Academic journal article Social Work

Measuring the Impact of the Fiscal Crisis on Human Services Agencies and Social Work Training

Academic journal article Social Work

Measuring the Impact of the Fiscal Crisis on Human Services Agencies and Social Work Training

Article excerpt

The Bush administration followed its predecessor's lead in sharply reducing the federal government's role in social welfare. Public alarm over the cost of health care led to cutbacks in funding for mental health services and medical services, including reduction of private insurance coverage for public programs like Medicaid. As a result, treatment services for mental illness and substance abuse disorders have been severely underfunded (Sharfstein, Stoline, & Goldman, 1993).

Although the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was able and willing for many years to repair the holes in the social safety net (Burt & Pittman, 1985), a deepening recession during the late 1980s in the Northeast diminished resources and ushered in a conservative administration that sharply reduced funding for social services. At the beginning of the 1990s, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health's budget was $30 million less than the previous year's appropriation. Three state mental hospitals were closed, and many state workers were laid off, hired at lower pay, or "bumped" into unfamiliar positions (Massachusetts Human Services Coalition, 1991). Accompanying this retrenchment has been "a pervasive 'marketization' of the American social welfare system, as nonprofit organizations have been sucked increasingly into market-type relationships and for-profit firms have steadily expanded their market niche" (Salamon, 1993, p. 36). In a market economy competition, productivity, and efficiency are key forces, and a "survival of the fittest" mentality prevails. Agencies are therefore required to focus more closely on reimbursable and profitable services (Gopelrud, Walfish, & Apsey, 1983; Mordock, 1989). They often institute tighter controls on their staffs, demanding increased productivity and efficiency as well as proof of service effectiveness. Frumkin (1980) warned against the "professional commitment fallacy": the assumption that social services agencies will always subordinate their needs to ethical obligations to provide professional training.

Schools of social work depend on the resources of human services settings for a most important part of the curriculum, field education. Their master's degree programs must include 900 hours of supervised work in a field practicum. Simmons College School of Social Work's master of social work program prepares students for advanced direct practice with particular concentration on the application of clinical methods; in the two-year full-time program, students concurrently do two days of academic course work and three days of field placement per week. Unfortunately, the agencies used as field placements for social work interns have been hard hit in the past few years by budget cuts and accompanying changes in practice.

Concerned about increasing reports of agency closings and layoffs, members of the Field Education Department at Simmons College School of Social Work sought to accurately describe the constraints experienced by their agencies in training social work interns in a time of fiscal crisis. The department applied for and received a grant from the Simmons College Fund for Research to conduct a survey of 200 agencies used by the School of Social Work as field placements.


Questionnaires were mailed to 200 agencies that served as field placements for the School of Social Work from 1992 to 1994. Respondents were asked open-ended and closed-ended questions about their perceptions of the major impact of funding cuts on their agencies and their training of social work interns; they were also asked to provide suggestions about how schools of social work - and the social work profession - could help. A cover letter explained the purpose of the study and indicated that participation was voluntary and would not jeopardize the agency's allotment of student interns. A follow-up mailing was sent to agencies that did not respond. The final response rate was 51 percent; 101 of the 200 agencies returned completed questionnaires. …

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