal.

In practical terms, today’s social workers must demonstrate their ongoing commitment to both “case” and “cause,” including both service to individuals and pursuit of broad social reform. Social workers who are interested in clinical careers must supplement their work with concerted efforts to address the economic and political forces that contribute to and exacerbate mental illness. This can include testifying before legislative committees responsible for funding essential social services and advocating with public officials when draconian budget cuts are destined to affect vulnerable clients. Social workers who are interested in administrative and managerial careers can draw on their rich experience and expertise to lobby for much-needed funding and enlightened public policy designed to enhance access to critically needed social services. Social workers who spend their days serving individuals and families might consider running for elected offices as a way to link their clinical and casework expertise with public discourse about constructive social reform.

Addams understood why social work matters. More than a century later, today’s social workers are a repository of wisdom concerning the complex relationship between private troubles and public issues and between case and cause. No other human service profession is built on a foundation that, by design, embraces this unique connection. This is why social work matters. Is there a better way to honor the memory of Hull House than to carry this torch forward with the same sort of vigor that Addams displayed during social work’s infancy more than a century ago? I think not.

— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, healthcare, criminal justice, and professional ethics.