The Safety Net Industry

It might surprise North Providence social worker Don Jackson and his ilk that I take seriously my duty to follow President Kennedy’s famous imploration and ask what I can do for my country, and for all of humanity. It might surprise the entire field of professional social workers to hear that I don’t believe myself to be unique in that attribute among conservatives. Writes Mr. Jackson:

The great conservative wave that swept into this country with the presidency of Ronald Reagan changed the sensibility of the populace from “Ask not what your country can do for you. . . .” to “He who has the most toys wins.” One is not going to acquire many “toys” with a degree in the low-paid world of social work. So the field tends to attract us liberals.

One wonders how Mr. Jackson’s explanation from economics handles conservatives’ disproportionate enlistment in the armed services. Or what about conservatives who pursue religious missionary work? Or punditry?
Truth be told, I find it a peculiar notion that those who would state as plain fact that there “aren’t enough ‘do-gooders’ and charities to make a dent in the social problems in this country (much less the world) without aid from the government” deserve the moral inheritance of “ask not what your country can do for you.” For the desert to be just, socialist social workers would have to be correct in their apparent belief that their vocation is above all others in the good that it has accomplished. As much as they may do, and as much of a blessing as they may be to individuals in need, that just isn’t the case.
Jackson believes that “without broad social change and government intervention, poverty, illiteracy, discrimination, etc., will continue to increase,” but that’s more an article of faith than a fact-driven assessment, in terms of both trends and solutions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the illiteracy rate dropped from 20% of the population in 1870 to 0.6% in 1979. Poor people, in our times, enjoy capabilities and services that even emperors of old could only dream of. Of course, arguments could be made that government intervention played a role in such advances, but did its influence equal that of technological advancement or that of economic freedom? Has federal affirmative action done more to diminish discrimination than, say, television?
We all face decisions about how best to spend our time, and while there’s much to admire in those for whom the answer is social work, others may be better suited elsewhere. I wish I were able to become more individually involved in charitable work, but family and financial demands give me a limited opening; are those hours better spent ladling soup or advocating for cultural change that I really do (believe it or not) think will benefit everybody?
In the article that sparked Jackson’s letter to the editor, Rhode Island College social work professor Jim Ryczek is reported as believing “that a comprehensive welfare state is the optimal form of government.” Somehow Prof. Ryczek doesn’t find that view in conflict with social workers’ commitment “to helping poor and oppressed communities become empowered to make positive changes.” In its history, socialism has done quite a bit to the poor and oppressed; empowering them hasn’t been a prominent feature.
For all my protestation, though, social workers with graduate degrees and their professors may be correct that their field isn’t for conservatives. A certain mindset is required for choosing that route rather than maximally furthering the country’s economy professionally, while working for change and charity personally. It also requires a certain approach to problems, which conservatives may be too inclined to address at their source, rather than through a safety net.

Show your support for Anchor Rising with a 25-cent-per-day subscription.