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Education Expands on Financial Inequality

By Lindsey Getz

Financial inequality is an important issue that routinely confronts social workers—whether they choose to address it or not. To quote a recent fact sheet from Grand Challenges for Social Work, which includes financial inequality among the 12 challenges social workers should address, “Income and wealth inequality, accompanied by the financialization of everyday life, have led to increasing financial vulnerability in socioeconomically disadvantaged families. Millions of families, especially racial and ethnic minorities, lack access to essential financial services.”

While many educators are hoping to integrate financial social work into all areas of social work practice—across the curriculum—it remains unaddressed at many schools. Advocates say this must change.

“Income inequality has reached its highest level since 1990,” says Jin Huang, PhD, an associate professor of social work at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health & Social Justice. “But it’s not just income issues; it’s also issues of asset and credit inequality and the fact that we can no longer live in a cash economy. However, there is a lack of products and services available for certain populations and that is creating a growing crisis.”

This is particularly important for today’s social work students to be aware of, Huang says. After all, social work students—that is, tomorrow’s social workers—will serve millions of financially vulnerable people across different populations. As a result, they need to know how to help people with their finances.

The Ideally Suited Social Worker
Margaret Sherraden, PhD, MA, emeritus professor of social work at the University of Missouri, and St. Louis and Research Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, suggests that, of all professional disciplines, one stands out as having direct contact with financially vulnerable populations.

“If you could pick just one profession that answer would be simple: the social worker,” Sherraden says. “This underscores the importance of preparing social workers to address their financial troubles.”

Julie Birkenmaier, PhD, MSW, LCSW, a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Social Work, agrees that addressing financial inequality is “within the boundaries of the profession”—and in many regards has already been addressed informally by social workers.

This is something that some social workers are already touching upon with clients—but with little training or background on how to do so. However, it was actually more prevalent in days past.

“One hundred years ago, social workers were talking finances with their clients; this is nothing new,” Sherraden says. “Of course, it was framed by the times, but social workers have been engaged by bringing finances into the conversation throughout their history.”

Those that do navigate this territory often express discomfort—something that perhaps could be avoided had the topics been discussed during schooling.

“Financial conversations can be a sensitive topic and it’s not uncommon for social workers to feel uncomfortable with it at times,” Birkenmaier says.

That’s a key reason why Birkenmaier says that more formal education is absolutely warranted so that future social workers know how to actually broach these subjects—and to make meaningful connections with resources.

“I think most social workers would say ‘Yes, my clients have many financial issues, but I don’t feel prepared to help them to the extent that I need to,’” Sherraden says. “That’s our challenge. We need to not only help current social workers to add financial solutions to their toolkit, but we also need to educate current social work students on these topics so that they’re already entering the field prepared.”

Reaching Students
While many would agree it’s an important area, it’s still underrepresented in the classroom. Sherraden says that a recent survey funded by the National Endowment of Financial Education found that nearly one-half of social work faculty are not currently covering financial issues in any of their classes. However, that does not reflect their interest level. Nearly all faculty agreed these topics would be useful to students. There’s a clear recognition of the importance but the question lies in how to get it into the curriculum.

“Going forward, I do see more universities wanting to integrate financial inequality content into their programs,” Birkenmaier says. “Many are also interested in complete courses, though a full course is always a harder agenda item to approve when social work programs already have such full curriculums. But it’s such a vital topic, and I really do hope the interest continues to grow.”

Of course, some schools have already adopted teachings. At the Saint Louis University School of Social Work, Birkenmaier says that there was an undergraduate course on the topic that was once elective and is now mandated for students pursuing a BSW.

“Throughout the semester, we’re talking about ways to introduce and bring up financial topics, recognizing that making that segue and delving into a client’s financials can feel uncomfortable,” Birkenmaier says. “We are using a lot of role playing and case studies with the idea being to get students feeling comfortable and legitimate in having these conversations with their clients.”

In terms of bringing this topic into the curriculum at more universities, Sherraden says that identifying particular areas of content for particular classes is part of an integration strategy.

“For instance, if you’re teaching direct practice with individuals, a topic might be how to have money conversations with families,” Sherraden says. “There are vital ways in which this subject matter can be integrated into what is already being taught.”

Huang agrees and says that the financial issues that many face are also related to many other outcomes and issues that social work professionals are devoted to such as child abuse, family relationships, health, mental health, and macroeconomic development.

“The financial insecurity issues and financial health issues are related to many of the outcomes that we care about as social work professionals,” Huang says. “We just have to stop overlooking the financial piece to these issues. It’s all interconnected.”

There has been progress, Huang says. But there is room for growth.

“In the last decade, social work education programs have begun to focus on issues of financial inequality with increasing interest and promote strategies from social work’s unique perspective,” Huang says. “We need to be thinking more about how we can improve these population’s financial capabilities. The solution lies in better preparing our students and equipping them with the skills to help.”

In the Field
While it’s still new territory for many, there are already social work graduates who are making a difference. Abby Clavin, MSW, director of strategic initiatives for the Small Business Empowerment Center and community consultant for the Equifax Foundation, is a recent graduate of the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis who is working outside of the traditional field but focused on financial capability. She says that much of the work she is involved with is focused on helping build stronger financial foundations for individuals and families.

“What I’ve learned from being in the field is that we’re doing a huge disservice to clients if we’re not talking about their financial capability,” she says. “It’s a big piece of the puzzle that most individuals are trying to navigate—mental health, racial inequality, physical health, and so many other areas in which social workers are involved. But you can almost always tie them back to financial capability. The lack of affordable financial products and services can, and often does, drive a host of issues that individuals today are dealing with. We can no longer ignore it.”

— Lindsey Getz is a Royersford, PA-based freelance writer.