A growing shortage of social workers drew leaders in the field to Capitol Hill for a Congressional briefing on the need for recruitment and retention of the nation's key providers of human services.
Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work (SSW), testified on Nov. 17 as part of a panel of experts invited by Rep. Edolphus Towns, MSW, chair of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The briefing explored needs that would be addressed by the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act (SWRA) if passed by Congress. The SWRA was introduced by Towns, D-NY, and by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, who earned her MSW at Maryland.
The panel did not address prospects for provisions of the Act in the next Congress, in which Towns will lose his chairmanship as Republicans take control of the House. However, he and other social workers in Congress plan to begin collaborating in ways that, among other things, would give greater visibility to the profession.
For complex reasons the jobs of social workers have become low-profile and undervalued, to the point that the nation's 640,000 professionally trained workers often experience non-competitive salaries and burdensome educational debt. Social workers may also suffer injuries or death at work with violent clients. The worsening situation undermines the profession and its ability to successfully help millions of society's most vulnerable people.
"We know that we must take action to combat societal issues in our service as first responders for acute and dangerous conditions such as child maltreatment, elder abuse, domestic violence, financial malfeasance, juvenile violence, and mental illness that is an immediate threat to self and others," said Barth.
The Act is an effort to review the current workforce shortage challenges, determine how those challenges will affect the many populations that social workers serve, and better understand the overwhelming need for reinvestment into the profession of social work, according to Barth, who is president of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare.
Barth pointed out that "demand for social work's expertise in health care delivery" will increase under the Affordable Care Act. "The SWRA will help us maximize the opportunities in health care reform."
He said social workers also have "a leading role in addressing poverty, addiction, mental illness, and rising school drop-out rates."
The SWRA would create a reinvestment commission to provide independent advice and counsel to Congress on policy issues related to the profession and would fund a national workforce study. "This component of the bill is critical to help the profession thrive," Barth said, "This is, in turn, critical to improving the cost-effectiveness of mental health, substance abuse, and school-based services, to name a few."
The SWRA would also fund demonstration grants to address issues related to workplace improvements, research, education and training, and the dissemination of evidence-based practices to community-based programs, Barth said.
The panel included an alumna of the SSW, Joan Levy Zlotnik, PhD, ACSW, who earned her doctorate at Maryland and is pictured above with Barth. She is director of the Social Work Policy Institute in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Foundation.
Zlotnik noted that the more than 100-year-old profession may be misunderstood and undervalued in part because social workers often are not identified in their diverse workplaces, ranging from health-care settings to the military. The Department of Veterans Affairs is the single largest employer of Master's level social workers.
Demands on many fronts, from veterans to an aging Boomer population, has prompted the federal government to project that an additional 100,000 social workers will be needed by 2018. The Act would provide incentives such as stipends, loan forgiveness, higher salary, and tuition waivers to help keep pace and also to strengthen education.
Zlotnik noted the scarcity of funding sources that support social work doctoral students, unlike in medicine and in nursing. "We need to ensure that we are doing and using research to inform practice and creating linkages between the research and practice communities and that our curricula are up to date and in synch with the changing practice environment."
NASW executive director Elizabeth Clark, PhD, ACSW, MPH, said social workers' salaries are below those of other public health professionals. According to the NASW Center for Workforce Studies, 60 percent of full-time social workers earn between $35,000 and $59,000 per year.
"Social workers who earn lower salaries are also more likely to work in the most challenging agency environments and to serve the most vulnerable clients," Clark said. "They are also more likely to leave the profession."
Others testifying were Jeane Anastas, PhD, LMSW, professor, New York University, and NASW president-elect; Mildred Joyner, MSW, president, Council on Social Work Education and department chair, West Chester University Undergraduate Social Work Program; and Avis Jones-DeWeever, PhD, executive director, National Council of Negro Women.