The Role of Social Workers
To the Editor:
In his review of Edgar May’s The Wasted Americans [July] Herbert Gans takes some familiar potshots at professional social workers . . . . “In the past,” he writes, “[social workers] have often been unable to overcome their middle class orientation. . . . More professionals may thus result only in more professionalized punishment of the poor.”
. . . Mr. Gans has every right not to like social workers, if he so chooses, but the fact is that thousands of settlement workers, workers in prisons, family agencies, public schools, and so on, deal daily with people who have problems of overwhelming complexity. They don’t always succeed—yet often they alleviate at least a great many of them.
Can Mr. Gans suggest some non-middle-class orientation we are not using? We should be grateful.
And who, incidentally, does Mr. Gans think is responsible for the policy on the part of certain federal and local agencies of employing “sub-professionals of low income origins” . . . to “act as middlemen between the professionals and the poor”? . . .
Hans S. Falck
St. Louis, Missouri
Mr. Gans writes:
Although my personal feelings toward social workers are irrelevant, I like those who have a truly professional conception of their function, and are more concerned with improving their services than with defending either their monopoly or what Professor Falck admits is less than a perfect record of achievement. One of my favorites among them is Gertrude Goldberg, who has worked with trained low-income non-professionals in a successful homemaker program developed by Mobilization for Youth on New York’s Lower East Side. In reporting on their approach and comparing it to that of the professionals, she writes:
The reasons why homemakers develop rapport with clients could stem from their greater proximity to the client than the professional workers, or the job they do. . . . I sometimes feel like an inhibiting influence when I go along to introduce a home-maker to a client. When I leave, they break out into their own language . . . somehow, as if by magic, they converse freely and fully. . . .
Empathy rather than sympathy comes more naturally to the homemaker than to the professional worker. . . . Although homemakers are in some respects less accepting than professional workers, they are perhaps more tolerant in others. They don’t perceive people as problems. They react more strongly to bad housing, illness, or lack of money because they know what it feels like to do without the necessities. . . .
Somehow Mrs. Smith was less forbidding to the homemaker than the caseworker, who was frightened of her. She was well meaning, easily misunderstood and temperamental, but she wasn’t “paranoid, rejecting, abusive.” Mrs. Casey was “a fine person who cared for her children” and that was the main thing even if she had four illegitimate children. To the social worker she was depressed, practically ego-less, “so self-destructive.” . . . The homemakers aren’t trained to perceive people as clients. . . .
Needless to say, there are many technical services which only professionals can carry out. When it comes to non-technical ones, however, many of them find it difficult—and understandably so—to set aside their own values, and hide their disapproval or fear of low-income clients by the thinly veiled hostility which I called professional punishment of the poor. The use of subprofessionals would not only make it unnecessary for middle-class professionals lacking empathetic skills to undertake this destructive and self-destructive function, but would also provide new jobs among a population so beset by unemployment.
Incidentally, Mrs. Goldberg’s observations are quoted in a Mobilization for Youth report, The Revolution in Social Work: The New Non-Professional, by Frank Riessman, which has been quite influential in stimulating federal and local interest in the use of sub-professionals. Dr. Riessman is a psychologist.