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Currents June 2013: Going on the Offense for Economic Equality: Jared Bernstein and Panel Frame Soci
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Going on the Offense for Economic Equality

Jared Bernstein and Panel Frame Social Work Challenges and Opportunities at 2013 Annual Meeting

Alicia Fry, LMSW, Case Management Supervisor Services Now for Adult Persons (SNAP); Member, NASW-NYC Board of Directors

Dr. Jared Bernstein, former Chief Economic Advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden delivers the keynote address at the 2013 Annual Meeting

“Every economist should first be a social worker.”

This provocative assertion, first made by Jared Bernstein on HBO's Realtime with Bill Maher and repeated in the introduction to his keynote presentation, kick started the NASW-NYC Annual Meeting on May 9, 2013. Dr. Bernstein, PhD, MSW, is a Senior Fellow for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and before that he served as Chief Economist and Economic Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.

Most importantly to the May 9th audience of 500, he began his career as a social worker helping poor people in New York City, and believes that “most economists and politicians haven’t spent enough time in actual neighborhoods where people are just trying to get by. Social workers do just that, and therefore understand the context in which economic problems exist.” He further stated that, when it comes to the economy, “it’s time for us to get off the defense and go on the offense” to affect change.

In his presentation entitled “Getting Back on Offense: Diagnoses and Prescriptions: What’s Gone Wrong and What Social Workers (and other sane people) Can Do About It”, Dr. Bernstein opined that our current economic crisis is due to systemic causes, and therefore needs to be addressed systemically. In “diagnosing” our current problems, he cited the growing disconnects between productivity, jobs, wages, and poverty rates (since the mid-1970s, productivity has skyrocketed while real wages have stagnated and poverty has increased); inadequate job creation (both in quantity and quality of jobs); disinvestment by the government in education, jobs, and safety net programs (non-defense discretionary spending continues to decrease); inequality of income, and what he considers our most pressing problem—inequality of opportunity.

Dr. Bernstein believes that this is important because it violates our deeply held belief that, in America, your zip code or the financial status you are born into should not keep you from ascending the ladder of opportunity and achieving the American dream. When this occurs, it leads to despair, and hurts the overall economy. One example he gave is the fact that 71% of children from families in the top income quintile complete four years of college, while only 10% of those in the bottom quintile do. However, he also mentioned that boosting a poor family’s income by just $5,000 per year leads to that family’s children earning higher incomes as adults, because when families have more money, they invest it in their children.

Dr. Bernstein argues that inequality has been caused by increased globalization, diminished unionization, technological changes, the decline in the real value of the minimum wage, regressive changes in the tax code, and financial deregulation—and that nearly all of these are policy issues, which means that changing the situation will require changing policy.

On the positive side, Dr. Bernstein cited a steady economic recovery, a better than expected performance by the safety net, and a growing frustration and disillusionment with the dysfunction in Washington, coupled with the inequality of power that gave way to movements like Occupy Wall Street.

So…how do we fix this mess?

Jared Bernstein believes that it will “take a movement”, which George Packer defines as “an idea of the future that’s genuinely shared by large numbers of people.” He encouraged social workers to “go on the offensive” by using our unique skills to mobilize groups of people into an “economic rights movement”, and to lobby and advocate for increased educational opportunities for all, for raising not just the minimum but the median wage, for a Full Employment Act, and for a national policy that promotes both accountability and opportunity for all.

From left to right: Panelists Beth Finkel, MSW; Robert L. Hawkins, PhD; and Elizabeth Rogers, LCSW respond to Dr. Bernstein's keynote address. Each of them addressed the real impact of poverty on people's lives.

About 500 people attended this year's Annual Meeting including (front row, left to right) NASW-NYC PACE Co-Chairs Bill Latimer and Joan Serano Laufer; PACE Treasurer, Mary Harrington; and Field Organizer Stella Padnos Shea.

After Dr. Bernstein’s address, our Chapter panel of experts weighed in and expanded on his remarks, adding a personal and localized perspective that offered a vivid snapshot of the everyday challenges and opportunities social workers face in addressing poverty in NYC.

Beth Finkel, MSW, spoke on aging and poverty, stating that nearly half of NYC seniors are poor and nearly poor; and that we need to oppose Chained CPI—or Consumer Price Index, which is traditionally used to make cost of living adjustments (COLA) in benefits like Social Security, because it threatens the retirement of millions. Chained CPI uses a different “formula” for calculating COLA, which will result in SS recipients receiving LOWER increases, thereby losing more financial ground each year. Ms. Finkel advised that, if this goes into effect, the average SS recipient will eventually lose the equivalent of one month of their annual income. For NYC seniors struggling to get by on low fixed incomes, this would cause hardship for them and would hurt the overall economy.

Robert L. Hawkins, PhD, asserted that poverty reduces access to good education, jobs, and the “life changes” that bring people out of poverty, and stated that “safety net” programs like the EITC and SNAP, while “better than nothing”, are at best a ”band-aid” that “helps poor people get by, but not get out.” He advocated for a greater focus on young children, the very poor, structural racism, and a return to CETA-like jobs programs in poor neighborhoods.

Lastly, Elizabeth Rogers, LCSW, told the heart-wrenching story of a close-knit low income family, caught up in “the system”, whose poverty came close to preventing their reunification, and how her advocacy for just a few dollars for a taxi made the difference between keeping a family together versus tearing it apart.

Dr. Bernstein expressed admiration and support for the panelists, suggesting that social workers should partner with economists on the fierce work ahead, because economics, like social work, is all about people.

From left to right: NASW-NYC Chapter President Martha Adams Sullivan and Executive Director Robert Schachter present the Lifetime Achievement Award to Paul Kurzman; Ella Harris receives the James R. Dumpson Chapter Service Award; Peter Vaughan, Dean, Fordham University School of Social Work is honored in his retirement.

Chair, Annual Meeting Planning Committee, Andy Benejam (far left), along with Martha Adams Sullivan and Robert Schachter present the Social Work Image Awards recipients with their awards. Honorees from left to right: Frances Freedman; Hing Lin "Helen" Sit; and Chana Widawski.


Click here to view additional photos from the 2013 Annual Meeting


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