Viewpoint: Invest in social work


Published January 10, 2013

Have you ever known someone with a mental health disorder or are you one of the one-fourth of adult Americans that have been diagnosed with one? According to the National Association of Social Workers, “the primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”

The profession of social work impacts individuals, families and communities not only through clinical services, but also through advocacy. Social workers address issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol addiction, depression and suicidal tendencies in the veteran population of 22,658,000 individuals, which is continuously increasing. In addition, social workers provide services to other vulnerable populations including the homeless, mentally ill, abused children and the elderly.

To enhance services provided and to better serve clients, we must reinvest back into the profession. The Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act is a piece of legislation whose a main goal is to “ensure access to a range of critical social work services provided in hospitals, schools, clinics, agencies, the military, and in private businesses.” The bill was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D — Md) and to the Senate by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D — N.Y.). This piece of legislation, if passed, will reinvest in the profession of social work by focusing on the areas of research, retention and recruitment. A commission, working in conjunction with Congress, will be established and will collaborate with universities, research bodies and various social workers to analyze their services and programs to develop strategies for improvement. The Social Work Reinvestment Act will also allocate grants to various programs to address workplace improvements, research, education and training.

Although social workers play such an important role in the well-being of society, the profession faces the issue of burnout. It is in dire need of trained professionals with an expected 130,000 empty social worker positions in 2016. Social workers earn among the lowest salaries for master’s level graduates and for professionals in general. Professionals with lower-paying salaries are more likely to work in difficult agencies, serve the most vulnerable clients and leave the social work profession early. Social workers face high burnout rates including emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or cynicism and diminished personal accomplishment. The Social Work Reinvestment Act would reduce the turnover rate in the profession and increase the quality, consistency and stability of social work services. The United States is ranked 10th in G.D.P. spending in the health care and social services category. Its spending on social services is especially low. It spends 90 cents on social services for every dollar spent on health care. Contrast this to many of our peer countries who spend two dollars on social services for every dollar spent on health care. Allocating more funds to social services has proven to reduce emergency room visits due to poor nutrition, poor hygiene, infections, muggings, beatings and rape in homeless populations.

Rep. Towns once stated, “Not everyone will need a social worker, but when life presents serious obstacles to one’s well-being, a social worker can be an invaluable ally. We want to make sure that when people do need a social worker, professional help will be available.” The Social Work Reinvestment Act not only affects those currently employed in the field of social work and students in social work programs, but individuals, families and communities who may one day need the assistance of a social worker. Help us advocate for the future of society and its well-being by spreading the word to family, friends and peers, and by letting your congressional representative know this bill is important to you.

Lauren Perry and Alexandra Malmberg are masters students at the University of Southern California.