Influencing Social Policy in a Time of Devolution: Upholding Social Work's Great Tradition

By Schneider, Robert L.; Netting, F. Ellen | Social Work, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Influencing Social Policy in a Time of Devolution: Upholding Social Work's Great Tradition


Schneider, Robert L., Netting, F. Ellen, Social Work


Since the founding of social work as a profession in 1898, social workers have been urged continually to assume a key role in shaping social welfare policy (Domanski, 1998). In their commitment to working for the betterment of social living and social justice for all people, many social workers such as Jane Addams, Grace and Edith Abbott, Sophia Breckenridge, Jeanette Rankin, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, Wilbur Cohen, Bertha Reynolds, Richard Cloward, Charles Grosser, Whitney Young, Ron Dellums, Barbara Mikulski, and others, have steadfastly proposed and tried to influence social legislation, policies, and ordinances.

Nevertheless, we believe that most observers of social work would agree with Schwartz (1969), who noted that the "granddaddy" or "mother" of all dilemmas for social workers in every generation has been the conflict of the "social" versus the "psychological." In other words, how do social workers balance their responsibility for addressing social issues and reform through influencing policies on the one hand with providing help to individuals in trouble on the other? This dilemma was expressed again by Thompson (1994): "The profession remains at war within itself about the extent to which it should engage in matters of social justice and reform" (p. 457) versus clinical or psychotherapeutic practice! (Italicized text is authors' addition.)

We believe that this dilemma actually defines the uniqueness of social work as a profession. It is the one profession that has maintained a healthy tension between the individual and the larger society decade after decade, even in eras that have been highly individualistic. Social work leaders constantly have challenged the profession's members to value social responsibility and to recognize collective needs, even when it would have been easier to focus on the demands of day-to-day work.

In this article we focus on one horn of the dilemma, the call to influence social policy and to focus on larger issues. We briefly review exemplar expressions of the profession's 100 years of commitment to influencing social policy as an essential part of its mission. We then propose that the profession give its full attention to the recent shift in U.S. social policy making called the "new federalism." This important development, with significant implications for the profession and its clientele in the 21st century, has devolved much of the responsibility for setting priorities, eligibility, and resource allocation of social policies, programs, and entitlements from the federal government to each of the 50 states. If current and future professional social workers succeed in influencing policy development at the state level, we suggest that they will become the most recent expression of the "social" side of the historical dilemma mentioned above. We hope the profession will enter the 21 st century convinced of its total mission and effect the changes required to promote social justice in our society.

Influencing Social Policy: A Constant Theme

From the actions and writings of social workers over 100 years, it is evident that social work as a profession included influencing social policy in every generation. There were times when this dimension was not as well defined or as specific as current policy analysts would demand. There were years when the psychological eclipsed the social (see Gilbert & Specht, 1976). But professional social workers were reminded progressively of the broader, social policy-linked nature of their practice. This thread is illustrated below in writings from leading social workers of each era or decade of the 20th century.

In the early 1900s, settlement houses played important roles in "gathering facts, promulgating them, preparing legislation and collecting forces to influence social policy and legislation" such as federal child labor legislation, wage standards, and public health programs (Dolgoff, Feldstein, & Skolnik, 1993, p. …

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