Political Content in Social Work Education as Reported by Elected Social Workers

By Lane, Shannon R. | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Political Content in Social Work Education as Reported by Elected Social Workers


Lane, Shannon R., Journal of Social Work Education


THE SOCIAL WORK PROFESSION encourages its members to run for public office to ensure that elected officials represent the values and ethics of social work (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2003). This article describes the social work education experienced by social workers who have served as elected officials.

The earliest studies of social workers elected to office took place in 1979, when Maryann Mahaffey identified 51 social workers who were in elected legislative office and one social worker who was serving as a town's mayor. By 1991, NASW had identified 113 elected officials who had been trained as social workers and by 1993 that number had increased to 165 (Weismiller & Rome, 1995).

Currently, nine social workers serve in Congress on the federal level: two senators and seven representatives (NASW, 2008). In addition, as of 2008, NASW was aware of 183 social workers serving in state and municipal offices around the country (2008).

Social workers running for or elected to political office often find that their social work training has a variety of uses within the political arena (Humphreys, 1994; Kleinkauf, 1982; Mahaffey & Hanks, 1982; Messinger, 1982). Representative Edolphus Towns comments, "I found the multifaceted skills necessary to social work an essential underpinning in my campaign effort" (Haynes & Mickelson, 1991, p. 134). Rose (1999) suggests that the skills needed by municipal legislators are usually possessed by social workers. The skills of problem solving, consensus building, conflict management, communication, and group leadership are valuable during a campaign while analytical thinking, interpersonal skills, negotiation, and "the active understanding of how to analyze, create, and use power relationships" are useful in holding municipal office (Rose, 1999, p. 9). Ron Dellums states that his education in social work "allows me to deal with individuals on an individual basis, to be able to acknowledge their needs and problems, yet retain a professional demeanor in facing these problems" (Mahaffey & Hanks, 1982, p. vi). In addition, all elected officials do some sort of legislative or constituent casework, assisting constituents in their dealings with government agencies (Ortiz, Wirz, Semion, & Rodriguez, 2004).

In 1994, the University of Connecticut School of Social Work Institute for the Advancement of Political Social Work Practice, now the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work (NAHIPSW), surveyed 41 social workers elected to state legislatures (Humphreys, 1994). Ninety percent reported that their social work education had helped them in their political career.

The only other reported study of elected social workers was conducted by Haynes and Mickelson (2006). In 1998, 84 social workers in federal, state, and local offices were surveyed. This survey had a response rate of 37% and included one member of Congress, 25 state legislators, and five local officials. All of the respondents to this study were initially hesitant to run for political office because they believed a law degree was a necessary requirement. As with the Humphreys survey, many of the respondents to the 1998 survey reported participation in advocacy and political work before their first run for office, including community organizing, civic activities, political staff positions, and campaign work. The skills these elected social workers believed were most important to success as reported by Haynes and Mickelson included "people skills," political skills, negotiation, and mediation.

Political Content in Social Work Education

Although many have argued that social workers should be trained in political activity, lobbying, and/or advocacy (Haynes & Mickelson, 2006; Mahaffey & Hanks, 1982), are schools of social work currently preparing their graduates for these tasks? If schools do not provide information and training about ways to influence the policy process, newly graduated social workers can become "uncertain about their expertise and easily paralyzed" (Figueira-McDonough, 1993, p. …

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