Consider this litany of values and ideals I recently encountered:
- social justice
- dignity and worth of the person
- importance of human relationships
These read like chapter titles from a Christian activism book, a list of speaker topics from an upcoming CCDA conference, or the bullet points for a sermon on Micah 6:8. But, in fact, this is a list of core social work values outlined in the preamble of National Association of Social Work’s Code of Ethics— a veritable sacred document of the profession. Contemporary social work—in all its secularized glory—is sustained by a constellation of values that resembles seminal Christian theological truths.
What many don’t realize is that social work—despite its contemporary adherence to largely humanistic principles such as self-determination and self-actualization— has a rich, faith-filled history. The first social workers were Christians, liberal Protestant women to be specific, concerned about the impact of a rapidly industrializing society upon the poor. These charitable impulses eventually led to the formation of a profession and the almost poetic core values listed above. But the religious roots of social work, while a point of considerable pride for us people of faith, have also played a role in the profession’s struggle to accurately identify and position itself.
Oddly enough, though social work assiduously avoids rote labelling or thoughtless categorization of clients, we often speak about ourselves in a unilateral manner, as if we’re a one-dimensional group. The groupspeak goes something like this: “we care about the marginalized in society (we wouldn’t be in this profession otherwise); therefore, we’re progressives who are committed to advocating for liberal social welfare policies.” The conservative response is something like, “We care about the marginalized too, but stay away from social work because it’s so progressively minded.” And that’s that. Referring to ourselves in homogenous terms denies the beauty of the distinct parts, but also lends itself to a bigger issue. It contributes to automatically adopting interventions because they’re progressive or liberal and not because they’ve been rigorously tested and found to be the best solution. The best solutions may very well be progressive, of course, but the assumption remains problematic.
This is where social work’s core values come in. I want to suggest the core values as a template for finding our way out of reliance upon progressive and liberal politics as a primary means of identifying who we are and what we do. When we do refocus on these core values, as articulated by the profession, social work fits surprisingly well with many versions of conservatism. I will highlight the first two core values, service and social justice, although I would argue that the other four are equally instructive. First, however, getting there requires a brief understanding of what social work actually is and does and the history behind some of its identity struggles.
How We Got Here: A Brief History Of Social Work
Unlike its sister disciplines of sociology and psychology, social work is an applied discipline. That means we draw upon multiple bodies of knowledge with an eye toward the practical application of that knowledge to the way we work with a client or system. Our specialty is practice and much of social work research is rightly focused on measuring what we do and how well we do it—our interventions and outcomes.
The practice of social work can be either micro in orientation, focused directly toward the client, or macro, focused on the client’s environment with particular attention to the way it impedes the client’s functioning. That sounds straightforward, but these different approaches have created considerable disagreement over which type of practice social workers ought to be doing.
This basic question has dominated social work for decades and has contributed to the problem of finding unified ground on which to build an identity. And in a domino- like effect, these identity problems have led to our current politicized condition.
Understanding the politicized nature of social work requires understanding something about the Progressive Era (c. 1890- 1920) and one of its most famous members, Jane Addams. In response to the intractable social problems that accompanied early twentieth century industrialism and largescale immigration to American cities, Jane Addams advocated for an active federal government that applied the principles of democracy to every part of life—work, family, education, and foreign policy. Despite growing up as Quaker, like many other Progressives she was influenced by the Social Gospel movement and its emphasis on macro-level, societal change. The movement’s (rather postmillennial) spirit of ushering in the Second Coming—believed to be contingent on the elimination of social problems on earth—inspired Addams to work toward improving the difficult environments of her clients. Her work formed the basis for the macro focus of social work mentioned earlier and naturally forms the basis for progressivism within the discipline.
The other side of social work sprang up from pietistic, evangelism-focused strands of Christianity, products of The Great Awakening (c. 1730s-1743). These religious groups formed Charity Organization Societies, sending out early social workers to do “friendly visiting,” conducting home visits with clients (generally European immigrants) that embodied an individualized, relational approach. One negative side of these efforts was that they often turned to moralizing as the visitors became impatient with the “immoral” behaviours of their clients. These groups believed that voluntary methods were superior to governmental interventions. They maintained a fear that public assistance would undermine personal responsibility and encourage a dependence upon charity that undermined the human spirit. These elements combined to form the origins of the micro focus in social work and tend to represent a more conservative response to social problems. I want to also highlight the point that conservatism does not imply only a micro focus (nor progressivism only a macro focus). Individuals representing both camps have micro and macro interests and participation. But the history does suggest a place of primary emphasis that has persisted over time.
