Social and economic justice occurs when “all members of a society share equally in the social order, secure an equitable consideration of resources and opportunities, and enjoy their full benefit of civil liberties” (DuBois & Krogsrud Miley, 1996; p.15). An easier way to understand the concept of social and economic justice may be to consider what is a lack of justice: “when societies do not accord citizens equity and equality and when they violate their citizens’ human and civil rights” (DuBois & Krogsrud Miley, 1996; p.16).
Social injustice could include any social problem-domestic violence, inadequate healthcare, or substance abuse. Social justice ideally addresses these problems, but also addresses social issues-the increasing aging population, education expenses, and environmental concerns.
Social workers’ responsibility regarding social and economic justice is formally defined in the NASW Code of Ethics (May 1988 version). The last section of the Code of Ethics, “the social worker’s ethical responsibility to society,” states that “[t]he social worker should promote the general welfare of society.” More specifically, it states “[t]he social worker should advocate changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions and to promote social justice.” It is clear then that social workers are obligated to promote social justice – to empower people individually and collectively.
This stipulation is congruent with my own personal beliefs about social justice. Influenced by my values based in Christianity and humanism (yes, two philosophies that contradict each other), I feel action to promote social justice is a personal responsibility. In the past, I have taken limited action in the areas of abortion, political prisoners, environmental issues, and pornography. My undergraduate education in social work has introduced me to the injustices against persons who are elderly, are of an AHANA group (African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American), or are of a non-heterosexual orientation. Not only have I been introduced to these injustices, but I have also been taught about their roots and what allows them to continue.
Though I have been (and will be) taught the importance of the promotion of social justice through my social work education, the teaching of how to promote social justice has been limited. Beyond the advice of writing a letter in some classes, education in these classes on how to combat social injustice has been non-existent. In most classes, it seems to be given a secondary importance or is treated as an afterthought. Though in classes I am reminded my role as a social worker is to enhance social conditions to improve social functioning, my choice of field placements have been limited to clinical settings where I can only practice direct skills. Accomplishments in social justice by social work pioneers are studied, but these people are treated as awe-inspiring individuals, not necessarily people that are possible to aspire to become. Graduate level studies often offer a micro (clinical) concentration or a macro (community organization, economic development) concentration. If we are ethically mandate to work at both levels, why are they separate specializations? It is presented as an option, not as an obligation.
In a profession that is struggling to define itself, the range of social works’ obligations dilutes the profession and makes it difficult to be taken seriously. This range can even cause internal conflict as it has in the past with Jane Addams promotion of social action versus other workers’ base in direct practice (Segal & Bruzuzy, 1998).
I am not calling for an elimination of social action to achieve social justice in the profession of social work; I think there just needs to be a more universal definition of social work, something social workers have been struggling to achieve since the beginning of the profession. Obviously, social action to promote social and economic justice is not just an admirable goal but one that is necessary to accomplish. The ineffectiveness of Charity Organization Societies was primarily because they did not address social or structural causes around issues.
There needs to be an association of social work with social action among social workers themselves. If it is ethically mandated, in his or her job description, a social worker should be able to state they have a societal focus, as well as an individual, group, and community focus. The profession needs to define itself and then educate itself to its’ own goals.
If social workers are expected to participate in action for social justice, provisions should be made so they can do so. Reduction of caseloads, recruitment of social workers, promotion of participation in professional organizations and in politics, and support among each other to participate in action could help our mandated goal to promote social justice.
NASW Code of Ethics (May 1988 Revision)
Segal, E.A., & Bruzuzy, S. (1998). Social welfare policy, programs, and practice. Itasca, Illinois: F.E. Peacocks Publishers Inc.