Labor Day 2009: A Social Worker’s Reflection On Why We Do This Work

by on September 7, 2009 · 18 comments

in Civil Rights, Economy, Education, Health, Homelessness, Labor, San Diego, Veterans

Working Hands

Labor Day is a holiday that for many people signals the end of summer, a long weekend most people look forward to for the day off and the inevitable barbecue. What most people forget is that this holiday was created to honor workers’ rights and signaled a major change in the relationship between our government and the labor workforce. Now in the depths of one of the worst recessions ever, we should also remember that here in California more than 10% of our workforce is in the precarious position of being able to celebrate a day off EVERY day – not necessarily by choice. Inevitably, as a recession deepens the rights of workers and all employable people will suffer. Today, wages are down, homelessness and hunger are peaking, and everyone is feeling the effects – employed or not.

As someone who works in human services, I thought this was an excellent opportunity to honor those of us who spend each day helping people navigate these difficult times. It also seems like a good opportunity for the community to recognize the difficulty of trying to help people in this economic climate. While we may be weathering this storm despite the challenges, it is imperative that everyone steps in and keeps pushing for change that matters in the form of improved services and overall rights for the working poor, homeless, mentally ill, and those locked into cyclical poverty.

Anyone who works in human services knows that these are lean times. Budgets have been cut, while the services we provide are in higher demand. This goes across the board, from government agencies to non-profits, and while the services provided to the community may not be lessened in terms of effectiveness, there is certainly an emotional effect on both those seeking services and the providers themselves. There are more people seeking help, and just as many people to help them as before.

The community knows how hard this has been on everyone; what you may not know is how hard it is for people in the helping professions to do our jobs.

Generally, we are overworked, underpaid, and under appreciated. We are regular folks who happen to have compassion. We are social workers. We are health care operators in community clinics. We are minimum wage in-home care providers. We are public school teachers. We operate homeless shelters and soup kitchens. We run support groups. We run addiction recovery centers on shoestring budgets. We are outreach workers. We see child abuse. We see domestic violence. We see elder abuse. We work in animal shelters that see household pets being abandoned on the streets in unprecedented numbers. We see mental illness and drug addiction, and limited options for treatment. We see incurable disease, and can do nothing to stop it. We try to make the most with the little resources we have, and many times it is just not enough.

We see how this economy has changed people – many times for the worse. Our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, and our clients.

Being a social worker is certainly not glamorous. I guess you could call it enlightening: never in my life did I think people could be so cruel to another human being as I now know. Yes, there are certainly people who brought their misfortunes to their own doorstep, but it is the horror story that is a dime a dozen. You – and I’m talking about anyone who hasn’t had a difficult time adjusting to the recession – couldn’t imagine how standards of living have dropped to inhumane levels for some people.

The budget cuts come, and they keep coming, and the most vulnerable people suffer. They end up homeless and without food. They lose medical care. Some people die because of it, and those who don’t are generally ignored until they do.

There are only a handful of shelters, and most of them have wait lists. You can say to me that someone is homeless by their own doing, and I will tell you that the community has failed them. That somewhere along the line, somebody was supposed to come through with something and they didn’t. Our correctional system is so inherently flawed that most people who get out of jail end up on the street and back in jail without ever once being offered a real helping hand. Our veterans end up standing in line at homeless shelters and food distributions instead of speaking at high schools and universities. Instead of learning about the atrocities of war and how we can institute real change in our military and overseas imperialism, students know of veterans as holders of cardboard signs asking for food and money from passersby. Surely, they deserve much better.

This is the world we live in now. This is my work environment.

So you may ask – why the hell do you do it? What makes you want to do this work? Where does that come from?

I am lucky. I happen to work at a wonderful agency that provides a multitude of excellent services, where the clinical meets the social, and people truly care. I am also lucky to know of many other agencies and community organizations that help the truly needy. We all work together to try and fix this mess, and that is certainly one of the things that keeps me going. The thought that we are all in this together – the idea that within a short period of time and with a few unfortunate incidents I could be a client, too – that makes this work real and meaningful. It is not always easy to focus on others’ problems when you have your own. But really, whose problem is it? Mine, yours, or ours?

If you want to help people, then you have to look at these problems as everyone’s. Otherwise it will eat you right up, and you’ll stop caring. Not to say I haven’t been there temporarily (I hope my bosses read this and understand I’m taking some “creative license” here….) Of course there are times when my focus is not on my client, but on a sick relative or a bill I can’t really afford to pay. But then, that isn’t just my problem anymore, is it? My client, whether they know it or not, is sharing in my moment of sorrow – just like I do with them. You can call it zen, or socialism, or hippie-thought, or whatever the hell you want. But how else could you explain a 50 year old asking someone half their age for advice? There is an unspoken trust between us, something that cannot be explained. Your problems are my problems, and vice verse.

I am by no means an expert in anything. In fact, I use most of my case management advice on myself. And let me tell you, this case is far from closed.

I guess the point of this is to make it known that while there are soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and wherever else, there are those of us here, too, soldiering on in these lean times in the name of compassion. Without us, the Aunt you haven’t talked to or checked on in fifteen years would be long forgotten. Because of us, families forced onto the streets have food to eat. Your son or daughter, who has been too embarrassed to call you and ask for help, is getting their life back together because somebody cares.

