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Eye on Ethics

Keeping Social Justice in Social Work
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
Social Work Today
March/April 2006

Deborah is a clinical social worker in independent practice. Her clinical work focuses primarily on trauma and loss issues. Many of her clients have been sexually abused, victims of domestic violence, and have struggled with loss issues associated with divorce, infertility, and death.

When Deborah applied to graduate school, her goal was to become a psychotherapist. At the time, Deborah knew little about the social work profession’s unique history and values. Her aim was to obtain an MSW to be eligible for licensure and third-party reimbursement for her clinical work. However, during her MSW education, Deborah learned about social work’s unique commitment to social justice issues and assisting society’s most vulnerable populations. By the end of her MSW education, Deborah resolved to supplement her clinical work—which she knew would continue to be her primary focus—with significant involvement in social justice issues.

One of Deborah’s clients, Ida, suffered from clinical depression and was a victim of domestic violence. Ida and Deborah worked together to help Ida learn ways to cope with the end of her marriage and address her clinical symptoms. Ida decided to leave her abusive husband and find her own apartment. However, earning only slightly more than minimum wage in her full-time job at a convenience store, Ida quickly discovered that she could not afford the high rents in her community.

As a result of her work with Ida, Deborah became aware of the local affordable housing crisis. Deborah became actively involved in a statewide affordable housing coalition, whose goal is to raise public awareness and lobby for affordable housing legislation and funding. Several times per month, Deborah allocates time in her schedule to meet with coalition members, including several social work colleagues and other concerned professionals and citizens, to prepare a public relations campaign and work with state legislators on proposed legislation.

A Social Work Tradition
Ever since its formal inauguration in the late 19th century, social work has always paid attention to social justice issues. Since its beginning, social workers have wrestled with the complex relationship between “case” and “cause” and between amelioration of individual suffering and social change that addresses the structural flaws and injustices in the broader society that foster the problems people experience.

Social work’s earliest concern with justice has its roots in the Bible and religion. Acts of charity were meant to fulfill God’s commandments as much as to be genuine acts of kindness. However, by the late 19th-century, criticism of religious charity was mounting because of its somewhat moralistic and paternalistic image; this concern led to the invention of the more secular phrase we continue to use: “social welfare.” The complex events associated with the early 20th-century Progressive Era, settlement house movement, and the nation’s most severe economic depression helped turn social workers’ values and attention toward the daunting social welfare problems of the broader society. Social workers could not help but recognize the need to examine the structural flaws that created widespread vulnerability and dependency.

The aftermath of the Great Depression signaled a noteworthy split in social work’s basic priorities. A significant portion of the profession continued to concentrate on clinical and psychotherapeutic work, emphasizing individual change and well-being, while other practitioners worked primarily in public welfare agencies and other social programs begun under the New Deal and designed to address society’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Ever since that era, social workers have struggled to blend the profession’s diverse and simultaneous commitments to clinical and broader social justice issues.

Although social work’s involvement in social justice issues and related social action has waxed and waned since the profession’s early years, social work has sustained its ideological commitment to social justice. Thoughtful social workers have always understood that individual clients’ struggles with problems such as clinical depression, anxiety, domestic violence, substance abuse, and poor health often stem from significant social and economic problems associated with poverty, unemployment, unaffordable housing, inflation, and other environmental problems. Treating individuals’ private troubles is important but ultimately may have limited impact if the public issues that create the private troubles are not addressed.

The Social Work Difference
In some important respects, clinical social workers such as Deborah who work with vulnerable clients share the knowledge and skills of their colleagues in other mental health professions, such as psychology, marriage and family therapy, and counseling. In their classes and continuing education seminars, they may learn about similar clinical intervention models and techniques, assessment and diagnostic issues, and crisis intervention strategies. In various settings, practitioners from all these professions provide somewhat similar services to similar clientele. What is it, then, that sets social workers apart from their colleagues in other helping professions?

Perhaps the most important distinction is that social workers are educated to understand the intimate and complex connection between individual suffering and the social context from which it arises. Social workers are educated from day one to understand the environmental correlates and determinants of human suffering, and that long-term solutions to the conditions that create human suffering must be addressed in the political and policy arenas. Astute social workers know that lasting change occurs as a result of enlightened legislation that addresses key social issues; reasoned and principled social and agency policies and initiatives; and adequate funding by federal, state, and local governments.

As the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics states, “Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice” (Standard 6.04[a]).

Perhaps the most clear and compelling evidence of social work’s truly unique commitment to social justice is in the preamble to the NASW Code of Ethics:

“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.”

Genuinely embracing this fundamental value is exactly how the profession can continue to keep social justice in social work.

— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work, 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.