Al Smith was right: why we need an inside game

In The Woman Behind the New Deal, the author reveals a conversation between Frances Perkins and long-time Tammany Hall politician, Al Smith.

Frances is trying to decide whether to accept a government position on the Industrial Commission. It would allow her to reform working conditions through the vehicle of a government entity with authority to force changes, he asserts. She demurs, not convinced that being a part of an admittedly imperfect (even corrupt) government is the best place for a social work reformer.

“Smith chided her. ‘If you girls are going to get what you want through legislation, there better not be any separation between social workers and the government.'” (p. 77)

When Frances relates the offer to her friend and mentor, social worker Florence Kelley, Kelley’s response was, “‘Glory be to God…I never though I would live to see the day when someone that we had trained and who knew industrial conditions, cared about women, cared to have things right, would have the chance to be an administrative officer!” (p. 77)

Frances, obviously, took the job, which helped to launch a lifetime of service to workers through the medium of government service.

With the benefit of history, it’s so clear that, for her, working within the government was the best place from which to enact the reforms so important to her and, ultimately, to the country.

And that’s why this anecdote about her ambivalence is so important, and so instructive.

What is it about social workers that makes us, often, so reluctant to enter this “inner sanctum”–the halls of government where so many of the policies that influence so much of our work, and our world, are made?

Is it our noted discomfort with power? A concern that getting too close will compromise our ethics? Unfamiliarity with the policymaking process, that makes us feel incapable of rendering excellent service in that realm? Preference for the less formal work settings of nonprofit organizations? Inadequate guidance to steer us towards government service as a career path? All of the above?

There’s certainly a case to be made for the outside agitator: no social movement was ever fomented exclusively by government employees, and none is likely to ever be.

But when we think about all of the policymaking that happens through regulations, which are largely controlled by unelected bureaucrats, and when we think further about the access and influence that these bureaucrats have with elected officials, and about the media platform that those well-positioned within administrations have, to shape discussion of issues and establishment of the social policy agenda, then it seems obvious that we need some of “our people” on the inside, too.

And what better way to get “our people” there, than by having at least some of us (read: social workers committed to social justice) go, ourselves?

If you’re a social worker in government service now, what obstacles do you encounter in your quest for social justice? If you’re considering government work as a part of your career, what considerations are you weighing? If you’re a committed “outsider”, why? And what should social work education be doing to prepare social work advocates for successful reform work both within and without government institutions?

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