It's time for the givers to receive

August 19, 2008|By Daphne McClellan and Elizabeth Clark

Several times a week, Anita Mentzer encounters people who are struggling to keep an elderly family member safely at home. As a clinical social worker with Johns Hopkins Community Physicians in Baltimore, she is on the front lines of a profession facing huge challenges - including low pay, an aging work force, cuts to social service budgets and a proliferation of societal problems.

We assume people like Ms. Mentzer will always be there to serve many of Maryland's 480,000 veterans. We expect they will reach out to the more than 9 percent of Marylanders who live at or below the poverty level, and provide services for many of our nearly 500,000 residents enrolled in Medicaid. In short, Maryland social workers will do what they have always done best: help people overcome some of life's most difficult challenges.

We may not know it, or recognize it, but we badly need the help and support that professional social workers provide. But today, it is social workers themselves who need our help.

The numbers help tell the story: At the University of Maryland School of Social Work, both the number of applicants (712) and the number enrolled (356) last fall were the second-lowest since 1991. Maryland's approximately 12,000 licensed social workers simply cannot adequately serve a state with more than 5.6 million people.

It's no wonder the profession is having a difficult time persuading young people to pursue a social work career. Social service budgets in Maryland and elsewhere are in peril. Salaries are 11 percent lower overall than they are for comparable professions, and social workers frequently encounter dangerous situations. Young people graduating from schools of social work, most with master's degrees, are often burdened by student loans and debt. Many of our best social workers are getting older, retiring in greater numbers and switching professions. And while our social problems multiply, the level of research into these problems has remained static, or declined.

Fortunately, Congress has an opportunity to help. The Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act, introduced by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland - herself a trained social worker - calls for programs designed to keep the profession healthy for years to come, and to ensure that those who most need our help continue to receive it. The act would authorize spending $25 million to $43.5 million over five years on grants for such things as workplace improvements, research, education and training and community-based programs. These initiatives would be aimed at recruiting, retaining and retraining qualified professionals, as well as researching how social work can help address society's problems. The law would also create a Social Work Reinvestment Commission to study the profession, its future and its needs, as has been done for other key service professions, such as nursing.

Judith Schagrin, assistant director of children's services for the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, and past president of the Maryland chapter of National Association of Social Workers, says, "There's nothing more powerful than the experience of knowing you have touched another's life in a transformative way. We need a way of communicating this to young people and supporting their education to enter the field." She added, "Child welfare research is increasingly identifying the importance of a professionally trained and supervised work force to good outcomes for our most vulnerable families and children. Not surprisingly, social work education and training are found to be the best preparation for the work."

On the other end of the spectrum, our nation's aging population also would benefit from the Social Work Reinvestment Act. Ms. Mentzer sees the legislation as a boon for the state's older residents. "As our population ages, the needs of older adults and those caring for them will increase," she says. "It's critical that we invest in expanding gerontological social work education, training and research."

Ms. Mentzer envisions that the legislation will concretely benefit her work in many ways. She says she hopes it "will help to design and implement more effective programs targeting the unmet needs of different populations. For example, resources and programs that enable older adults to remain in a supportive housing environment. The legislation's goal of expanding gerontological social work training and research which target community-based programs and legislative solutions would be one way to address this need."

As our social problems in Maryland and across the country grow in number and complexity, it's in our collective best interest to provide our problem-solvers with the most effective tools, knowledge and support to do their jobs. The Social Work Reinvestment Act recognizes this, and is deserving of support from all members of Congress.

Isn't it time for the givers to receive?

Daphne McClellan is executive director of the National Association of Social Workers' Maryland chapter. Elizabeth Clark is executive director of NASW's national organization.

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