Political Activities of Social Workers: Addressing Perceived Barriers to Political Participation

Article excerpt

Although social workers are expected to advocate for their clients, many social worker activities revolve around individual advocacy. For example, Ezell (2001) found that 90 percent of social workers reported advocacy as part of the professional role of social work, but 75 percent of social workers who performed advocacy practiced individual, or case, advocacy (Schneider & Lester, 200l). Far fewer social workers become involved in political, or class, advocacy (also known as policy practice)--participating in the political system on a larger scale, either within or outside of their jobs. There are many reasons for this, including lack of training, not feeling competent to perform policy-related tasks, restrictive employment settings, and fear of losing one's job. Although there are legal restrictions on how much social workers can participate politically, depending on their place of employment, social workers can advocate substantially more than they sometimes assume they can.

This article reports the research that has been conducted on what makes social workers more likely to participate in the political process and the barriers that social workers perceive to becoming politically active. Barriers may be internal (for example, feelings of inefficacy) or external (for example, potential legal restrictions). We first address internal barriers to participation and provide resources designed to increase practitioners' feelings of competency to perform policy-related activities. Next, we analyze external barriers, including the Hatch Act and the Internal Revenue Service (INS) regulations for 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, to understand how these laws affect social work political participation. Finally, we draw conclusions on what types of political advocacy social workers can perform within and outside of their places of employment, both for public and nonprofit organizations.

DEFINING POLITICAL ACTIVITY

Throughout this article, the terms policy practice, political advocacy, and political participation are used interchangeably to mean political activities performed within the political system, such as lobbying, educating the population on a social problem or a piece of proposed legislation through community awareness, or working on a political campaign. Thus, other types of political activity, such as demonstrations, protests, and other forms of social action designed to make change are not addressed in this discussion.

There are three reasons why we define political activity in a more narrow sense in this article. First, research that reports on the political participation of" social workers defines political activity as social workers participating within the political arena, which is different from activism in a social action role; second, the skill sets are different, depending on how one defines political activity; and third, the laws that currently affect social workers in nonprofits and public agencies address lobbying and partisan political activity (for example, election campaigning), which are part of mainstream political pursuits but not social action pursuits. Thus, we narrow our focus to working within the political system for brevity's sake, not necessarily because it is the only, or best, way to create change.

POLITICAL PARTICIPATION AND SOCIAL WORKERS

Because social workers are ethically bound to advocate for oppressed populations and, indeed, are among the few professionals who speak for disenfranchised populations, the extent to which they participate in the political arena has been a topic of concern in the profession for several decades. In the early 1980s, Wolk (1981) found that social workers were more politically active than the general population, although one-third of the social workers who responded to his survey were not active at all. His analysis noted that the most active social workers were those who were linked to a professional association, and the least active were social workers in direct practice. …