The Social Work Grand Challenge to reduce economic inequality is one of 13 Grand Challenges guiding future practice, research, and education. This article on the Grand Challenge to reduce extreme economic inequality documents the problem, probes the mechanisms by which inequality continues and deepens, and proposes approaches for addressing this problem so interwoven into our economy and society. This article describes economic inequality in the U.S. context as well as social work–oriented responses. It briefly compares the inequality level of the U.S. with that of other countries. It explores the distinctions between poverty and economic inequality and the particular ways in which economic inequality is maintained and grows in the U.S. It also explores the kinds of policy and program initiatives addressing this grand challenge, the barriers to and potential benefits of such ideas, and the roles for social workers and the social work profession in reducing extreme economic inequality in our society.
Laura Lein, Jennifer Romich, Trina R. Williams Shanks, and Dominique Crump
Silvia M. Chávez-Baray, Eva M. Moya, and Omar Martinez
Reproductive health endeavors in regard to prevention, treatment, and emerging disparities and inequities like lack of access to comprehensive and equitable reproductive health for immigrants and LGBTQ+ populations are discussed. Practice-based approaches for reproductive health justice and access care models, to advance reproductive justice, are included. Implications for macro social work practice and historical perspectives, practices, and social movements of reproductive health justice in the United States to promote reproductive health justice in the context of political, legal, health, and social justice efforts are salient to advance social justice.
Fred Brooks and Amanda Gutwirth
If one of the goals of macro social work in the United States is to decrease poverty and inequality, by most measures it has largely failed that mission over the past 40 years. After briefly documenting the four-decade rise in inequality and extreme poverty in the United States, three organizing campaigns are highlighted—living wage, Fight for $15, and strikes by public school educators—that fought hard to reverse such trends. A strategy, “bargaining for the common good,” which was implemented across those campaigns, is analyzed as a key ingredient to their success.
Laurie A. Walker
Urban neighborhood disinvestment in the United States resulted in deferred maintenance of buildings and common social problems experienced by residents. Strategies to redevelop neighborhoods include collaboration among many subsystems seeking to collectively invest in places and people. Contemporary federal initiatives focus on incentivizing coordinated investments between existing local community-based organizations, local and federal government, and private investors. Public–private partnerships include anchor institutions with commitments to the long-term success of place-based initiatives who invest their financial, intellectual, social, and political capital. Social workers are embedded in local community-based organizations and relationships with residents in neighborhoods experiencing redevelopment. Social workers can help guide top-down and bottom-up approaches to neighborhood revitalization toward more equitable and inclusive processes and outcomes. Resident engagement in redeveloping neighborhoods takes many forms and requires differing skill sets for social workers. Urban redevelopment is a global trend with common critiques regarding relying on gentrification and market-driven strategies with private investors.
Neoliberalism is an international, transdisciplinary, and interdisciplinary concept with political, economic, and social dimensions. Neoliberalism is a governing rationality based on market logic that protects free markets by reducing business regulations, restricting citizen and resident welfare state protections, and increasing welfare state discipline. This entails three dimensions: First, neoliberalism consists of economic governing principles to benefit free markets both globally and domestically to the advantage of corporations and economic elites. Second, this includes concurrent state governing principles to limit welfare state protections and impose disciplinary governance so service users will be individually responsible and take up precarious work. A third component is neoliberal governmentality—the ways neoliberalism shapes society’s members through the state to govern themselves as compliant market actors. Neoliberalism is at its core a political reasoning, organizing society around principles of market rationality, from governance structure to social institutions to individual behavior in which individuals should behave as responsible and accountable market actors. Among its central tenets are that individuals should behave as independent responsible market actors; the social welfare state should be downsized and delegated to lower levels of government; and public welfare should be privatized, marketized, and commodified. While neoliberal policy design sets public provision parameters, its signature tool is to govern through state public administration. New public managerialism is a common example, as is managerialism more generally; they both borrow business management principles and apply them to the management of all aspects of social services. Because of its prescriptive nature, there is concern that neoliberalism dictates practice, threatening professional authority of social workers and challenging the implicit trust the public puts in professions. Writ large, there are concerns about democracy itself as neoliberalism works against the will of the people and collective responses to social problems. Resistance to neoliberalism is growing and early examples are provided.
