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Policy Advocacy and Practice in Social Work: Addressing Inequalities

January 27, 2021

Social workers advocate on behalf of individuals and communities to increase their access to necessary resources, such as housing, food, and health care. Social work advocacy ranges from small-scale actions that impact individuals to large-scale programs that impact entire communities and society as a whole. For example, social workers help low-income people purchase food through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); they also fight to protect and extend access to SNAP for tens of millions of Americans through policy development and political action.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics includes the standard that social workers “should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully.” Social work policy advocacy is a critical way for social workers to work toward these goals.

What Is the Social Worker’s Role in Policy Advocacy?

In the field of social work, advocacy is the process of arguing on behalf of a specific concept, issue, or individual. Social workers do this in myriad ways, not all of which involve policy. In fact, much of the work they do involves lending their expertise, so their clients are empowered to advocate for themselves. For example, social workers help clients navigate social services and the legal, healthcare, and educational systems. Social workers involved in policy advocacy seek changes to frameworks that impact underserved, underrepresented, and marginalized groups, addressing policies that impact their lives and well-being. Actions include speaking out against policies that further disenfranchise such individuals, reduce or eliminate their funding for resources, or impede access to programs for their communities. They could also write policy briefs that inform the public, news media outlets, and lawmakers to generate support for funding, services, and protection.

Social Work Careers

The policies and programs that social workers advocate for can depend on the type of social work they perform. While these careers share a common goal, their advocacy efforts can focus on different demographics or issues.

Common social work career types include the following: 

  • Child Welfare: Serving vulnerable children and youth, as well as their families. These social workers may also intervene to protect children from harm.
  • Justice and Corrections: Working with the courts and in correctional facilities, including advocacy that ranges from victim assistance services to inmate rehabilitation.
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Work: Advocating for people, families, and communities dealing with substance use recovery. These social workers may also work to implement policies that proactively reduce the potential for substance misuse.
  • School Social Work: Serving as liaisons between school, home, and community services to best meet children’s educational, emotional, and developmental needs.

Those who pursue a Doctorate in Social Work (DSW), the field’s terminal degree, may pursue social work roles that allow for advocacy through program and policy development, conducting issue identification, policy analysis, and program evaluation

They can apply their skills to advanced forms of social work in areas including the following:

  • Administration and Management: Overseeing operations to ensure effective policy practice in social work. These roles can sometimes be found in state and local governments.
  • Mental Health and Clinical: Providing services to individuals facing mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and relationship problems.
  • Policy and Planning: Evaluating policies and programs to gauge effectiveness and recommend solutions to vulnerabilities.

Research: Gathering and analyzing data to identify social problems and predict program and policy outcomes.

Knowledge and Skills Needed for Policy Advocacy

The first step in advocacy work is listening. Social workers interact with communities to learn about the challenges that they face. Once the community voices its needs, the social worker can raise awareness about the issues — educating everyone from lawmakers to nonprofit advocacy groups — and empower community members to advocate for policy reform.

By raising awareness, social workers can help lay the groundwork for relationships between diverse stakeholders. Policy advocates build coalitions between individuals, businesses, and organizations with common interests. By sharing resources, contacts, and knowledge, such groups can build sufficient momentum to sway legislation.

This is just one of many advocacy methods that social workers use. Selecting the most effective approach for any given situation requires knowledge of several factors:

  • Existing Policies: If social workers want to create new policies, they must first understand why existing policies were developed. They must be able to identify problems in these policies, find ways they could be improved, and design concrete proposals toward this end.
  • Political and Legislative Processes: Social workers engaging in policy advocacy must understand how local, state, and federal policies are created and changed. Legislation is developed in line with the democratic process; knowing how governments –– from federal bodies to city councils –– change laws is crucial.
  • Service Delivery: Service delivery refers to how resources, including goods and services, are actually provided. Social workers must understand how policies are implemented to create actual results and must be able to identify bottlenecks in the path from policy to tangible change.

Social workers turn their knowledge into actions using skills in the following areas:

  • Research: Strong research skills are necessary to gain deeper insights into current policies and their historical context. Research can also be used to discover and evaluate alternative policies that may exist in another jurisdiction.
  • Analysis: Social workers assess the effectiveness of current policies and the viability of proposed policies.

Communication: The ability to write detailed policy drafts and present policy proposals orally is essential to argue for the effectiveness of one policy over another.

How the Tulane University Online Doctorate in Social Work Prepares Graduates for Roles in Policy Advocacy

Building the knowledge and skills to engage in social work policy advocacy requires a commitment to social justice. People with the desire to challenge inequities in the systems and institutions that determine access to resources should consider Tulane University’s Online DSW. The program develops leaders for social change with a curriculum that emphasizes creating and implementing effective programs and policies through courses such as the following:

  • Historical and Current Policy Approaches to Social Welfare: In this course, students develop a thorough understanding of social policy’s history and evolution over time. They gain basic knowledge of policy and service delivery, as well as the ways that power and control come into play in the legislative process. The course places a special emphasis on disenfranchised populations.

The program is designed to prepare students to pursue management and leadership roles in social work. Graduates can apply their advanced skills to develop, implement, and evaluate policies and programs. Their work can lay the foundation for policy advocacy that encourages equality and justice, whatever the issue. 

Interested individuals can get more information about the curriculum and what makes the Tulane Online DSW unique through the program’s website. Learn how Tulane can prepare you to make a critical impact in your community and society at large.