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Leaders and Lessons to Guide Us

NASW News -Vol. 54, No. 6, June 2009
From the President

Leaders and Lessons to Guide Us

James J. KellyAs my presidency continues, I am privileged to attend events across the country and speak to many social workers. Each time, I reflect on the vital importance of the work that you are doing and your persistence in the face of difficult work and shrinking budgets. I am also struck by the challenges that lie ahead for our profession. Social workers have always served individuals, families, and communities, with particular attention to the vulnerable and oppressed. Our current economic turmoil is creating a need for social work services that many of us have not experienced in our lifetimes.

Our economy shed 651,000 jobs in February alone, with 3.6 million total jobs eliminated since the recession began in December 2007. This is particularly detrimental to those who already were struggling. The national unemployment rate stands at 8.5 percent, while the African American unemployment rate stands at 12.6%. There are currently 3.4 million people age 65 and older living below the poverty line. These numbers translate into a need for someone to pick up the pieces of our fractured economy. President Obama has set the stage to reinvest in our nation, but it will be up to many individuals, including the 600,000 social workers in this country, to ensure that his plan is implemented effectively.

As we move forward in seeking solutions, many of us are looking to our past for answers. Luckily for social workers, our past is full of historical leaders. During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt worked to mend our economy after the American stock market plummeted 90 percent and we faced an unemployment rate of 25 percent. President Roosevelt’s answer to the crisis was an unprecedented involvement of the federal government known as the New Deal and two of the main architects were social workers Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins.

Frances Perkins was President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor and was the first woman to ever hold a cabinet-level position. Perkins began her career in settlement houses where she worked with individuals who were employed in dangerous and low-paying positions in New York City factories. She then became a leader in the labor movement organizing workers to defend their rights. She became chairwoman of the New York State Industrial Commission in 1926 and was appointed industrial commissioner of New York by then-Gov. Roosevelt in 1929. When he became President, Roosevelt appointed Perkins Secretary of Labor in 1933. Perkins was a significant contributor to New Deal legislation and created what eventually became the Social Security Act of 1935.

Likewise, Harry Hopkins played a critical role in Roosevelt’s administration. He too began his social work career in a settlement house in New York City. He worked for various social service organizations before being appointed by the mayor of New York City as executive secretary of the Bureau of Child Welfare. Hopkins helped draft the charter for the American Association of Social Workers and was elected its president in 1923. Hopkins became executive director of the Temporary Emergency Relief Association under Gov. Roosevelt. During Roosevelt’s presidency, Hopkins supervised the Federal Emergency Relief Association, the Civil Works Administration, and the Works Progress Administration. President Roosevelt viewed Hopkins as one of his most important advisors.

Adam Cohen, author of Nothing to Fear, calls Perkins and Hopkins two of the five most influential people during the first 100 days of the FDR Administration. Social work is essential to the well-being of our society, forming the social safety net, which has now grown to include and protect a diverse group of people from all ages and backgrounds. As we seek to alleviate the suffering of those most affected by this recession, we must keep in mind the original architects of many of the programs that alleviated these concerns decades ago. When someone told Harry Hopkins things would work out for the unemployed “in the long run,” he responded, “People don’t eat in the long run – they eat every day . . . hunger is not debatable.”

Social workers were instrumental in programs that alleviated pain, suffering, and hunger and kept many from falling through the cracks during the Great Depression. These social workers were successful because they addressed the various environmental factors that contributed to the problem, mediated tense situations, and ultimately got the job done for the greater good of the country. We, too, have the knowledge and skills to make significant contributions during this time of great difficulty, with leaders and lessons to guide us.

To comment to James J. Kelly: president@naswdc.org

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