Current Social Frontiers

 A Presidential Address at the 83d Annual Forum National Conference Of Social Work St. Louis, Missouri, May 20-25, 1956

by Benjamin E. Youngdahl,

Dean, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University; President, National Conference of Social Work

Benjamin E. Youngdahl, President, NCSW 1956

Benjamin E. Youngdahl, President, NCSW 1956

 I SHOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH YOU my ideas on “The Challenge of Change.” I propose to examine the phenomenon of change as it affects the profession of social work: to point out the accomplishments of the past, the needs of the present, and the challenges of the future, and in so doing, outline some of the issues that will be discussed in detail at the 1956 Annual Forum.

Change itself is neither good nor bad. Change begets change and generates harmonizing readjustments in wide circles. The industrial revolution brought laborsaving devices into the home, thereby bringing leisure time or release of time to the housewife and mother. The leisure time, in turn, helped to bring women into industry. This series of changes brought, much later, the need for the creation of a new social work program: day care centers and other protective devices for children. Our culture is so interrelated that a change in one trait or complex brings a chain reaction of adjustments.

The rapidity of a social change is as important as change itself. An important development that has taken place on a national basis in the last few generations is the expansion of urbanization. Today less than one fourth of our population still live on farms. While this process has been going on throughout the greater part of our history, it has been accelerated in recent decades. The more rapid the change, the greater the adjustment that becomes necessary. In a relatively short time, we have been transformed from a nation of primary or face-to-face relationships to one of secondary or indirect group relationships. The older loyalties of kinship and locality have tended to dissolve, and an intensification of individualism has evolved. Each person finds himself relating to many wider or secondary groups which may not have the same framework of standards. When the values are in conflict the individual is caught in a dilemma. Thus a changing society presents challenging moral problems. …

…It is easy to hang on to the past. We must not only be willing but also be ready to change. In terms of agency and service arrangements, this means forward planning and flexibility. We must not wait for a crisis.

To recognize change, to be prepared for the shocks that change begets in our entire culture, to bolster the morality-the basic values-that must be used as a measuring guide for the adjustments, and to have the courage and vision necessary to attain the proper degree of those adjustments, the profession of social work needs to recognize both the social needs of the present and social achievements of the past. There are those who say that social workers are constantly talking about needs and gaps and problems and that they fail to recognize achievements and accomplishments. One of my very good non-social work friends twits me frequently with the words: “Isn’t anything good being done? Is everything bad? Why don’t you ever put the emphasis on the positive, on the things that we have, on the good life that exists for so many people?”

It is true that we tend to emphasize the gaps and the negatives of the existing situation, but that is one of our peculiar missions in the necessary role we must play as a profession. We do not expect the millennium here on earth but we know that if intelligence, work, and good motivation are applied to human problems, society can eliminate much human suffering and bring about a greater degree of total well-being.

Let us never sink back into the comfortableness of “Let well enough alone!” Let us never become so immune to people’s cares and hurts that we see only the comfortable houses and fail to see the slums, that we are no longer interested in how the other half lives, or even how those in the last percentile live.

Ours is a profession with heavy responsibilities. In a very real way we, and sometimes we alone, stand as the protectors, the defenders, and the helpers of the lost, the last, and the least. It is not an easy role that we have, but we would no longer be worthy to be called a profession if we did not assume our task seriously. Moreover, ours is a dynamic profession with a forward, leadership role, and if we are to practice what we profess we must lead rather than follow, we must ferret out the causes of human ills and attempt to remove them. We have shown in the past, and we must maintain the position in the future, that we are not afraid of the slings and arrows of critics just so long as we are solidly grounded on principles we believe to be sound and just and right. Some of the world’s greatest leaders have been the recipients of harsh epithets during their lifetime. Social work no longer cringes under the names of “do-gooders,” “welfare-staters,” and a long list of other appellations. We are beginning to have confidence in our ability to be helpful to people and to help them make for themselves a better way of life.

