Breaking down barriers: How can social workers address systemic inequities in social services?

systemic inequities

Social services are something that most people around the country have heard about and may have even accessed themselves at times. In essence, they exist to ensure the basic needs of the most vulnerable in society are met. This support is paid for via tax monies collected from people who are in a better position in life.

Social services cover a wide range of areas – from welfare programs that provide money to live on to services that offer access to healthcare or support for energy/utility subsidies. Common examples of popular social services programs around the country include Medicare, social security schemes and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

This sector also protects the most vulnerable adults and children in society on a personal level, such as helping children escape an abusive home life or supporting vulnerable adults who are coping with life on their own.

What is the social services system?

The social services system is the framework of agencies, regulations, policies and programs that allows social services to function. This system enables agencies nationally and locally to deliver help in an organized way to the most vulnerable. Without this system behind it to deliver help in the best possible way, the support given to vulnerable children and adults would not be as effective.

As you would expect in the modern age, the social services system runs on the latest technology and IT infrastructure. This makes the system itself more efficient, and it is also simpler to store key client data for future reference.

In addition to the tech, regulations and agencies that make up the social services system, social workers are also a key part of it. These are the people who actually offer direct help to those in need and assist them in getting support. This could be anything from helping people fill out paperwork to accessing financial aid to giving people who are struggling with an abusive partner somewhere to turn.

How do you become a social worker and make real changes in society? 

Before we can look at how social work professionals can break down systemic inequalities, it is worth delving a little deeper into the role itself. What is a social worker and how can you become one?

The first step is getting the right qualifications. This usually starts with gaining a bachelor’s degree in social work to get your foot in the door. Most social work professionals will go onto study a Master of Social Work (MSW) after this to seek higher-level roles. The online MSW from Keuka College is a popular course to study and offers flexibility and convenience as a distance-learning program.

Once qualified as a social worker, you will help people navigate life successfully and offer them much-needed support when required. While this can mean directing them to various schemes for financial help, much of this job also involves providing emotional, mental and behavioral support.

It is interesting to note that you can work in direct social work services (which sees you helping clients in settings such as schools, community centers and civic organizations) or clinical social work (which sees you offering help in healthcare settings).

What is systemic inequality in the social services system?

The whole point of the social services system is to give people the financial, emotional, behavioral and mental support they need when required. This should be done fairly, justly and in strict accordance with any regulations that are in place. The social services system should not decide who gets help based on discriminatory factors such as race, religion, gender, class or sexuality.

Although great strides have been made towards this in recent years, there still sadly exists a degree of inequity in some parts of the system. People from certain backgrounds or cultures may not have the same access to help as others. Sometimes, the rules around various social service programs are not applied fairly to all, and assistance is not spread around properly as a result.

Here are some examples of this systemic inequality to be aware of.

Racial inequality in social services 

Despite the positive work done around racism in society and social justice recently (such as the discussions sparked by the George Floyd case), the social services system still continues to face issues around racial inequality.

This is especially true in certain communities (such as African American and Hispanic communities) who feel they do not get the same level of access to help as other communities. Due to barriers in some areas of the system around language, culture and color, people from certain ethnicities feel that social services do not work fairly for them. But how does this look in practice?

An example is the differences in how resources are spread throughout various states at a federal level. Social welfare payments as recently as 2019 were found to be much higher in New Hampshire than Mississippi. When you see that the breakdown of ethnicities in New Hampshire shows a mainly white population compared to the much-greater African-American presence in Mississippi, it is hard to ignore the influence of race in these kinds of situations.

It is also key to look within the system itself and reflect on how outdated attitudes around race may still be found in some social work professionals. While this will be a small minority, it could still result in people from certain racial backgrounds given less help or a sub-standard service from bigots who discriminate against them.

Health inequity in social services 

Whether it is treating pain in the shoulder muscles or following a healthy diet, staying in top shape is something we all need to consider. Sometimes though, accidents happen or conditions arise that we can do nothing about. In cases like these, being able to access the healthcare you need is essential.

In addition to racial inequity within the social services system, a level of inequality around healthcare also continues to exist. This refers to the differences people experience when trying to access healthcare support through the system (such as Medicaid). While this inequity can present itself along racial or cultural lines, it often shows up most in terms of class.

Put simply, this can often see people from lower-class and low-income backgrounds struggle to access the healthcare they need. As they cannot pay for private medical insurance, they rely on the help given by social services instead. If this is not forthcoming because of an unfair application of the rules based on their background or a system that does not make it easy to find the help they need, the consequences can be very damaging.

Disabilities and inequality in social services 

As reported by the CDC, around 61 million adults in the US live with a disability. These people are among the most vulnerable in society and are often those who need social services the most to navigate daily life.

Despite this, people with a disability who need assistance may still experience inequities in the system. This can actually stop them from getting the help they need and make them less able to access social services than people without a disability.

