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How to Enrage An Overworked Social Worker—Have Students Ask for Paid Internships!

The popular image of a social worker is all-too-often perceived as mild, well mannered, even eager to please. Social workers are nice! Oh yeah? Recently, I’ve seen a startling transformation of more than a few social workers when prospective students inquire about being paid for their labor. Eyes dilate, mouths turn downward, steam begins to emerge from both ears. You’d think students had asked for car services to their placements or the occasional catered lunch. Paid for interning!*&#! Those coddled, overly privileged students—who the hell do they think they are?!

The anger is real…but the reasons for such fury are not justifiable. Our field needs to catch up to the reality of a social work student’s life. A million years ago—aka, when I was a student—the welfare state and support for higher education was so robust that most of us had tuition wavers and grants from placements that allowed us not to do part-time work until the summer. Housing costs were bearable, so we lived near school, thus able to walk to our classes. Hell, it was a time so ancient that when I started as an assistant professor, students in the MSW program signed a statement pledging not to work part time!

Today’s student, whether in a public or private social work program, begins school knowing they will be saddled with debt—by the time they graduate, anywhere from $30,000 to $120,000. Working part time at nights and on weekends, the costs to commute to school, field work agency and part-time job are the hidden costs to their fraught living conditions. What’s not hidden is the size of their rent—given housing shortages, rents are so high in most of the US that students live further and further away from their campus, often with roommates they barely know.

Social work students today are too often broke, overworked, forced to live far from school or placement, and living under the strain of increasing debt—and all of that is happening before they enter a classroom or their agency. Looking around for a little respite, many have come to see the fact that they’re providing free labor in exchange for 1.5 hours of supervision. More than a few learn they’re serving as replacements for staff shortages and helping agencies with “billable hours” when they see their clients. Gee, if their labor goes to helping full-time staff get their salaries paid, maybe they should get a little financial relief too.

This is when the long-time social worker goes nuts. Let’s face it, we know why: she’s worked long hours well beyond their contracted hours; they live with cost-of-living increases instead of raises; the constancy of staff turnover leads the remaining staff working two jobs at once to meet funding requirements; taking work home to handle later in the night becomes routine. Instead of addressing the commonality of their plights, the older worker sees the students as naively selfish and greedy; interns see their possible mentors as withholding and unnecessarily hostile.

The student request creates rage for bumping up against the ingrained cultural norm throughout the social work profession of noble suffering: it’s all right to work those extra hours because we care so much about those less fortunate; it’s okay to worry about all those bills at home because we didn’t choose this work to be rich (ironic, muffled chuckle here); sure, the work exhaists me, but I know if I get a better self-care regimen I’ll be fine soon enough. “Noble suffering” is the dead cultural trope for making social workers feel it’s okay to feel exhausted, spent, stressed, and it’s their job to alleviate their work-related problems. It’s a trope that works well for the few executives and national leaders making well over $150,000 a year, but not for anyone else.

Changing embedded culture doesn’t happen over night but begins with a series of small, steps, strategically focused on a common objective. I’ve discussed other steps in previous blogs on self-care and the language of disempowerment. A step here was proffered by a former brilliant grad student of mine, Pauline Pisano, now a volunteer staff member of Rev. William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Knowing what a great field placement the campaign would be, she has approached her own superviaor about creating a paid internship. The campaign is hardly flush with cash, but her supervisor has agreed. “It probably won’t be a lot, like $2,000” she said. “But we’ve got to start somewhere. Expecting to work with the poor by staying poor isn’t a healthy message for anybody. It’s a small step, but it says social workers and organizers matter, that the poor matter. Anything else just feeds division.”

A small step. We need a lot of them. Taken together with strategic purpose, maybe, just maybe, over time we turn a professional reckoning into social worker transformation.

For more on these ideas and the need for sociasl work’s own reckoning, see The End of Social Work: A Defense of the Social Worker in Times of Transformation” (Cognella)

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