March is National Social Work Month, a time to recognize our nation’s almost 700,000 social workers and what they do to help make peoples’ lives better. Most people associate social workers with case management in agencies like Child Protective Services or one-one counseling sessions. Social workers, however, also affect social policy change at all levels and advocate for marginalized populations. In fact, you probably have a social worker to thank for many of the federal and state programs you depend on in your daily life.
Professional social work started in the late 1800’s and revolved around formation of programs to help people living in poverty, many of whom were recently arrived immigrants. With the opening of Hull House in Chicago’s Near West side in 1889, reformer and future Nobel Prize Winner Jane Adams spearheaded social and policy changes that have inspired generations of social workers.
Social workers were involved, for instance, in the development and implementation of the Social Security Act in 1935 and the assistance given to people experiencing financial insecurity after the Great Depression.
Social workers also influenced working conditions of many in the United States in the 20th century, with advocacy for living wages, setting reasonable working hours, improving conditions in factories and advocating for unemployment resources.
Today, social workers continue to advocate for vulnerable community members around issues such as the need for health insurance for people living in poverty or with chronic health conditions.
During March, social workers and social work students across the United States celebrate this tradition of advocacy by gathering for a day at their respective state and federal legislative offices to practice advocating for changes in social policy.
This March, in addition to this annual tradition of gathering to advocate, social workers should also reflect on those times when the profession failed to use its powerful voice for marginalized people.
Social workers should think critically about the profession’s role in the separating Native American children from their families in the early and mid-1900s, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II , and the welfare practices that made a negative and disproportionate impact on people of color during the twentieth century.
In may be painful for the social work profession to think about these instances. But in talking about the times social workers have failed to act, we can reflect on our roles more critically and recommit ourselves to the needed work to combat racism, classism, sexism and other types of oppression still existent in U.S. institutions and policy.
Community members can also help advance the practice and outcomes of social work by advocating in several ways. People can advocate for inclusion of sufficient numbers of social workers in agencies and services across the nation. For instance, many schools in the United States still don’t have social workers on staff, even though they are critical to address mental health issues and school violence.
Community members can also advocate for better wages and insurance reimbursement for social workers that would attract more individuals to the field. This is important because our nation is facing a shortage of social workers that will grow into the thousands in coming years, especially in rural areas.
Social workers and their supporters can use time in March to think about the importance of the social work profession in our communities. This year is also the 65th anniversary of social work’s professional organization, the National Association of Social Workers. Let’s use this month and year to commemorate what social work has done in its relatively short time as a profession and advocate for what’s needed for social workers to continue to help build stronger communities.
This March, don’t just thank a social worker, encourage one through your actions. There is so much work left to do.
Cossy Hough is a clinical associate professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. This opinion piece represents the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin or the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.