Social Workers and Politics: Beyond the Hatch Act

Article excerpt

At a time when most Americans are growing increasingly disillusioned with U.S. politics, four trends have emerged that could have significant implications for social workers interested in political action: (1) development of an anti-incumbency movement; (2) increased voter apathy, partly in response to candidates who do not appeal to voters' or potential voters' interests; (3) growing lack of identification or affiliation with any one political party, as shown by Ross Perot's independent candidacy for president in 1992; and (4) broad distrust of elected and appointed officials. Although these trends do not speak well of U.S. political affairs, they may offer opportunities for social workers to enter the political arena in a way that could both increase public recognition of the profession and provide a conscience to the world of politics. This article examines some of the confusing issues and barriers that have historically discouraged social workers from getting involved in politics, including the federal Hatch Political Activity Act and Internal Revenue Code limitations on employee and agencies' political activities. Furthermore, the article offers suggestions to increase the political opportunities for social workers.

Price of Inaction

It is old news that since its beginnings the social work profession has been at war with itself about the extent to which it should engage in matters of social justice and reform. Drawn by the need to gain both professional status and public recognition, social workers' efforts toward major social reforms were usually dampened by politically conservative times. Thus, the tendency to turn inward and away from both advocacy and controversy may have slowed the profession down in gaining any real political leverage.

Haynes and Mickelson (1991) noted that social workers faced hard times during the Reagan and Bush presidencies of the 1980s:

The failure of the social work profession to assume a position of leadership in the movement for social reform is inconsistent with its historical and philosophical background. The relatively nonactivist professional of the 1980s

exists in stark contrast with the turn-of-the-century reformers. A major characteristic of social workers of yesteryear were their efforts to direct the public toward social injustice, whereas a frequently noted characteristic of social work since the 1970s is its failure to speak out about the inadequacies of welfare and other programs in urban communities as well as in the rest of the United States. Clearly, the profession's apparent reticence to address social problems that undermine the self-respect and morale of the individual is incongruent with its belief in the dignity and worth of human beings.

Regardless of the reasons for it, the price of the inaction of the 1980s was a bitter one to pay in terms of cumulative effects, as evidenced by the following examples:

* Between 1981 and 1989 federal expenditures for subsidized housing and the number of federal housing starts decreased more than 80 percent (Applebaum, 1989).

* In 1981 the federal government spent $7 on defense for every $1 spent on housing; by the end of President Ronald Reagan's second term, $46 went toward defense for every $1 going toward housing, an increase of 557 percent (Applebaum, 1989).

* Tax law changes implemented in 1981 doubled the tax rates for poor Americans (Gottschalk, 1984).

* Between 1978 and 1990 the total number of people living in poverty increased from 25.5 million to 33.6 million, representing an increase of almost 32 percent (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).

Add to these facts the state of the U.S. economy: 1982 marked the greatest recession since the Great Depression, its depth "leaving a legacy of reduced family incomes, higher poverty rates, damaged economic status of historically disadvantaged groups, and decreased job opportunities in the traditionally high-paying manufacturing sector" (Fox, 1989, p. …