Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Who Wants to Work with the Poor and Homeless?

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Who Wants to Work with the Poor and Homeless?

Article excerpt

THERE IS A RICH HISTORY of debate regarding the defining features of the social work profession. Within the last 20 years this debate is exemplified within three general areas of examination or concern within the literature. These areas include (1) the examination or questioning of a believed migration of graduate-educated social workers away from the public sector in search of prestige in private practice (Reisch & Wenocur, 1986; Rubin & Johnson, 1984); (2) debate regarding the extent and nature to which social work is truly altruistic (Getzel, 1983; Kurland, 1982); and (3) accusations that practice and educational trends are representative of social work abandoning its "traditional" practice base or "mission" of service to the poor (Specht & Courtney, 1994; Reeser & Epstein, 1987) because of workers' desires to practice with economically affluent and highly motivated clients (Falck, 1984; O'Connor, Dalgleish, & Khan, 1984; Rubin & Johnson, 1984; Katz, 1982). The steady increase of National Association of Social Workers (NASW) members engaged in private practice over the last 20 years (Gibelman & Schervish, 1993, 1997; Kelley & Alexander, 1985; NASW, 1983; Wallace, 1982) coupled with the prominence of psychotherapy/clinical methods as preferred modes of intervention taught in many graduate schools throughout the United States have provided plenty of fuel for the above debates. Although there are no national data on the background or class status of all clients served by social workers, some suggest the lack of professionally educated social workers in public welfare offices suggests a lack of desire to work with the poor and homeless (Reeser & Epstein, 1987; Wyers, 1981). Other writers argue that these trends were a natural outgrowth of neo-conservative welfare policies (in the 1970s and 1980s) and federal legislation--most notably the enactment of Title XX of the Social Security Act in 1974. This legislation mandated the separation and division of income maintenance and poverty relief efforts from other service-based functions and encouraged the deprofessionalization of poverty relief services (Beck, 1971; Dobelstein, 1985; Dressel, Waters, Sweat, Clayton, & Chandler-Clayton, 1988; Fabricant, 1985; Getzel, 1983; Groulx, 1983).

However the debate is conceptualized, there have been conflicting opinions and research findings regarding these issues. Regardless, the above-noted debates beg the following questions. First, what influences (market and otherwise) have shaped the career choices of professional social workers? Second, to what extent does professional training shape and direct the career choices of professional social workers, especially an interest in working with the poor? These issues need to be examined from a variety of points or perspectives that attempt to incorporate a comprehensive and contextual understanding of the various influences that affect career choice.

If schools of social work are guided by mission statements shaped, in whole or part, by an interest in serving the poor, a profile of the factors associated with students' interest in working with these populations may help guide recruitment and curriculum development activities for these schools. Paralleling the abatement of discussion in the literature over the last several years regarding the mission of the profession, few efforts have attempted to further knowledge about the career interests of social work students and the influences shaping these interests. What is lacking in the literature are longitudinal panel studies of graduate student (or employed worker, for that matter) attitudes and practices which use reliable scales developed from a multidimensional understanding of professional identity constructs in terms of one's desire to engage in specific practices with specific populations in specific venues. This paper presents findings from a longitudinal study that examines the influences upon MSW students' interest in working with the poor and homeless. …

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