Why Social Work?
“What a long, strange trip it’s been...” -- Jerry Garcia
Upon reflection in preparation for this essay, whose submission may change the course of my life, much has come to light in my own biography. I am encouraged to enter this field as much from sources within my own life as from my friends and family, many of whom (much to my wife’s dismay) are homeless or struggling with some combination of psychological disorder and substance abuse. Whether this is also my own case I feel is a matter of interpretation and remains to be seen.
My first extended conversation with a social worker was at a hospital. I had traveled to Morocco, a beautiful but harsh land. No medical regimen had been established to deal with my diagnosis there with MS while I was teaching English for a French company, and I was quite ignorant of what was in store for me. With a paucity of medication, I inevitably triggered an exacerbation, or flare-up, of symptoms mimicking inebriation: distorted balance, staggering gait, profound vertigo. This shockingly disrespectful departure from local custom of a country tolerant of little alcohol! I made my way from Meknes to the American embassy in Casablanca, who arranged with my family for my repatriation. I was admitted to Cayuga Medical from the airplane, and there I healed greatly, as much from physical rehabilitation as from plentiful rich food.
What should a social worker do with such a character? I had nowhere to go, especially as all my friends thought I was still in North Africa. Clearly I was in desperate straits, having indulged in a certain amount of Russian roulette not only with my subsistence, but with my entire health. My love for this peaceful desert kingdom notwithstanding, how would I tackle my new challenges in a way that did not endanger my future prospects?
At this point, I benefited from a stroke of great fortune: I missed my judicial disability hearing because I was hospitalized for precisely the reason I had filed for SSI in the first place. I imagine that open and shut cases like this are a boon for a judge whose desk must be scarred from a thicket of moral ambiguity, but this official’s decision was firm. Citing information of my situation he received personally (outside the hearing process), the judge directed my public subsidy to begin immediately. Apparently my illness was sufficient to merit aid that was established for this particular purpose, and I began to stabilize myself. In October of 2009 I returned to Morocco, taking a ring to an amazing young woman, and in July 2010 we were married.
Other stories must not be excluded. My buddy Kro (Timothy) paid for his house in North Carolina entirely from the drug trade, suffered the slings and arrows of predictably poor personal association, returned to New York, and his house burned from an utter lack of maintenance. He now follows a dark path of professional couch-surfing. Another, Starlight (???), spent 4 months in a corner of my old apartment, under a Moroccan blanket with a 40 of Labatt’s. Lacking any identification did not keep him from busking with his guitar on the Commons (the pedestrian mall of Ithaca); but how to approach this sort of existential myopia? Is it yet clear to him that he can no longer gamble on his propitious discovery by some errant musical agent, stranded in upstate New York?
What will he do instead? What of Tattoo (Brian), who drifted to Ithaca from northern New Jersey, found and lost a job, and re-drifted there and back again?
Two of these men are physically stable, and would happily work in construction. The last appears so paralyzed by paranoia that he is frozen, a poor joke in this snowy land. He counts himself lucky to have followed the epiphany that led him out of heroin in Boston to a bottle in Ithaca, but clearly he is deserving of closer attention: last I heard from Starlight, he was about to obtain the first ID he’d held in years. Another, Drummer John, purchases a fraction of the alcohol he imbibes, and spends much of his food stamps at the local co-op on catnip and sushi, which he lovingly distributes to every cat crossing his path. I have known these men for long enough to become familiar with their predilections, their talents, and their self-destructive neurotic flaws. A winning lottery ticket will not aid their situation if they cannot imagine a better life.
Sarah is another example. She sings with her guitar on the Commons, channeling Joni Mitchell, skeptical of serious relations and darting from any authority who may offer helpful structure. She has lived elsewhere, but like Starlight, I fear for her survival in a less hospitable atmosphere.
I imagine that Ithaca is not the only isolated town to hold this Nietzshean myth of inevitable return, but I long for a strong counter-example: if a wanderlust-stricken soul drinks the water of my town, or swims in the numerous waterfalls, s/he will always come back. What informs the surrender to a deterministic philosophy? How should such a decision not have gravely deleterious effects?
I hold deep faith that the only answers are not found solely at the Department of Social Services, though they may have considerable resources. Surely as a community we possess the ability to manage seemingly intractable problems as chronic homelessness and alcoholism, or at least cause to abandon these issues is not evident. I mean to investigate and expand upon programs that offer solutions without insult or condemnation, as I feel that as a culture we have outgrown much of the brittle Social Darwinism of the 19th century, exemplified in Dickens and Sinclair. There are more compassionate programs than the starchy dreck served at the Salvation Army; what is a lone plate of noodles stubbornly presented twice a week meant to achieve? Does the teleology of this approach have any long-term purchase on the problems I describe? If not, what would?
To enter this field is an ample choice, but given the moral underpinnings that drove my study of original study of philosophy, it is more of a Hobson’s Choice. My intelligence and eloquence drive me to pursue a field guaranteeing me the opportunity for lasting and positive impact; I can accept no less given what I now understand. Life is a brief game of chess (oxymoron intentional), and one must arrange one’s pieces in an artful fashion. I can no longer sustain an individual, boots-on-the-ground approach to every homeless man I know, though the impulse will surely remain.
It seems to me that elimination of homelessness in toto is not a realistic goal. Many such individuals have been treated so unfairly in the past that their trust in conventional social institutions has been entirely eroded, and will not even stand in line to receive a fair meal. So how should such people be approached? What long-term options are available that both preserve their autonomy and also provide a solution for society as a whole? It has been academically observed that the overall problem of food and housing are not those of poverty, but distribution. There will always be lease scofflaws, as much as those who seek to capitalize upon welfare out of unmitigated laziness. Nonetheless, they must all find traction.
I cannot embrace a purely Marxist view that if the dominant, market-heavy paradigm were subverted, all would (eventually) be well, nor can I defend the Thatcherite wooly-eyed view of society at large. The needs of people as a group do not drastically change, regardless of health and wealth. All must be met, if not by the state, then by the smaller community of one’s locale.
I seek further education in what I do naturally. I want to know how to help the people I refuse to reject. I embrace a sort of hard-line egalitarianism, equally impatient with both trickle-down self-congratulation and blind optimism borne of solipsistic Cold War elitism. With this in mind, I hope to pursue a fulfilling and vibrant career in social work. Thank you.