Social Workers: Reducing Stigma in a Struggling Economy

BY: WILLIAM WALDMAN

Today, stigma remains a significant barrier for many individuals and families who seek public services and benefits. In these difficult economic times, when so many families desperately need additional financial assistance or services – including mental health services, public assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, and children’s health insurance – far too many of us believe that accepting such assistance represents a personal defect or failure.

Families in need of public help often perceive that their families, friends and neighbors will think less of them if they apply for assistance. Added to this, potential public assistance recipients face significant cultural and language barriers that make it more difficult for them to get assistance of any kind. Simply put, while we as a society have made great strides in reducing the shame of accepting a helping hand from government, the stigma associated with public assistance persists.

Yet, with our current economic meltdown, as more and more middle class Americans lose jobs, income, and benefits, we may see the stigma diminish. With more of us needing assistance for the first time in our lives, our attitudes may change.

Receiving help from others can be a humbling experience. It can also be instructive. It can deepen our understanding and empathy for the less fortunate. It can shine new light on our commonality, our connectedness, and our collective responsibility to help those in need.

Our national economic crisis may also bring into clearer focus the role that social workers – and all the helping professions – play in reaching out to those in need.

March is National Social Work Month, a time to celebrate the work social workers do to support individuals and families in New Jersey. Every day, in every part of our state, social workers demonstrate compassion and caring as they eliminate barriers and reduce roadblocks to benefits and services, and help others regain their dignity and independence. Social workers strive for positive change and progressive social policies.

In fact, the historic economic downturn that now imperils our nation may present an opportunity for a new social contract, similar in many ways to the New Deal. This contract, which social workers will help to shape, will bring a new message of hope and shared responsibility, and may reduce the stigma that comes with accepting public help.

And social workers, whose work we celebrate in March, will once again be on the front lines in ensuring that we reach out to individuals and families in need and reduce the stigma associated with needing, and accepting, public assistance.

NASW-NJ President William Waldman is former NJ Commissioner of Human Services. He is a Lecturer (Professor) and Executive in Residence at the Rutgers University School of Social Work in New Brunswick.

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