Does social work understand “class”?

The social work profession insistently stresses “cultural competence,” demanding that  its practitioners grasp the significance of a range of important contextual factors – race, ethnicity, gender, identity in the sense of language, traditions, norms, etc., among the most prominent.  Social work educational texts and classroom discussions are replete with nuanced attention to such concerns.  But what about “class” competence?

It’s odd that a profession historically dedicated to the needs of society’s marginalized and most disadvantaged, and notably the desperate poor, does not appear to pay much attention to, let alone embrace, the issue of class – that is, the structural relationship of individuals, families, and groups to the economic system.  Try a quick Google search of “social work and working class,” and note the rather striking paucity of “hits.”  A perusal of most social work textbooks will net the same results.

While class status hardly provides a comprehensive explanation of social ills (racist and sexist stereotyping of persons irrespective of class spring to mind all too readily), it illuminates a lot.  Class underlies poverty.  Class plays into physical and mental health.  Class is implicated in myriad issues of interpersonal violence and exploitation.  Class is persistent across generations, despite the lingering mythology of “upward mobility.”

Whether social workers recognize it or not, the principal historical concerns of the work have been those of working class people.  Isn’t it time social work become “class competent”?

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