Let it be said of us that the whole world is our stage and the welfare of people our concern. Obviously, a profession must develop its own techniques if it is to become proficient and worthy, but let us never lose sight of the fact that these are a means to an end and never an end in themselves. Let it not be said of our profession that we are overprofessional, narrow, bigoted, self-centered. The professionalism that is truly justified is one that makes common cause with the needs of people.

….The Challenge of Prevention. — We have done a good job in evolving method and techniques in the treatment of pathologiesindividual illness, maladjustment, and need. To a large degree our efforts have been concentrated on treatment, with lesser emphasis on preventing the ills from happening in the first place. Is there not work to do in the area of attempting to prevent mass poverty, large-scale family breakdown, widespread juvenile and adult delinquency, mental illness, handicapping conditions?

We have made more headway perhaps in the prevention of mass poverty through such programs as social insurance, the minimum wage, low-cost housing, establishment of adequate wage scales and working conditions, and so on, than in other areas, but even here more work needs to be done, especially in certain segments of our population, such as in rural areas, the South, and among minority groups.

A caseworker who is trying to give facilitative help to a client or patient may find that restoration of self-maintenance or normal living is not possible by treatment on an individual basis and that the only way that person can be restored to health is by the provision of some nonexisting community service, or a change in some social institution, or the availability of resources quite outside the person. If this situation is common in quite a number of our cases, does the caseworker, or the agency, alone or in concert with others, make an effort to remedy the fault or to avoid the problem in the first instance? Many, if not most, of the pathological situations can be averted or prevented at least in part by proper planning and foresight. But this takes a long view and a wide horizon.

In an excellent issue of Medical Social Work Dr. Gerald Caplan, of Harvard University, points out that we ought to widen our circle of interest from the mother-child relationships to the father, to the siblings, to the grandparents, to the school, and to our whole social structure and culture. He says that the social worker is a “specialist in assessing environmental phenomena.” He points out that when we altered our focus “from the social aspects of casework to the intrapersonal aspects of psycho-therapy” we strayed from our “traditional path.” He would have us widen our horizons and put more relative emphasis on community planning, for in this way we would have greater “opportunity for expending our skilled work in the most economical way possible at the focal point.” (Note:  Gerald Caplan, “The Role of the Social Worker in Preventive Psychiatry,” Medical Social Work, IV, No. 4 (1955), 144. 16 Ibid.)

Dr. Caplan thinks that use of the “knowledge of the unconscious implications of overt behavior” need not be restricted to the intrapersonal phenomena but this knowledge and this sensitivity can be used effectively “in regard to the environmental forces which impinge upon people.”

Prevention is not necessarily only an activity by itself. To be sure, it includes provision for decent housing, fair labor standards, protection against adulterated foods and drugs, public health measures, provision of income maintenance through such programs as social insurance, and so forth. A preventive approach should pervade all our activities even though our specific job involves primarily individual treatment. In other words, a caseworker should be actively interested not only in his own case load but in all the families and children of his community. If a licensing law for child care agencies will prevent problems from occurring he should be involved directly or indirectly in an effort to get that law. The same would be true in the case of adoption laws and preventive mental health clinics, to cite but two examples. I would hope that social workers who are working with individual patients or clients would also be interested in the causes of the conditions they are trying to treat and would be involved in some effort to eliminate those causes. We are challenged to continue the zeal of the pioneers of our profession, to maintain an active interest in preventive activities, and not to put all our eggs in the one basket of individual treatment after the ill occurs.

These are some of the challenges that face us. What is the appropriate response to such a complex array both by the social work profession and by its cooperating citizen volunteers?

The challenge of change is a challenge to take a look at ourselves and our institutions on an objective basis and to sort out those things that continue to be effective and those that have outlived their usefulness. It does not mean that we should abandon everything that we have done or stood for in the past.

For example, if the profession of social work is to fulfill its historic mission it must continue to be the conscience of the community. We must never lose that function. It is our job to know the needs of people as individuals and as groups. It is our job to determine these needs on a scientific basis through fact-finding and research. It is our job to interpret these needs to the whole community and to make every legitimate effort to see that the gaps are filled and, if possible, that the ills are prevented.

