Saints and Scapegoats

When my parents tell their family friends what I’m in school for, the reaction is usually concerned panic about the future state of my finances. Once, though, they got a different reaction. The person said, “Oh wow, social workers are saints.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and my complex feelings about it, and the ways in which this common perception of social workers both results from and drives expectations about the type of work we are supposed to be doing.

First of all: I’m not sure that I agree that social work is uniquely “hard” as a profession. Certainly the work can be stressful and can cause vicarious trauma or desensitization. Certainly the work can follow you home. Certainly many jobs will overwork you and not give you enough support (material or emotional) to do the work as it ought to be done. But I’m not sure how this differs from many other jobs.

In fact, to me, most other jobs seem much more difficult than mine–prohibitively difficult, even. Journalism. Scientific research, especially in the natural sciences. Business. Finance. Construction. Food service. Computer engineering. These jobs all require skill sets that I lack and could only build with considerable effort, stress, and financial investment, if at all.

The job I chose feels easier to me than these jobs because I am suited for it.

But people are tapping into something slightly different, too, when they say that social work is “so hard” or that social workers are “saints.” Maybe they notice our abysmal pay. (Someone with a Masters degree and years of cumulative field experience deserves a starting salary of significantly higher than ~35k, but the money’s just not there.) Maybe they notice that we have to do the job of two or three people. Maybe they notice that our work environments can be unsupportive and even abusive.

And I would hope that they notice these things and instead of saying, “You shouldn’t have chosen social work if you wanted more money,” they will say, “It’s abhorrent that you make so little money and if there’s ever any way I can influence this situation, I will.”

(Irrelevant sidenote: I hate it when I express concerns about money and people say, “Well, you’re not exactly in this field for the money, are you?” You are correct, I am not in this field “for the money.” I am in this field for the same reason anyone else is in any field: to be able to pay the fucking bills and the rent. Yes, I should be paid enough for that, and then some.)

But one thing that few people seem to pick up on–at least, people outside the field–is that part of the problem is that social workers are being tasked with things that should not be our job.

I don’t mean that in a flippant way; I mean that I continually feel like we are being asked to fix things things that it is simply beyond our power to fix. Or we’re being asked to slap bandaids onto severed limbs. I get so demoralized sometimes when I realize that I’m being asked to essentially help people learn how to cope with poverty or racism or homophobia or simply working a crushing minimum-wage job while raising kids alone without any help from anyone, and it feels almost cruel to try to help people be more okay with this when this is not something that anyone should be okay with.

I know there’s no other way. I know that, of course. I’m all for harm reduction. If I can help someone deal with the fact that they are going to be poor and hated by the rest of society for their entire life, I guess that’s better than not helping them deal with that.

You know what would be even better, though? If more people gave a fuck about creating a world in which it doesn’t have to be that way.

So when I say that fixing poverty shouldn’t be my job, that’s because it should be everyone’s job. We should all care about poverty. We should all learn about what types of approaches might actually help in reducing poverty. We should all vote for legislators who pledge to implement such approaches (rather than utter rubbish like mandatory drug testing for mothers on food stamps or reducing the total number of months someone can receive public assistance so that they “just get a job already” and all that). We should all then vote those legislators out of office if they fail to follow through on this during their first terms. We should all, if we are able, donate to organizations that have a proven record of helping people in poverty and helping communities develop the resources they need to thrive.

Instead, right now, we all seem to collectively decide that poverty (and racism, and violence, and unemployment, and all that) is someone else’s problem to fix. Let all the social workers and community mental health practitioners handle that stuff; we’ll just be over here voting for whichever candidate looks the nicest.

No wonder many people think social workers are “saints.” They have charged us with singlehandedly fixing all of the most enduring and challenging social problems in our society, while making barely enough money to get by. We’re sometimes less saints and more scapegoats, the people on whom the responsibility to care falls because nobody else is caring.

And, naturally, when things go wrong–an abused child doesn’t get the help they need, or a child who isn’t really abused is taken away from their parents because of false reports of abuse, or a person with an untreated mental illness becomes violent–people ask why the social workers or mental health practitioners didn’t “do their jobs,” and how it could happen that someone would fall through the cracks like this.

If you build a crappy cracked pavement and let it deteriorate without ever making the effort to fill in the cracks–or, better yet, rip the whole thing up and build a better one–don’t be surprised when those of us tasked with running around trying to catch people sometimes fail.

That’s not to deflect responsibility from us. That’s to spread it a little more evenly. We are responsible for doing the jobs we are hired to do, but we can only do so much in an environment where nobody else seems to care.