Now let’s move back to the religious context for a moment. Many of us are familiar with the continuum within Christianity related to social justice and evangelism, the “good news versus good works” dilemma. Faithbased social service agencies have long struggled to determine how much each should be represented in their efforts. Should, for example, people staying overnight in a faith-based homeless shelter be required to attend an overtly evangelistic chapel? Or should the provision of temporary housing be the primary focus, with the hope that such an environment will generate new or renewed openness to spiritual things within an individual?
Scot McKnight speaks to this same dynamic in his latest book, Kingdom Conspiracy, expressing concern that “kingdom” work (a moniker for Christians doing macro work) has become defined as “good people doing good deeds in the public sector for the common good.” He suggests that such work in our contemporary context may be strangely devoid of the theology of salvation and the work of the church. Indeed, many find evangelism divorced from social activism to be akin to inauthentic, disembodied indoctrination. But the point I want to make here is that because they originated from the same streams, the same core tension exists in social work as does within Christianity.
Both social work and Christianity have needed to figure out where the “real” problem is and how to structure their interventions accordingly. At their core, the discerning questions are strikingly similar. The Christian version: Is the problem “within,” such that the person needs, first and foremost, redemption? Or is the problem “without,” and the person needs a more just and accessible environment, one in which their basic needs are met? Compare the social work version: Does the person need interventions focused on changing themselves or does the person need something in their environment to change so they can flourish within it? The point here isn’t to answer these age-old questions, but to notice the backdrop that has contributed to social work’s current position.
Now fast forward to the current situation in social work, which I, and many others, have described as decidedly progressive. We’ve certainly retained micro practice from our pietistic roots, but little openness to conservative approaches remains. We are a discipline dominated by an ideology that represents only one part of our history and (some would argue) only a portion of our workers. Highlighting and prioritizing both parts of social work would have been an obvious solution to this dilemma, but one that unfortunately never took hold.
So why did this eventual adherence to one side of the political and historical aisle happen? In some respects, it’s not hard to see why progressivism triumphed. It forces a sense of “unity” in a group internally divided, and many believe it’s an obvious fit with some of the components of social work, such as achieving social justice. But forcing unity through ideology has also meant creating one-size-fits-all definitions of key social work concepts, like social justice and service. Instead of casting a vision for our work that’s driven by a broad vision of what social justice and service entail, we’re constrained by ideological ones. Thus, social justice and advocacy are defined according to progressive ideals as opposed to broader definitions that might encapsulate a range of options. Interventions or approaches considered to be conservative may, in fact, represent the most just and/ or effective intervention on the table. But social justice has been equated with expanded access to government services and not necessarily a search for effective ways for individualized clients to experience justice. The justice I’m referring to is big enough to include any interventions that enhance human flourishing and free individuals from forces that diminish either their dignity or volition.
There is absolutely no wide-scale agreement on precisely what social justice entails, but I’m not convinced there necessarily has to be in social work. Social justice is defined in the Social Work Dictionary (and generally in the profession) as, “an ideal condition in which all members of a society have the same basic rights, protection, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits.” While the definition refers to an “ideal” condition that will never be realized until the full restoration of creation occurs, it is nonetheless an admirable definition that few would reject. The emphasis on the rights of all humans and the implied emphasis on protecting those most vulnerable is entirely consistent with the way the Bible lifts up people that society marginalizes.
That said, the official definition does not provide guidance about which theories of social justice to adopt nor which social welfare policies to support. The profession favours distributive justice, which is focused on the fair distribution of goods, including material goods, within a society. Here lies the basis for social work’s long-time support for social welfare policies that redistribute wealth to the poor.
But social justice can imply far more than distributive justice, as many have pointed out. One of the problems with redistribution policies is the manner in which they exacerbate the need for disbursement and have not, over time, made a significant difference in achieving more financial equity between the poor and middle classes. This is not to suggest that government redistribution policies have neither utility nor place. Speaking as one who has helped many clients sign up for food stamps, I see great value in such policies when used in a targeted, limited sense. But the sweeping manner in which social work has adopted liberal policies, because they align with a particular ideology, in fact limits the concept of social justice. Could it not also argued that a “just”—yes, even compassionate— social welfare policy might place time limits or work restrictions on cash assistance? Knowing what we know about the role of meaningful work to human
flourishing, could it not be considered compassionate to restrict able individuals from long-term reliance upon governmental support—support that has been shown to erode a healthy sense of self over time? Obviously there are many exceptions, including those unable to work or find work. But in a “tough love” sort of manner, social work might be able to benefit our clients more if we at least considered a cadre of options instead of just advocating for more government services. Drawing upon all we know about theology, psychology, and sociology might, at times, force us to unplug progressivism from social work, and lead us in different, even surprising, directions.
