While we are preoccupied with our own lives, an array of social problems are constantly occurring all over the world. But how does something become a social problem?
Essentially, people with money and high social status get to legitimize what people generally view as a social problem.1 By my definition then, a social worker is anyone who is compelled to address social problems. Formally, “The primary mission of social work is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”2
Only social workers (people who are addressing social problems) can solve social problems for four reasons: 1) we won’t stop until the job gets done, 2) we can adopt different perspectives, 3) we recognize that there’s more to the problem than the problem, and most importantly, 4) we treat people like people.
1) We won’t stop until the job gets done.
Social situations transform into social ills/problems from a lack of collective action. Social movement leaders are drawn to being social workers. We have experienced life in a way that has resulted in our unique perspectives for creativity and innovation. To us, “no” means “not right now, try again later.” No matter how bad a social problem is or how bad it gets, we don’t stop our efforts to mobilize other people as a means of social transformation.3 We realize the great demand to take action on our vision(s) that wake us up early and have us going to bed late at night. We invest time and money even when people laugh at us or tell us to give up. We face disappointment and distractions but never separate what we’re focused on doing from who we are.
Accordingly, our vision to better the quality of life for everyone protects us as well as incites us to bring about change. As a result, social workers’ responsibility to serve others is of paramount importance. In our minds, “good work” must always be better than the last time, therefore we are not handicapped by fear; it gives us a rush of pleasure as an indication that we are experiencing a positive transformation. People are drawn to us because of our energy and we are constantly provided with opportunities to continue changing the world. To that end, everything happens for a reason and there is no such thing as failure. Moreover, our commitment to changing the world positively stems from the belief that we do big things based on our ability to be whatever we want regardless of where we begin.
2) We can adopt different perspectives.
Social workers are constantly trying to make sense of why things happen. Understanding that everything happens for a reason requires a big picture vantage point (macro-level), a detail-oriented lens (micro-level), and an understanding of someone’s feelings from their perspective. For example, one cause that I am passionate about is violence prevention. Some people refer to the seemingly constant killings of young Black men as “senseless.” From a macro-level perspective, the biological, psychological, and social pressures on particular groups of people causes them to make bad decisions. At a micro-level focus we would examine the rampant community violence that pressures someone to obtain a gun. Furthermore, the pervasive unemployment pressures this individual to resort to illegitimate sources of income, such as robbing others. Understanding someone else’s perspective, this individual would decide to shoot someone to rob him/her because this individual knew that s/he had no other legitimate way of providing for his/her family.
In this above-mentioned example, I am in no way relieving violent perpetrators of the lack of value for life reflected in their poor decision-making under pressure. However, if we are to address social problems, we must first diagnose their underlying issue(s), similar to the treatment process of physicians for physical ailments. Intuitively, we must learn more about what doesn’t make sense to us at first glance. Human learning occurs because our brain is designed to grow the necessary brain areas to accommodate our ability to process new types of information.4 When we don’t intentionally adopt different perspectives, we get stuck in giving old answers to new questions and relying on old ways of thinking about new topics. As a result, no progress is made and our stagnance only helps to maintain whatever issue(s) we don’t understand. Social workers understand the importance of recognizing there are multiple perspectives to perceived problems/social ills.
3) We recognize that there’s more to the problem than the problem.
We can observe unemployment, crime, and poverty. However, what we cannot observe, and which is far more oppressive, is poverty across generations, people learning to be helpless, policies and procedures that are meant to maintain the social hierarchy, higher education only for those who can afford it, and lastly our morals being dependent on entertainment. Consequently, to the extent of some people deciding to video record violence, and natural disasters instead of intervening. Yes, we recognize that there are multiple influences to everything that happens. Social workers are slow to judge and quick to act to benefit people, to transform family histories, and to end the diffusion of responsibility that’s understood as “Well someone else will intervene.” To which I always will respond, “You are that someone.”
We must change our approach from giving charity through the isolated philanthropy of a few people, to the mindset of intentionally removing existing policies which create the conditions we wish to eliminate. Social transformation requires more than just getting mad about the prejudice and disinvestment that is reflected in downtrodden communities. Poverty is a condition that is the result of others’ intentions, it is not happenstance or a mistake. Policies and laws have created and maintained social injustice. For example, when U.S. laws were unjust toward women, social workers organized and mobilized people to enact change. As a second example, when U.S. laws were unjust toward African-Americans, social workers advocated until laws were changed and were replaced with satisfactory ones. Community development begins by articulating the vision of its concerned community members by voting for politicians who will satisfy their needs. All in all, we must use people as resources that are available within communities to effect change.
4) We treat people like people.
No college degree can teach someone how to be passionate about eliminating the causes and effects of poverty and social injustice. Our disagreement with someone’s upbringing or viewpoint does not physically handicap us from helping them. Only people can be involved in every area of problem-solving for social issues that are affecting other people. We are only as effective as our ability to recognize what other people need from us without muffling them with the bells and whistles of our fancy professional titles and credentials. Just because you do not have a college degree stating you are a social worker does not mean that you cannot solve social problems. People simply need other people to respond to their needs with compassion and love.
Social problems do not go away because people do not care enough about other people. When confronted with opportunities to stop social injustice, we must not assume that someone else will intervene. When you observe wrongdoing(s), you are obligated to intervene to make things better.5 Our fullest potential, the purpose of our gift or talent, does not exist or function without helping others succeed. All people are human. This is sometimes forgotten when we believe that someone has low social power or status.6 For example, people who are homeless are often discriminated against or mistreated in inhumane ways. Investing to benefit other people is the only way to ensure your success and that of others. As a final point, when we treat people like people and help to satisfy their needs, our physical and mental health is literally enhanced.7 So if you’re feeling sad or upset, you will feel much better by focusing on others’ needs by volunteering through a local charitable organization.
- Blumer, H. (1971). Social problems as collective behavior. Social problems, 298-306. ↩
- National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Washington, DC: Author ↩
- Blau, J. (2004). The Dynamics of Social Welfare Policy. New York: Oxford University Press. Chapter 6 – Social Movements and Social Change – p.174-219. ↩
- Taubert, M., Draganski, B., Anwander, A., Müller, K., Horstmann, A., Villringer, A., & Ragert, P. (2010). Dynamic properties of human brain structure: learning-related changes in cortical areas and associated fiber connections. The Journal of Neuroscience, 30(35), 11670-11677. ↩
- Medoff, P., & Sklar, H. (1994). Streets of hope: The fall and rise of an urban neighborhood (pp. 245-287). Boston: South End Press. ↩
- Yzerbyt, V. Y., Dumont, M., Mathieu, B., Gordijn, E., & Wigboldus, D. (2006). Social comparison and group-based emotions. Social comparison processes and levels of analysis: Understanding cognition, intergroup relations, and culture, 174-205. ↩
- Post, S. G. (2005). Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good.International journal of behavioral medicine, 12(2), 66-77. ↩