The list of social, psychological, economic, and environmental challenges requiring social work research and practice responsiveness is substantial. Conducting high-quality cultural responsive research to positively affect the social, psychological, economic, and environmental entries on the social work research to-do list is essential. On this wide-ranging list are two areas where social work research should place a stronger focus for future research. Racial inequality and poverty are serious issues in this country and require a stronger emphasis from social work research. Race and income are often included as demographic measure in research as we study other social problems. Research on racial disparities and racial differences are quite prominent in social work (Williams, 2013). Researchers have documented that when compared with white Americans, racial minorities have worse outcomes in education, income, health, behavioral health, delinquency, substance abuse, disabilities, criminal justice, safety, and chronic diseases (Auslander, Thompson, Dreitzer, White, & Santiago, 1997; Cummings, Ponce, & Mays, 2010; Hardaway, & McLoyd, 2009; Hirschl & Rank, 2010; Kington & Smith, 1997; Nguyen, Ho, & Williams, 2011; Olshansky et al., 2012; Sampson & Lauritsen, 1997; Williams et al., 2007). What we have not documented is why race is a primary predictor of these differences and disparities. Studies published in social work journals on the meaning and construction of race, racism, and race relations are rare. Developing a research literature in social work on race, racism, and race relations will reinforce our knowledge about the well-being of a significant population served by social work practitioners. Race and historical and structural racism are key factors underpinning many of the differences and disparities for African American children, families, and individuals. Research needs to examine the true causes behind these differences and disparities and move beyond just using race as a predictor. We need to understand the complexities of racial identities and the impact of structural and historical racism on the life trajectory of African Americans. Multiple events over the past 10 years have indicated that our country has a race problem. Almost 90 percent of white people in the United States who take the Implicit Association Test show an inherent racial bias for white people versus African Americans, which is a clear indication that there is still much to be accomplished to effectively address race relations in this country (Nesbit, 2016). We have not reached a point at which we can have authentic conversations about systematic racial bias in the criminal justice system, education, and income earnings. Fewer and fewer Americans will openly admit that their beliefs support racism. However, some studies show that many Americans still harbor beliefs about racial and ethnic minorities that are based on racist stereotypes (Diversity Digest, n.d.). Research is needed to inform effective dialogue to address the race problem in this country. Some researchers posit that neuroscience and social science research can support our understanding of the psychological pathways that lead to prejudice. Once we better understand these pathways we will be able to intervene to effectively combat prejudices. There are several initiatives underway to expand research on race and social problems. Several summits have been convened for scholars who focus on race, ethnicity, and poverty. These summits bring together scholars, researchers, practitioners, and funders from across the nation to discuss connecting race, ethnicity, and class for collective impact. The intention of these summits is to place greater emphasis on race-related research, equity-based policy, and practice. This type of collaborative approach is needed to create collaborations among scholars. Currently there are approximately 70 research centers throughout the United States that primarily focus on race and ethnicity. Most of these centers are university affiliated. Although many centers work in several different areas, only 26 of these centers focus on African Americans (University of Pittsburgh, n.d.). A leader in setting a national agenda for research and policy development regarding race is the Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP) located in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh. It is alarming that CRSP appears to be the only such center of its type housed in a school of social work that focuses exclusively on race-related research and policy. This is remarkable for a field that takes great pride in its commitment to social justice. Conducting race-related research and disseminating race-related research findings and scholarship is a key focus for CRSP. It conducts applied social science research on race, color, ethnicity, and their influence on the quality of life for all Americans. Data show that many Americans consider racism to be pervasive in U.S. society (Bialik, 2018). The number of Americans who consider racism to be a big problem in the United States has increased since 2009 among all racial groups, although this view is more prominent among African Americans (Bialik, 2018). In 2017, approximately 81% of African Americans viewed racism as a big problem in society, as compared with 44% in 2009. Approximately 52% of white Americans viewed racism as a big problem, compared with 22% in 2009 (Bialik, 2018). These data indicate that racism as considered to be omnipresent in our society. It occurs socially, economically, politically, and environmentally. Yet it is a difficult construct to operationalize and assess. Researchers tend to analyze race as a predictor of social problems, whereas it may be constructive to conduct more studies on how racism interacts with many of these social problems. Can social justice be obtained without addressing the issue of race? The other area of research receiving inadequate consideration in social work are studies that develop a greater comprehension of the various aspects of poverty across the life span in this country. These studies would advance a discourse for how we understand the economic well-being of Americans. Using big data research on poverty can provide more details on who will experience poverty and how poverty will be discernable throughout their life course. Knowledge about the percentage of individuals experiencing poverty and how income and assets differ across gender, age, race, and ethnicity will enhance the professions’ ability to have an impact on the populations we serve. This type of poverty research has implications for both direct and indirect social work practice. The current political rhetoric contends that a significant amount of the spending for social protection is improvident and that access to social protection programs should be severely limited to populations in need. Social protection in the United States is the weakest among the Western industrialized nations (Rank, 2004; Rank, Hirschl, & Foster, 2014). The United States devotes fewer resources as a percentage of gross domestic product to welfare programs than do other wealthy countries (Rank, 2004; Rank et al., 2014) and is usually at the top or near the top of the list of countries with a high proportion of people living in poverty (Rank, 2004; Rank et al., 2014). In response to the political rhetoric and action by the current administration to reduce the social protection for vulnerable populations, McLaughlin and Rank in this issue use the latest government data and social science research to investigate cost estimates to examine the effect that childhood poverty has on future economic productivity, health care and criminal justice costs, and increased expenses as a result of child homelessness and maltreatment. They posit that rather than slashing social protection programs, it is more pragmatic to ask about the financial impact poverty has on the United States. In their study, they conclude that childhood poverty cost the nation $1.03 trillion in 2015 and that disadvantaged children grow up possessing fewer skills and are thus less able to contribute to the productivity of the economy (Rank, 2018). Calculating the return on investment for poverty reduction programs, their study indicates that for each dollar spent on reducing childhood poverty, the saving would be $7 with respect to the economic costs of poverty. Poverty affects all demographics in the United States. The enactment of public programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid has had a profound effect on the overall poverty among the elderly populations in the United States. The rate of poverty among the elderly has dropped tremendously since the enactment of these programs. Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits continue to play a key role in reducing elderly poverty, especially among women and people of color. The general success of these programs has affected our perception of retirement. Until recently, these programs have been considered a safety net for the economic well-being and health of elderly people in our society (Butrica, Iams, & Smith, 2003–2004). The aging population will overstretch these programs in a structural manner that the country has not previously experienced (Butrica et al., 2003–2004; Green, 2005; Whalen, 2005). It is evident from large national data sets that a large percentage of elderly people in this country will experience economic insecurity in their retirement years; this economic insecurity will have a more profound effect on African Americans (Rank & Williams, 2010). Elderly people of color are less likely than white elderly people to receive private retirement benefits and are far less likely to have asset income. It is crucial that research be conducted to better understand the life course of economic well-being. One objective of social work practice is to promote social justice and expand opportunities that will allow individuals healthy functioning in our society. However, this assumes that the availability of resources and services matches human needs. It is apparent that access to resources is not equal across various populations in this country and that the traditional view of using income to evaluate retirement and economic security is not entirely adequate. The economic well-being is strongly correlated with behavioral, physical, and nutritional health and social and civic engagement (Brown, 1995; Locher et al., 2004; Tran & Dhooper, 1997). There are several risk factors interconnected with episodes of poverty for the elderly. The Social Security system is predicated on what an individual contributes. Data show that the employment and pay histories over the life span affect income in the retiring years (Rank & Williams, 2010). The lower levels of contributions provide for lower levels of income. Women earn less income than men and African Americans earn less income than white Americans (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2008). The benefit formula for the current system directly puts women (particularly widows) and African Americans at greater risk for economic insecurity between the ages of 60 and 90 (Rank & Williams, 2010). Another risk factor is longevity. It is important to note that the longer we live the more likely we will experience poverty (Rank & Williams, 2010). And as the population gets older we are more likely to need costly supportive resources such as health care and supportive living arrangements. The cost of these types of services increases the likelihood of experiencing poverty. In addition to the previously mentioned risk factors, the lack of assets leaves many African Americans without social protection to respond to emergent situations that affect well-being. Researchers should be cognizant of these risk factors in their analyses. Disenfranchised populations are confronted with several insecurities during their life course, with financial insecurity being the most prominent. Financial insecurity means that individuals and families will not have adequate resources to provide for their needs and maintain a reasonable standard of living. In addition to financial insecurity, there are several other areas of insecurity that jeopardize the overall well-being for individuals and families. Health care insecurity continues to put populations in our country at risk. Vulnerable populations are faced with concerns regarding the affordability of good quality health care throughout the life course with the lingering possibility of facing financial devastation with the onset of an illness. Disenfranchised populations also face physical and social insecurity. Physical and social insecurity are linked to housing, nutrition, and access to services. The key focus of research is how interventions and programs might moderate these insecurities. Social work research will need to understand the impact of these various insecurities to address the overall well-being. It is reasonable to assume that diminished economic resources could act as an obstacle for individuals to make changes that may improve their overall well-being. Data imply that economics, in part, contribute to several of possible social problems affecting the overall well-being. From a broad perspective, research should highlight the importance of understanding the complex interplay of economic forces and the well-being of populations. Social workers must become more knowledgeable of the extent of life challenges facing populations we serve. Understanding the differential level of vulnerability for economic strain is imperative to effectively provide and plan services. Reducing poverty is justified not only from a social justice perspective, but from a cost–benefit perspective as well. In making an investment up front to alleviate poverty, the evidence suggests, we will be repaid many times over by lowering the enormous costs associated with a host of interrelated problems. Social workers address many of these interrelated problems in their practice. Social work research can add to the poverty literature to support policies that support systems that prevent poverty. Several of the Grand Challenges for Social Work focus on poverty reduction and financial stability. Building financial capability for all and reducing extreme economic inequality are the two grand challenges that encourage social workers to place a strong emphasis on research, policies, program development, and practice methods that address poverty reduction and financial sustainability of populations living in poverty or near poverty. Social work has a long history of supporting poverty reduction from a programmatic perspective. Adding a robust poverty research agenda will add to the practice section of the profession. It has been noted that a grand challenge on race, racism, and race relations is lacking among the 12 challenges. Racial inequality and racism are ubiquitous in U.S. society, and it could be inferred that historical and systematic racism are embedded in all 12 grand challenges. Both racial inequality and poverty are tremendous area of need for more comprehensive and rigorous research. Expanding our knowledge in these areas will be of great benefit in both practice and policy. James Herbert Williams, PhD, is director and Arizona Centennial Professor of Social Welfare Services, School of Social Work, Arizona State University, 411 North Central Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85004; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. References Auslander, W. F., Thompson, S., Dreitzer, D., White, N., & Santiago, J. V. ( 1997). 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Social Work Research – Oxford University Press
Published: May 23, 2018
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