by Brad Forenza, MSW, Ph.D.
Today, the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Education are respectively tasked with addressing social welfare and education policy at the federal level. Between 1953 and 1980, however, social welfare and education issues were charges of the same agency. Among the last to oversee this now defunct agency was David Mathews, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) under President Gerald R. Ford, from 1975-1977. Mathews also holds the distinction of being the only ideologically independent administrator of either agency. “The conservatives think I’m a liberal and the liberals think I’m a conservative,” Mathews says with a chuckle.
“Before I was at HEW, I was president of a large state university [the University of Alabama], where our social work program had been a leader in the southern social welfare movement,” recalls Mathews. “So when I got to Washington, I was greeted very warmly by the National Association of Social Workers,” he continues. “All the government welfare programs were at HEW, and many were the subject of controversy...but what impressed me most was how people at the department had different approaches to the social work profession. This seemed to harken back to the Mary Richmond/Jane Addams split.”
The split that Mathews refers to pertains to casework-oriented practice (as embodied by Mary Richmond) versus reform-oriented practice (as embodied by Jane Addams). The casework approach was grounded in helping individuals through specialized services; the reform approach addressed quality of life in focal communities. “In a curious way, that split is still around,” Mathews observes. Conjuring up the Addams approach, Mathews recalls that, “In the time I was at HEW, there were a lot of people interested in the relationship between community and social welfare...people like Margaret Mead and others were interested in the impact that a caring community could have on an individual.”
Mathews continues, “What it boiled down to was that having a sense of community could, in itself, be a resource for people...a lot of government funding was going to [the research and development of pharmaceutical drugs]. The theory was ‘you can give a person a pill and they’ll get better.’ As a result, fewer resources were going into community development...hospitals can care for you and they can do a good job, you know, but they don’t necessarily care about you,” he opines.
“While I was at HEW, we were working on ways to build on the resources that were inherent in many communities, and we were working on ways to make them available to people - citizens and social workers alike - so that everyone could benefit.” Mathews cites several community organizations that HEW funded at the local level that brought citizens together for mutual support. “Of course, what we were trying to do in building these communities didn’t really map onto the bureaucratic mandates that HEW was running up against,” Mathews concludes.
Mathews left HEW on January 20, 1977, at the conclusion of President Ford’s term. Shortly thereafter, he fittingly became president and CEO of the Kettering Foundation, a nonprofit and nonpartisan institution, dedicated to civil society research. “At Kettering, we take democracy very seriously,” he says. To illustrate the work of Kettering, Mathews refers to his colleague, John McKnight, whose asset mapping research has changed the framing of what unemployed people don’t have (a deficits approach) to what they are capable of, and to what community-based resources may be available to them. “Citizens get power from what they’re able to do by coming together...from combining their resources and abilities and creating what the literature calls ‘public goods,’ be it through building a playground or starting a civil rights movement,” Mathews notes.
In the spirit of National Social Work Month and strengths-based practice, it is imperative to reflect on what people are capable of, as opposed to what they lack. As we embark on what will likely be a regressive era for federal social policy (vis-à-vis the United States Department of Health and Human Services), our profession must reconsider Jane Addams’ local approach to social welfare. Per Secretary Mathews, we must strive to identify and cultivate the untapped resources that are already present in the communities we serve: the intrinsic and irreplaceable links between citizens themselves. As Mathews concludes, “Social welfare starts with a community. The primary group that we are all part of is a community...at least in part, the answer is in the community.”
Brad Forenza, MSW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Montclair State University. His research foci include child welfare, youth development, and civil society. His academic career is accentuated by direct practice at youth and family development agencies, as well as public policy analysis and advocacy.