A businessman several months ago severely criticized our profession for being unrealistic, for always wanting more services, for never being satisfied. Said he, “Don’t you people know that the spigot sometimes runs dry?” My response was that if social work abandoned its function of being the conscience of the community, its responsibility of focusing on the needs of people, it would relieve itself of trouble and grief and controversy, but it would be selling helpless people down the river.

It is not the job of social work to play down needs, to blink at them, to cover them up. That would be dishonest to one of our basic responsibilities as a profession. It is true there are at times limits to the expansion of services at a given moment. But I happen to think that these limits are frequently exaggerated and often distorted. With our actual and potential productive capacity in this country, with our surpluses and abundance, who is there who will seriously argue that we cannot afford to give appropriate service to our maladjusted, retarded, homeless, and neglected children? Or to our dependent aged? Or to the handicapped? Or to the mentally ill? Or to those just in trouble? And if we want to be so very practical, who will seriously argue that we should not spend some money to provide services that will prevent social breakdown, or family disintegration, or human misery of whatever form?

But, in spite of all this, there are certain practical limitations that are present at given times and in given places. Perhaps we have not had enough courage in setting priorities, however difficult this task. It seems to me that professional social workers have much to contribute here, although the ultimate decisions must remain with the people as a whole.

As conditions and needs have changed we have not always had whatever it takes to help do away with an agency that no longer meets a need. Programs of all kinds have a way of becoming institutionalized, and in a changing scene they need to be studied constantly. While social workers have a part to play in such decisions, I want to emphasize that the final responsibility belongs to the whole community or, in individual cases, to a board of directors. We point up the needs, the people make the decisions. This is equally true in public and in voluntary social work.

Life has many responsibilities. The sins of omission are just as unworthy as the sins of commission. Failure to do the things we ought to do, as we have the talents and the means, is a serious indictment of our profession. We must justify the space we occupy. The road to getting things done is never the easy road, the noncontroversial road, the static road. Progress is dynamic and moving. When we reach one temporary goal, we move it forward, seeking though never fully realizing perfection or the ideal. Change itself takes care of that. The ideal under one set of circumstances becomes the laggard under another. A social service program may suffice under a given environment, whereas it falls far short of need under another. A program which serves a need at one time becomes useless at another, and we should be the first to recognize that fact and to discard it. Vested interests have no place in this kind of profession.

Such a profession as ours, then, has no place for “let-wellenough-aloners”; for what is good enough today, may not be tomorrow. The little red schoolhouse may have sufficed in a simple agricultural economy, but it no longer meets the needs of contemporary culture. What is a frill at one stage becomes stark necessity at another; it may actually mean survival.

Neighborliness and voluntary giving may have been adequate in a simple culture, but industrialization, urbanization, transportation, and technology have brought basic changes. Mass public programs for the protection of the health and welfare of people now become necessary.

The day of the pioneer is still with us. There are now and there will always be social work frontiers-challenges to be accepted, things to be done, changes to be made, old services to be discarded, new services to be created. We must never let it be said that we are in a rut, that we are failing to grasp an opportunity to help make this world a better place in which to live, that we embrace mere conformity to the detriment of people, that we are afraid. Let our eyes always be directed toward new goals and wider horizons for people everywhere. As I have said before:

“…Unswerving in our purpose we go forward to maintain the respect and dignity which is the birthright of every person. Together with many other well motivated groups in our population we shall meet the challenge, which is really the challenge of democracy. We shall meet it resolutely and with courage. We shall strive to the utmost to maintain our faith in the sanctity of the individual personality. We shall minister to the sick and to the depressed, to the hungry and the impoverished, whether of the body or of the mind or of the spirit. We shall endeavor to make ourselves worthy of our trust…”  (Note: Benjamin E. Youngdahl, “Social Work at the Crossroads,” Social Work, Journal, XXXIV (1953), 113.

Source: The Social Welfare Forum, 1956 Official Proceedings, 83d Annual Forum National Conference Of Social Work St. Louis, Missouri, May 20-25, 1956 Published 1956 For The National Conference Of Social Work By Columbia University Press, New York




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