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Why More Social Workers Should Run for Office

By Tami Gouveia, DrPH, MPH, MSW

Another election year is upon us, with key social policy issues like an expanded child tax credit gaining steam ahead of tax season. That means it’s once again time for me to drag out my favorite soapbox: getting more social workers into elected office.

While we count some notable politicians among our ranks, including Los Angeles mayor Karen Bass, MSW; Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow, MSW; and Arizona governor Katie Hobbs, BSW, MSW, we are underrepresented at all levels of government relative to professions like law, business, or medicine.

We can change that. We can build stronger networks and invest in each other from the ground up for the betterment of our communities and our country. I grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, a diverse, working-class industrial city that was hit hard by drugs, outsourcing, and the recession. I looked around and didn’t see people like me running for office; I saw mainly older, wealthy white men from well-connected families.

I knew I wanted to be in the room shaping policy and working toward a society that’s more equitable, respectful, and humane—that puts people’s needs first (and not just when paired with corporate tax breaks). I never thought I could get elected, but it was always in the back of my mind. So when a seat opened up in my district in 2018, I jumped into the race, knocked on over 20,000 doors, and won.

Here’s why social workers make good legislators at all levels of government. We listen. We empathize with people’s lived experiences, their financial struggles, and the stress they’re facing. We understand how systems interact and affect people's health and well-being. Many of our systems aren’t designed to make it easy to deliver services, but social workers of all stripes are trained to navigate that complexity. We know how to quickly digest and distill large quantities of information and communicate with diverse audiences. We’re pragmatic, and we care about our communities.

As social workers, we seldom end up in fields where we’re surrounded by other social workers. Whether it’s housing or job policy, we’re effective at partnering with other civic sectors because we have plenty of practice. We’re able to sit down with teachers, first responders, or faith leaders and bridge those gaps.

The most common reason kids end up in protective services is not abuse—it’s for claims of neglect driven by structural inequities and poverty. This is a failure of our politics and the investment choices elected officials have made. When social workers are at the table, we are able to advocate for better conditions to support healthy outcomes for families.

While social workers have the skills, we have seen a decline in social work students, academics, researchers, and practitioners getting involved and supporting each other when we do run for elected office. Campaigns take time, talent, and treasure, whether that’s phone banking, collecting signatures, or donating $50 to a candidate who shares your values.

When we think about the impact of policymaking on our lives, we tend to focus on Congress. But the decisions that influence our daily lives are often hashed out locally: school board, library board, town council. Social workers know how to lead and get things done. We’ve seen the real-world implications of policies like the child tax credit that can be make or break for financially struggling families.

March is Social Work Month, and the theme for 2024 is “Empowering Social Workers.” What better way to advance the mission of our vocation than by running for office or supporting another social worker who is?

— Tami Gouveia is the director of the Center for Innovation in Social Work & Health at Boston University School of Social Work and a former Massachusetts state representative.