Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity

Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity

Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity

Working with Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity

Synopsis

Polls tell us that most Americans whether they earn $20,000 or $200,000 a year think of themselves as middle class. As this phenomenon suggests, "middle class" is a category whose definition is not necessarily self-evident. In this book, historian Daniel Walkowitz approaches the question of what it means to be middle class from an innovative angle. Focusing on the history of social workers who daily patrol the boundaries of class he examines the changed and contested meaning of the term over the last one hundred years.

Walkowitz uses the study of social workers to explore the interplay of race, ethnicity, and gender with class. He examines the trade union movement within the mostly female field of social work and looks at how a paradigmatic conflict between blacks and Jews in New York City during the 1960s shaped late-twentieth-century social policy concerning work, opportunity, and entitlements. In all, this is a story about the ways race and gender divisions in American society have underlain the confusion about the identity and role of the middle class.

Excerpt

When I began this project over a decade ago, two questions provided its subtext: How does one write the history of the working class when everyone thinks he or she belongs to the middle class? and why do my colleagues consider trade unions inappropriate forms of organization for professionals? Finding the answer to these questions, I came to believe, meant confronting the confusion surrounding middle-class identity in the twentieth-century work force, a confusion that extends to professional workers such as college teachers and social workers. Rather than studying teachers, however, I was led by a quite incidental circumstance to study social workers.

Invited in 1982 to write an essay on the historical relationship between work and mental health for a conference sponsored by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) on work as a source of mental illness or as therapy for it, I soon realized that the work of the people trained to provide this therapy offered a special opportunity for pursuing my concerns. the history of social workers involves salient features of modern identity formation in America. First, since social workers were a predominantly, but not exclusively, female labor force that by mid-century serviced a predominantly African American and Hispanic client population, gender and race were always central to how they thought of themselves and their work. Second, professionalization and unionization have also been competing strains of social worker identity since the 1920s. Third, in their appeal to a "forgotten" middle class in late-twentieth-century America, politicians have scripted welfare as a counternarrative of idleness and "privilege." Most important, though, as paid workers occupying a liminal social space between wealthy volunteers and board members who claim agency authority on the one hand and the poor who are dependent on them for aid on the other, social workers play a central role in twentieth-century class formation in America. Indeed, in their daily work of determining eligibility for private philanthropy or public relief, social workers patrol the borders of class. Consequently . . .

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