Social Workers' Political Participation: Strengthening the Political Confidence of Social Work Students

Article excerpt

FOR MORE THAN THREE DECADES, the rate at which most Americans vote and engage in other political acts has declined (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). Earlier studies of members of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) suggest that social workers are more politically active than the general public (Wolk, 1981). In a survey of members (N=222) of NASW, 93% of respondents indicated having voted in the 1988 presidential election (Parker & Sherraden, 1991). The respondents were representative of NASW members in regard to gender and ethnicity, although the sample excluded social workers who do not belong to NASW. The political activity of NASW members is not surprising, since social workers' education and the traditions of the profession present political and social action as desirable professional activities.

Political participation is mandated by Section 6.04 of the NASW Code of Ethics (1996). More importantly for social work programs and faculties, both the BSW and MSW Curriculum Policy Statements include "social or political action" as part of the purpose of social work (Council on Social Work Education, 1992, B4.1.3., M4.1.3). Furthermore, the sections on curriculum content concerning social welfare policy and services indicate that "content must be presented about the political and organizational processes used to influence policy" (B6.8., M6.10).

In addition to voting in general elections, many social workers engage in other political activities, including testifying before legislative bodies, contacting government officials, and participating in rallies (Domanski, 1998; Ezell, 1993). It has been suggested that social workers must possess a certain attitude about political activity and acquire special knowledge and skills which are most likely learned in social work education programs (Wolk, Pray, Weismiller & Dempsey, 1996). By identifying the attitudes and skills that differentiate "politically inactive" from "politically very active" professional social workers, educators can develop strategies to increase the political participation of future social work practitioners.

This article provides evidence of social workers' political participation in one large state and proposes further development of educational approaches for including political participation experiences and political skill-building in the social work curriculum. By increasing the political skills of social work students, it is likely that their self-confidence in undertaking political action will increase, yielding greater political participation in the future.


The benefits of political participation to the profession and to its clients are well-documented in recent social work literature (Fisher & Karger, 1997; Haynes & Mickelson, 1997; Jansson, 1999; Karger & Stoesz, 1998). In fact, if political participation and political action are recognized as critical elements of social life, then social workers' involvement in political activity is very natural, given the profession's emphasis on the relationship of one's environment to one's social, biological, and psychological life (Fisher & Karger, 1997).

Political participation encompasses a range of activities best described as attempts by citizens "to influence the structure of government, the selection of government authorities, or the policies of government" (Conway, 1991, p. 3). Political participation includes electoral activities such as voting, campaigning for a candidate, or contributing money to a candidate, political action committee, or party. It also includes legislative activities such as meeting with a government official, presenting oral testimony, and contacting an official by phone, letter, fax, or email.

Verba et al. (1995) have suggested that individuals do not participate politically because they lack resources or knowledge, they have not been recruited by others, or they feel that participation will not make a difference. …