Recently I was asked to write up a draft of a speech about poverty and inequality. I don’t know what its final incarnation will look like but I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Inequality as a state of disparity has long been the focus of social work practice. “Both activists and scholars have long noted that different citizens fare differently based on certain aspects of their presumably inalterable identities” (Dr. Ange-Marie Hancock, 2007). Poverty as a social construct leads to inequality for women, children, ethnic minorities, and the disabled. It is not enough however to talk just about poverty or inequality, we must talk about the intense emotional underpinnings of how injustice has continued to wage war in this country decades after “equality” was supposedly achieved.
The education of the next generation of social workers is not just about helping them build advocacy skills that will serve students in practice, it is about educating them about politics and policies that directly affect every single person that they will come into contact with as a practicing professional. Social workers must understand how Supreme Court decisions directly affect women and minorities, how school board decisions directly affect children who struggle with obesity, and how laws are not just made by congress but are made at a city, county, and state level and that these local laws are the ones that they have the most influence over. The conversation about politics, poverty, inequality, and injustice is not an option for today’s professional social worker, it is an ethical mandate because of the civil rights backslide that the country has taken in the last several years.
We can no longer address inequality as its own theoretical construct, to do so leaves out injustice, which is increasingly unacceptable in social work practice. In his groundbreaking TED talk about the prison system in America, public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson states, “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice” (http://www.ted.com/playlists/165/life_in_and_after_prison, 2012). Social justice is not just about leveling the playing field, it is about bringing people up and ensuring that social work students have opportunities to build advocacy skills that will serve them well in practice. Social workers should be taught to recognize that “our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity” (Bryan Stevenson, 2012). As social workers we must recognize that everyone wants to be seen as an individual who is a part of a community. That the community they are a part of is most likely marginalized and continually subjected to injustices so severe, there is no culpability for the majority. This leaves women, children, ethnic minorities, and the disabled sitting in a perpetual backseat to justice. “For the least glimmer of truth is conditioned by politics” (Michel Foucault, 1978). It is politics that shapes our truths about poverty, inequality, and injustice. Because of the social media complex in America, we are able to experience multiple expressions of inequality on a grand scale. Ferguson and the Voter ID Law in Texas are some recent examples.
Recently there were riots at a pumpkin festival in New Hampshire. These riots were so severe that fires were lit, cars were overturned, and police officers were assaulted. The media described this mayhem of mostly white young men in their 20’s using the words, “rowdy, mischief, booze filled revelers”. Compare these words with the media’s description of the protesting that took place in Ferguson after the shooting death of Michael Brown and you get, “thugs, animals, destroying their community”. We are spoon fed a politicized description by the media that is meant to induce a visceral reaction that leaves us feeling like the white men in New Hampshire were just “being boys” while the black men in Missouri were inciting the worst kind of violence.
As social workers we must engage in action and dialogue that aims to stop this injustice. We must identity issues that are important to the communities where we are practicing our craft and systematically assess and report patterns that directly impact our clients. We must become the greatest kind of social justice advocates by engaging decision makers at multiple levels of decision making. By doing so we will surely upset established law, as Foucault suggested 37 years ago, while anticipating the coming freedom that manifests from taking action. At 5 a.m. on Saturday, October 18, 2014 Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, along with her colleagues Justices Kagen and Sotomayer, made history by issuing a rare public dissent from a SCOTUS decision not to take up a case. The case was a challenge to Texas’s “discriminatory” voter identification law that disenfranchises as many as 600,000 Texans and is so strict, it doesn’t even allow student IDs or veterans administrations IDs to be used (http://www.salon.com/2014/10/20/ruth_bader_ginsburg_destroys_gops_lie_why_voter_id_is_the_rights_new_poll_tax/, 2014). According to the Los Angeles Times, “the Ginsburg-Sotomayor-Kagan and Posner opinions are dimly glowing lights in the battle against voter suppression. What’s sad and shocking is that they’re dissents. Racist attacks on voting rights are disgustingly popular, and with the connivance of federal judges, the virus is spreading” (http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-mh-justice-ginsburg-racism-20141018-column.html, 2014)
How does this disenfranchisement affect social workers? It is simple, those holding public office are already disproportionately white and they will continue to make laws that are explicitly designed to suppress women, minorities, children, and the disabled even more. This isn’t just about equality, this is about justice. This is about social workers taking their unique training to engage with others to, “recognize the power of gender and class in defining a comprehensive political agenda” (Dr. Ange-Marie Hancock, 2007). It is about acknowledging that WE are the ones that can shift policy because we are the ones on the frontlines, we are the carriers of the stories, and we are the ones who directly see the results of the formal exclusion of the oppressed. It is for these reasons that we must be trained social justice practitioners for as Jane Addams once said, “Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.”