An example of this happening is people with visual impairments being unable to complete long, complicated forms to apply for help. This can be both paper forms they cannot see well enough to fill in or online applications that their disability makes hard to complete. If alternatives are not provided to apply for this support, people with these disabilities can lose out compared to those who do not. 

Gender inequality in the social services system 

While the above examples focus on inequalities faced by people using the social services system, it should also be noted that inequity can be suffered by those working within the sector. Gender inequality is a classic example and something that is slowly been addressed.

This can seem a strange point to make when you consider that around 80% of social workers are female. However, bare statistics like this do not tell the whole story, and it is key to dig deeper into them. While it is true that social work is mostly made up of women in the US, men still hold many of the top jobs in the sector. When you consider that the gender pay gap is also an issue across the social services system, it is easy to see why progress is still needed to reduce inequity in this area.

Social workers can change the system for the better

Social workers are qualified professionals who work within the overall social services system. They not only have a responsibility to help people in need but also to deliver this help in a fair, just and honest way. Social workers have also been great advocates for change throughout history and key players in changing unfair parts of society for the better.

This appetite to change things for the better is still rampant in modern social work, where professionals in the sector are taking steps to address inequalities they notice in the system.

Here are some of the ways social workers can address these issues.

Admit there is an issue to solve 

The first thing social workers must do to start addressing inequities in the system is admitting to them. This does not mean taking the blame or beating yourself up on a personal level for things that you have not done. It instead means taking an honest look at the system as it stands and recognizing where inequities exist.

By doing this, social work professionals are able to pinpoint which parts of the system are not equal and what needs to change, and then start thinking about how to bring this about. Without admitting there are problems to begin with, affecting genuine systemic change is impossible. 

Honest self-reflection is essential 

The next step social workers can take to address inequality in the system is taking a look in the mirror. This might not be overly comfortable, but it is a crucial part of the process. By doing this, social workers are able to pick up on any discriminatory attitudes they hold and make an effort to change them.

In addition, this step allows social workers to reflect on how they go about their job and ensure they do so in a fair, just fashion. If this step does not take place, social workers can actually be part of the problem and make things worse. It is also very hard to drive change with others in the sector when you do not practice what you preach.

It is important to recognize that any discriminatory actions or attitudes discovered may be due to unconscious bias. While this is obviously not a concerted effort on the part of social workers to perpetuate an unfair system, it is still something to address on a personal level.

Educate colleagues about systemic inequities 

Although individuals have great power within themselves to do amazing things, affecting real change in something as huge as the social services system often needs more numbers. Therefore, another way for social work professionals to do this is by educating colleagues in the sector on the issue.

As a result, colleagues within social work will learn about inequalities they did not know existed or had not given much thought about before. It can also help them understand how inequalities in communities outside their own have an impact and why they should care about them.

By educating co-workers on the inequities you have noticed, why they must be battled and how to change things for the better on a systemic level, it is more likely that this kind of change will happen.

Help support diversity and remove inequality in social services 

Inequity in the social services system comes down to unfair access to the services in question across the population. A good way to challenge this inequality is taking action to help affected communities get access to relevant services.

Social workers can get involved with local groups fighting for better access to services in communities that do not currently have it. This not only enables social work professionals to get to the root of the issue and help people directly but also gives a real boost to the group they are helping. For example, social workers can use their contacts and professional experience to assist the group run an effective, successful campaign.

Getting involved with local community groups and programs in this way also means social workers can offer much-needed encouragement to the people behind them. This can give them the support needed to keep going and allowthem to affect genuine change for the better across the whole system.

Speak with senior management and lobby politicians 

Real change in any system comes from the top and involves positive amendments to laws, guidelines, regulations, policies and processes. This means it is essential for social workers to involve people with real power when addressing inequality in the system.

Without the ability to do this, a lot of noise can be made around parts of the system thatare unfair– but nothing actually changes in the realworld. It is therefore crucial to ensure those who can make changes for the better do so.

A good place to begin for social work professionals is their immediate boss. Sitting down with them and calmy explaining the inequity you have spotted and how it can be dealt with is the first place to start. If they are not open to progressing the matter further with more senior management, you could always speak with them directly yourself.

If this does not have the desired effect, social workers can try lobbying state politicians. It is important to do this in a civilized, rational manner. By calmly explaining inequalities around race, gender, health, disability or class that you have noticed in the social services system, it is possible to convince politicians to make policy changes for the better.

Breaking down barriers key for social workers

The main aim of social work is to help the most vulnerable children and adults get the support needed to navigate life successfully. This can only happen if these people are able to access social services fairly through the system it is built on.

Although this happens in the majority of cases, the system can still contain barriers that stop certain people from getting the assistance they deserve. Breaking down these barriers and driving change to eliminate systemic inequality is something all social workers aim for. If you plan to move into this industry as a career, knowing the best ways to do this is crucial.

By learning more about this subject, you will not only be able to avoid perpetuating inequities in the system yourself, but you will also know what to look out for and what steps you can take to drive positive change in social work.