Although they should be submitted to the same standards of efficacy and the ability to bring about justice, “conservative” interventions (or at least the sorts usually called “conservative”) ought to have a place at the ideological table. Empowering each client to respond differently to his or her own situation versus waiting for a macro system to change should be a primary approach. No one denies that macro change is necessary, but such change is complex and incremental and often leaves clients waiting for something that never happens. Interventions that utilize government assistance for temporary, stabilizing purposes, with an eye toward freeing the individual from the often-dehumanizing involvement with our residual social welfare programs, can be effective. Success can come from interventions that facilitate healthier connections within couples, extended families, and communities so they have the capacity to provide first-line assistance in points of crisis. And interventions that form creative combinations of private and public services to better meet client needs is a partnership that all can appreciate.
Private institutions, while they cannot always meet the entire material need, will always be more nimble and therefore more responsive to those they serve. More importantly, they also have the capacity to meet needs beyond material ones. In Compassionate Conservatism, Martin Olasky wrote, “liberal progressivism has little to say to those who are bursting with benefits but have such holes in their souls that they fall into addiction or alcoholism.” Many private and/or faith-based programs provide exactly that—attention to deep relationships and to the soul that sustains individuals during times of great vulnerability.
The Core Values: Toward Socially Just Service
Here the core values of social work provide a helpful template for moving forward in a unified fashion—working concurrently on micro and macro fronts, and thus across the ideological divide. Service is where it belongs: at the top of the list. Social work could largely resolve its internal tensions by identifying a service-oriented vision that adequately encompasses all of its participants and the best knowledge about help that actually helps. Evaluating our actions in terms of their contribution to effective service provision ought to be our professional banner, not assumptions based on ideology or politicized means of helping. Refocusing ourselves as social workers under the goal of smart service rightly diverts attention from our differences, our own agendas, and ourselves.
Social work’s commitment to service, and targeted attention toward those individuals who have the greatest and often most complex human needs, is its greatest strengths and the reason why young people are drawn to an occupation with more intrinsic than extrinsic rewards. Frankly, it was for this mission—to reach those being left behind—that I signed on more than twenty years ago.
A yearning, one that borders on compulsion, to make space for human flourishing for those who don’t fit societal molds is the hands-down beauty of social work. Adhering to an overarching focus on service and social justice (more broadly defined) would accomplish several things. First, it would create a profession less influenced by political and ideological shifts within broader culture. It would also eliminate the profession’s tendency to describe the political climate as either conducive or hostile to conducting good social work.
Second, focusing on the service value of social work highlights the most effective ways of applying knowledge to practice, decreasing reliance upon bias. The profession has moved in this direction in the form of evidence-based practices, but uniting squarely under the banner of effective service would strengthen this healthy initiative even more.
Third, focusing on service to the underserved creates room for different political and ideological approaches in social work. Hostility toward conservatism in social work has silenced a group of people and diverted attention from a cadre of potential micro and macro approaches, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can initiate conversations in which all possible options are explored, always considering, “Are we serving?” And, “Are we serving in ways that facilitate human flourishing and justice?” And finally, “Are we serving in ways that actually help?” We’ll have to prove this by setting aside defensiveness to honestly evaluate our efforts and their outcomes. And this will require the input and opinions of our clients and evaluating the progress made toward their goals—not simply the goals we identify for them.
Finally, we need to learn from models of effective, socially just service that are already in place. The field of child welfare provides an example. While alternative living arrangements for children, such as foster care, have always been considered last resorts for abused or neglected children, the degree to which child welfare has come to value the role of the family has increased exponentially in the last two decades. Instead of focusing solely on sustaining custodial arrangements, child welfare has attempted to focus on bolstering families to prevent out-of-home care.
My oldest daughter interned in an innovative program at a non-profit agency in Chicago that provides short-term respite care (outside the jurisdiction of the child welfare system) for children while their families work on achieving necessary goals, such as acquiring stable housing, sobriety, or employment. Responding to a body of research that indicates that many children go into foster care because of neglect that is secondary to poverty, a program was designed to support at-risk families and children at critical junctures. Those who developed the program believe it is unjust to disrupt the lives of children by placing them in foster care when Social workers ought to unite under the banner of effective service and social justice. the root problem is poverty. Along the way, the program’s workers have gained the trust of local public child welfare workers and the parties now coordinate frequently. A privatepublic partnership has emerged that is doing what it set out to do—keeping children safe and with their families whenever possible. This level of responsiveness to client needs highlights precisely what social work should be about.
My call for the field of for social work is for it to rise above old tensions related to micro versus macro practice issues and the adherence to a singular ideological approach. We ought to unite under the banner of effective service and social justice. And while the benefits for the profession and its members provide reason enough, expanding our standard definitions of social justice and refocusing on our core values may hold the possibility of increasing hope for the often-remarkable human beings we’re privileged to serve.