Reversing extreme economic inequality is one of the grand challenges for social work, identified as one of the most critical issues in the field. Two key types of economic inequality, income and wealth inequality are described. Although, wealth and income inequality are often discussed synonymously they have differing levels of inequality and impact clients’ lives differently. Perhaps more importantly, as this article describes, solving income and wealth inequality require differing solutions. The article further explores the specific income and wealth inequality experienced by women and people of color, due in part to discrimination. Lastly, the efforts of social workers to address economic inequality through research, practice, and advocacy are described.
Vadim Moldovan, Eugeniu Rotari, Vadim Tarna, and Alina Zagorodniuc
The Republic of Moldova is a small post-Soviet country that has been “transitioning” from a socialist to capitalist economy since the 1990s. Once a prosperous region of the Soviet Union, it is now among the poorest countries in Europe, facing many social problems that call for a strong social work profession. However, social work is new to the country and the profession is challenged by low societal status, meager resources, and lack of cohesion. Social work in Moldova is struggling to meet these challenges with the help from the West and the emergence of an indigenous model of professionalization. Child welfare, elder care, mental health, as well as the history of social work in Moldova, current state of social work education with its obstacles to and opportunities for progress will be discussed.
At its 2015 General Assembly, the United Nations formulated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to emergize its Member nations and social workers practicing in these countries to engage in environmentally sustainable social and economic development leaving no one behind. At the core of SDGs is the conviction that protecting planet Earth is possible by working collectively and ensuring that all human beings are able to realize their full potentials. The charges include solving a wide range of environmental, economic, and social problems including poverty, hunger, violence, and discrimination by 2030. The SDGs are inclusive of all people; they have galvanized all Member countries and their policy makers and practitioners, including social workers, to strive toward the common goals. Progress has been made from previous initiatives, but there are still challenges ahead. The first five SDGs are particularly relevant to social workers, who have an important role to play in alleviating poverty, promoting health and education, and empowering women and girls.
Vincent A. Fusaro
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a federal block grant program with a state contribution requirement that supports the provision of state aid to low-income families with children in the United States, including but not limited to cash assistance. Created by the 1996 welfare reform law, which ended entitlement to cash benefits under TANF’s predecessor Aid to Families with Dependent Children, TANF cash aid includes time limits and work requirements. States are also free to set their own program rules and may use funds for purposes other than direct poverty relief and services for cash assistance clients. Consequently, TANF varies widely across states in generosity of benefits, behavioral rules to which clients must adhere, and in the uses of program resources, with only about one-quarter of all state and federal TANF funds used for traditional cash assistance. Other priorities funded under TANF include work supports and child care, programming to promote two-parent families, refundable tax credits, and support of state child welfare systems. The end of entitlement to cash assistance under TANF was associated with a sharp decline in welfare caseloads and increases in employment in single-mother families nationwide. The initial implementation of TANF also coincided with a boom economy in the mid- to late-1990s and was immediately preceded by a large expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers. Studies disagree on the relative role each of these factors played in both caseload and employment trends, and women who moved off of welfare and into the labor force are often in unstable, low-paying jobs. The defining characteristic of cash-assistance receiving families is deep economic deprivation, and benefits do not bring a household above official income poverty in any state. In most states, they do not even bring a family to 50% of poverty. Cash assistance under TANF nonetheless remains an important backstop for families in extremely difficult circumstances.
Praveen Kumar, Smitha Rao, and Gautam N. Yadama
Energy poverty is lack of access to adequate, high-quality, clean, and affordable forms of energy or energy systems. It is a prominent risk factor for global burden of disease and has severe environmental, social, and economic implications. Despite recent international attention to address energy for the poor, there is a limited consensus over a unified framework defining energy poverty, which impacts almost 2.8 billion mostly poor people, especially in Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have the largest number of energy poor. India, in South Asia, comprises a significant proportion of energy-impoverished households. There is a continued effort by the Indian government, non-profit agencies, and private organizations to address the needs of energy poor. Social workers have a significant role to play in these interventions addressing energy poverty in India. Emerging research and practice in the energy poverty field in India calls for transdisciplinary collaboration especially between social work practitioners of community development, environmental health, public health, and social policy.