Fear Reagan Cutbacks Threaten Their Profession : Social Workers Fight for Survival in Conservative Age

Times Staff Writer

Joyce Davison, coordinator of social workers in the Newport News, Va., school system, is frustrated.

Not only do today's social workers have fewer funds to combat increasing social problems such as teen-age suicide, child abuse and alcoholism, she says, but they also have to deal with "the perception that we are all socialists who just hand out welfare checks." Sometimes, she says, it seems that anyone who stays in her profession "is a masochist."

Davison's comments reflect a widespread exasperation among the nation's 428,000 social workers. As the Reagan Administration cuts budgets of social programs, many social workers express the fear that their very profession is being swallowed by a rising tide of conservatism.

Low Pay, High Anxiety

Even in the best of times, social workers typically suffer from low pay and the high anxiety that comes from dealing with large numbers of frustrated--and often angry--people. Iris Brooks, an Atlanta social worker who directs a volunteer counseling agency, calls her profession "a buffer between the haves and the have-nots."

On one occasion during her 19 years of social work, Brooks said, a woman demanding her pay from a jobs program in Oakland threatened to throw acid in her face. And, she said, in a New York Head Start program for preschool children, a parent "who believed in voodoo tried to work a spell on me" because she did not like the way the program was being run.

"We often have to work in sick environments," Brooks said. "Yes, it can be masochistic."

And the pay hardly compensates; former classmates in other fields often command far higher salaries. "Self-worth is tied to what you do and how much you earn," Brooks said. "In a sense, you're worth what your paycheck says."

Changing Needs

Social workers say they are needed now more than ever because of what many economists are calling a new American Industrial Revolution--a transition from heavy industries to service and high-technology industries. Accompanying this change, they say, are new social problems of workers who are displaced or forced to adjust to new occupations, frequently with lower pay.

"The poor have changed," said Fred Newdom, executive director of the New York state chapter of the National Assn. of Social Workers. "I don't think we have less of the old poor, but more of the new poor."

For workers earning "three and five bucks an hour when they used to earn $14 (an hour) in manufacturing," he added, "the first thing they have to deal with is the fact of being more dependent."

Workers Change Too

Social workers are changing too, increasingly serving as counselors in corporations and helping employees cope with personal and professional problems.

"Social workers used to be thought of as little old ladies, or nerds with whistles on their necks," said Lucy Norman Sanchez, publicist for the social workers' association. "Now they work with airlines, Fortune 500 companies and a lot of people in the middle class."

'Massive New Programs'

Association President Robert P. Stewart, who is also director of clinical social work at Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital in Dallas, said the nation must have "massive new programs on how to help people make the transition" to the post-industrial society.

But many critics say the country needs fewer, not more, social programs--and social workers. In his book "Losing Ground," economist Charles Murray suggests that the needy might be better served by "scrapping the entire federal welfare and income-support structure" for working-aged persons.

Murray, whose book is considered by many conservatives as a blueprint for slashing government social programs, would do away with Aid to Families With Dependent Children, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, subsidized housing and disability insurance. Instead, he would force persons to rely on the job market, local services, friends and family, with unemployment insurance as the only government-supported backstop.

In response to the pressure from those who share this view, the 100,000-member social workers' association, based in suburban Washington, is embarking on an intense campaign to gain visibility and influence. It has plans to establish a center where social policies will be studied and advocated and to launch a stepped-up lobbying effort in Washington.

'Difficult Time'

"It's a difficult time," Stewart said, "and we've simply got to become better at articulating what we think the nation needs to do."

Valerie Scalisi Dore, a school social worker in Abbeville, La., welcomes the effort to "educate the public about what we do." Some social workers have been "afraid to toot their own horns," she said.

But some conservatives express concern that the social workers' organization could turn into a "political union" similar to the National Education Assn. Like that organization, the social workers' group endorsed Democrat Walter F. Mondale for President last year.

S. Anna Kondratas, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said she sees nothing wrong with distributing information, "but if they become highly politicized and captured by a political group, they would become just another special interest."

And Sally D. Reed, former director of development at the National Conservative Political Action Committee said: "I think they've gone too far already. We've let the liberals control (policies) too long."

However, the social workers' association, whose executive director, Mark Battle, said the threat from the right is responsible for the organization's newly aggressive stance. The quality of life for many Americans, he said, is being undermined. "We have an obligation to respond to that," he said.

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