Long before I realized that I held a passion for writing, I envisioned myself a career social worker. I wasn’t sure exactly what that entailed, but the idea of helping others and practicing generosity, kindness, and compassion in my working life was highly appealing. When it came time for me to apply to social work school after college however, I just didn’t have it in me to complete my application essays. I took this as a sign to take some time off and consider my options before rushing into any decisions. These deliberations eventually lead me to a graduate program in Sociology, so that I could work from a larger framework to address issues of social injustice. Despite this conscious decision to further my education in such a way as to direct my career path away from the individually-focused approach of social work, I find myself continually drawn to job opportunities that fall under this umbrella. My current position is no different, but I do enjoy the nitty gritty, person-to-person interaction of my job more than I originally imagined.
I work as a case manager for the housing department. My job is to attend to those clients referred to our office, screen them for a variety of programs relating to their health, housing, financial, safety, and employment needs, assist them in applying to said programs, and provide ongoing case management services. The population I worked with could be referred to as low-income, but I find this phrase largely misleading. It homogenizes an incredibly diverse group of people whose circumstances reflect a range of experiences, beliefs, and histories too varied to lump into a single category. But even more so, I find that the term is incredibly insubstantial and superficially reflects the lives of those to whom it pertains. Low-income is, quite plainly, a weak euphemism, a carefully selected but decidedly non-descriptive political idiom. It masks the searing human need, the heartbreaking poverty, the vast and unbridgeable divide between rich and poor. It creates a dualistic mentality that minimizes the true range of difference between those at the top and those at the bottom.
I enjoy my job and the clients with whom I work, but the more days I log in the field, the more I find myself feeling vaguely unsettled. After months of unsuccessfully attempting to identify the source of this ambiguity, I finally recognize it as a product of the feelings of extreme vulnerability born of my work. It isn’t just the fact that I am personally vulnerable to the impoverishment and need that I witness on a daily basis, though this has definitely given me pause on numerous occasions, but rather my increasing awareness of a more universal human vulnerability.
Lots of people go to work and deal with numbers all day, or dollars, words, facts or figures, sell things to people or deal with the small inconveniences that plague others. Social workers deal with humans at their weakest and most desperate. I assist seniors who subsist on measly fixed incomes, who worked hard their whole lives but have no savings to depend upon with a broken furnace or a roof caving in over their head. Others are continuing to put in their time at backbreaking, demanding jobs that reward them with unlivable wages. Sure, a few people I see don’t put much effort into improving their financial situation and some circumstances are certainly less dire than others. But the stories I hear speak to the vulnerability of us all. Single tragic events can offset a person’s entire financial plan, health problems can pop up and derail the life course, and sometimes what we earn quite plainly is not enough to make ends meet in today’s increasingly expensive and dangerous world. The American dream we are sold hinges upon security, which is increasingly difficult to come by. We want to live in safe, healthy, warm homes, to have enough food to eat, to be secure in the face of unforeseeable emergencies, to rightfully own the property in which we’ve raised a family and created fond memories. But the exorbitant cost of the essentials renders it increasingly difficult to enjoy much beyond the basics, if we are fortunate enough to even secure those. And thus, financial vulnerability runs rampant.
There is more to this vulnerability, however, than just economic need, or the proximity of that sharp cliff which plummets to financial ruin. The clients I work with lead me to question our very society. How can we allow so many people to slip through the threads of our “safety nets?” I look at my parents who appear so confident in their middle age. Bolstered by my father’s career as a chemical engineer, they are able to treat themselves now and will continue to be able to do so into the future. Growing up, I was completely unaware of how rare and unusual their financial security is, nor how unique it is to certain groups of people. Social work has exposed me to the temerity of poverty and the magnitude of need, facts to which we are very unwilling to admit as a society. It has quickly and surely dawned upon me that there is very little in place to truly buoy people in need. When money exercises such undeniable control over our existences and is so irrefutably essential to survival, financial vulnerability makes us entirely powerless, robs us of our most meager and elemental sense of efficacy. It renders us unable to live our lives in meaningful ways by eliminating opportunities to achieve any goals higher than mere survival. We are reverted to a more primeval state of being which is at odds with the pace, the form, and the very stuff of modern day life.
It is difficult to imagine social work as my long term career; the idea of dealing with the scale and complexity of these issues day in and out for years to come looms quite daunting in my mind. To not be employed in some capacity with people in need, however, seems like a less than fulfilling way to spend my working years. Social workers are famously burnt out and infamously underpaid. The field has appeal among a concentrated few but is largely unable to draw in a wide audience of talented and concerned people. Limited interest and high turnover rates are understandable in recognition of the exorbitant stress of a social worker’s life. While it remains to be seen what social work means for me in the long term for these reasons and more, I have been immediately impacted by the things I learn on my job. Unable to avoid these realities, I have come to reluctantly accept them and constantly yearn for a means to amend them. This post may be a meager start toward that end but generating understanding and absorption of these facts must come first. Maybe what we need is more than just good social workers, maybe we need a social movement.