Academic journal article Social Work

Social Workers and Politics in the New Century

Academic journal article Social Work

Social Workers and Politics in the New Century

Article excerpt

For the past generation, social workers have spent most of their political energies defending the nation's fragile safety net and legal protections for women and people of color against those who would denigrate, devolve, "defund," dismantle, and destroy them. Despite these efforts, "welfare reform" and managed care appear to be political "givens." Attacks on affirmative action, reproductive choice, and civil rights for gay men and lesbians are increasing. The movement to privatize everything from prisons to schools to social security and Medicare gathers momentum and legitimacy. During the 1990s, social workers had little influence on debates over health insurance and welfare reform. At present, we seem to be having little impact on shaping the agenda of this year's election campaign. Clearly, we are not doing something right.

Some social workers probably will get defensive about such criticisms. They will point to our modest legislative "victories" and the progress we have made in a variety of service areas. More activist social workers might dismiss electoral politics as corrupt and a diversion from grassroots efforts to empower people and promote structural change. Others may reject politics entirely as unprofessional and focus instead on the refinement of their methods of intervention and research. Although all of these objections to electoral politics are understandable, they obscure the wider context of policy and practice and overlook the history of our profession.

For over a century, our profession's efforts to promote social justice, address what Charlotte Towle called "common human needs," and ensure the dignity of all people did not, indeed could not, have occurred outside of politics. Whatever social progress we have helped achieve emerged through political debate, the transformation of the nation's political agenda and, above all, political struggle. At various times, social workers--individually and collectively--have been at the center of those struggles, important participants in those debates or, more recently, on the margins of political discourse. We have been most effective, not when we have disdained politics but when we have entered it with purpose, conviction, perseverance, and even with relish. In Kathryn Skiar's (1992) words, "everyone was brave" when Florence Kelley entered the room because she embodied these qualities.

If we continue to regard electoral politics as choosing between the "lesser of two evils," if we continue to see electoral participation as an either/or" strategic decision, it is inevitable that we will become disheartened and drop out of the dialogue over the future of our society. If, however, we continue to embrace politics as usual, we probably will continue to elect political leaders who acknowledge our values "more in the breach than in the observance." Yet there are choices today even in the muddle of U.S. electoral politics. Making effective choices, however, requires us to assess the current political climate carefully, affirm our commitment to the values we profess, and ally ourselves with other forces, locally and globally, that share our vision and goals.

Major Political Trends

Four major trends in the nation's political landscape are worth noting because of their potential influence on the development of social policies in the years ahead. First, economic globalization has dramatically altered the ability of governments to ameliorate the social costs of a basically unfettered market. It affects what might constitute a publicly funded social safety net and who will create it in the future. It raises the following critical questions:

* What combination of political strategies can effect change in an era of globalization?

* How can politics help end the isolation of urban communities and the marginalization of their populations?

* What will be the relative roles of public, private, and nonprofit sectors in the provision of income maintenance and social services? …

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