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What is a Political Social Worker Anyway?

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When people ask what I do, my reply is always, “I’m a political social worker.”  The response is usually, “what is that?”  There is a small but growing group of political social workers who work mostly in legislative offices.  I have the unbelievable opportunity to try to correct some of the social injustices that send many people to seek help from private practitioners and/or agency caseworkers.

When I was finishing up my M.S.W. and my fellow students were talking about what they wanted to do after graduation, I chimed in saying, “I want to work in a legislative office.”  “Your just saying that to start conversation, right?”, was the reaction.  “You’re not really going to work for them.”  “Oh yes I am”, I replied.  “When you start the revolution on the ground, you will be very happy to have a friend up there.”  Saying that  Martin Luther King could not have passed the Civil Rights Act without Lyndon B. Johnson is a favorite of mine when trying to help students make that connection.

I am the social worker in the Office of NYS Senator Liz Krueger.  My official title is Director of Community Outreach.  My portfolio of constituents consists only of seniors.  I develop and run programs for them as well as help them individually with issues around housing, health care, transportation, long term care, and end-of-life. This aspect of my job allows me hone my casework skills as I interact with constituents and their problems every day.

We need more social workers interested in doing the kind of work that I do.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our legislators were social workers rather than the attorneys that most of them are!  Right now there is a social work caucus in our federal legislature. A social worker’s world view is holistic and broad, while many of our legislators have a myopic view of the world where things are only black and white.

It would serve our profession well if all social work students were required to take courses in political advocacy.  When my social work interns leave this placement, I know that I have succeeded as their field advisor if they make the connection between the work that case workers do on the ground and the legislation that is proposed in the capital.  The root of many of the problems that our clients and/or constituents come for help with are a result of bad or non-existent legislation.

As an example, right now in New York City, I see many of our elderly constituents who are in jeopardy of losing their homes.  Most seniors live on a fixed income, yet their rent keeps going up.  For those who are struggling financially, there is a program that freezes their rent; but they have to be living in a rent regulated apartment to receive that benefit.  We now have 1000 seniors living in the NYC shelter system, a number that is growing every day.   Shame on us!  I am advocating for providing these older adults with a subsidy of no more than a couple of hundred dollars a month. This would keep them in their homes and is more economically prudent than the cost of keeping people in the shelter system. This is not to mention how inappropriate the shelter system is for the elderly.

I’m often invited to speak to social work classes about what I do and why social workers are uniquely trained for politics.  A number of years ago, NASW published an article entitled, “Putting the Profession in Public Office.”  I always hand this out for students to read.  It talks about how social workers in the political arena can have a huge impact on people’s lives.

Every staffer in our office takes constituent calls, regardless of their title; and we all have our niche knowledge of specific issues. My co-workers all use social work skills regardless of the fact that none of them are social workers.

When searching for a place to bring your social work skills and knowledge, consider putting some time in a legislative office.  You will be surprised at all the you can learn and all that you can contribute.  Those of us who do this work live with the hope that “moving one grain of sand can change the world”.  It is what gets us through even the roughest days.

As a political social worker, Alice is deeply interested in best practices in community building and an advocate for improving services and quality of life for older adults. She developed and runs Senator Liz Krueger’s Roundtable for Boomers & Seniors.She is particularly interested in the challenges of longevity in today’s ageing society, and Alice holds an M.S.W. from Hunter College School of Social Work.

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