There are a few ways the community can help. For starters, get more involved in the political process. Complain to your representatives about the defense budget, and how less money should be spent on fighting wars abroad, and more should be spent fighting the war on poverty right here at home. Have the government pay for services to get homeless veterans off the streets: substance abuse programs, mental health services, and housing all need improvement in this area. Make sure that the next state lawmaker elected in your district doesn’t play the same old game in Sacramento; make sure that they know this bloated state budget, with its $20+ billion dollar deficit, should of course be tightened but not to the point where our poor and disabled lose all of their rights as human beings. Most of all, volunteer at a local non-profit organization, or make a small donation in someone’s name rather than giving them a gift. It is now that this will make a difference – not next week. Please help us help the community at large.

This Labor Day, think about all the people who are out of work, and all the people working diligently, every day, to try and get them back to work. Maybe it is my life mission; at 25, I’m really not sure yet. I know that it is a job, albeit a rewarding one. I guess you could say the challenges that come with this work, and the ensuing glimmers of hope, are more important than any amount of money or a full eight hours of sleep. In fact, the more positive impact we make, the harder it is when things just don’t work out. So don’t think that its all despair and hopelessness – I went that route just for effect. Around every corner, there is at least the possibility that things will turn around. The more we push that possibility, the more our visions of change will come to be.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Dave Gilbert September 7, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Well done Lane!

I’m glad you guys there for folks, but I would also hope that people realize that true change for the better in their lives comes from the love that’s within them…some may call it good or even God.

I read the book & watched the video The Secret and it helped me make more sense in what can often times be a senseless world. It’s about the karmic law of visualizing the positive that you want in your life here and then paying it forward thus making it become a reality…your basic universal truths.

Too many people these days focus on the negative things in their lives and forget to be thankful for what they do have, thus creating a downward spiral in their reality from which there may seem no escape. They turn themselves into victims instead of empowering themselves.

Reminds me of one of my all-time favorite epic quotes;

“my karma ran over my dogma”


avatar Frank Gormlie September 7, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Is anybody having trouble posting to this article?


avatar Frank Gormlie September 7, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Lane – Dave G wanted to comment but couldn’t he said.


avatar bodysurferbob September 7, 2009 at 10:46 pm

there, i was able to comment dave g


avatar Irene Agustin September 8, 2009 at 8:12 am

Great blog! You have captured the struggles I feel everday. Thank you for writing this and I’ll pass it on to all my social work and nonprofit friends.


avatar Frank Gormlie September 8, 2009 at 8:46 am

As a former community clinic and non-profit worker, I found your article touching, frustrating for all the roadblocks that still are out there, and rewarding knowing there’s still people in these agencies that have compassion for their fellow humans. Thank you, Lane.


avatar annagrace September 8, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Thank you Lane for a terrific article. Can’t tell you how glad I am and how lucky we are that you didn’t get an MBA, stay on the east coast and buy a home in the Hamptons.

I was a social worker in Florida and know what it means to have limited or no resources available and a swelling tide of the down on their luck and destitute outside of the door. And that was in the good old days…


avatar annagrace September 9, 2009 at 10:19 am

A survey was released on highest paying college majors. Social work is at the bottom of the list (no surprise).

A social worker’s median starting salary of $33K is low enough to stop all but the most dedicated and some of the most desperate job seekers to apply.

We marginalize the poor, and then marginalize people like Lane, with low salaries and impossible case loads, who have decided that this is valuable work. Double thank you Lane.


avatar Eva September 9, 2009 at 11:02 am

Working in a non-profit, I feel your pain! You have certainly expressed, very eloquently, the feelings of those of us who work in social services.
I am proud of you for so many reasons…most importantly because you truly care!!!! Thanks Lane, you make a mother proud!


avatar Shawn Conrad September 10, 2009 at 2:09 pm

And a father. Your mother and I are very proud of you Lane.


avatar lane tobias September 10, 2009 at 2:18 pm

thats just weird man.


avatar Shawn Conrad September 10, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Wait until you find out who your sister is. You are not going to be pleased.


avatar Adam September 11, 2009 at 2:45 pm

much thanks, Lane. Your words helped dust off the engine of my compassionate drive, though there is much oiling yet to be done. It is an honor to work in the same industry as yourself, an industry who’s demand can never be low enough.

Keep up the great work and remember the silent multitudes, across the world, who stand by your side.

PS- the family talk WAS just a bit wierd! ;)


avatar John Tessmer September 11, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Beautiful article, Lane. Very moving, poignant, and on the mark — in every way. Thanks for all you do — and thanks to all of us (as we ARE entitled to pat ourselves on the back once in a while anyway) who dedicate ourselves to helping others and buoying their spirits; this goes for social service workers; animal, human, and environmental rights advocates; artists; and volunteers. Not to mention just loving parents, children, siblings, and friends. In addition to serving through our work, may we all not have to LABOR so much that we can’t be there for those in our own lives as well.


avatar John Tessmer September 11, 2009 at 3:22 pm

And I know I left out plenty of other “types” of workers who serve, too. Please post and add your own callings to those of Lane and others!


avatar Lydgia September 14, 2009 at 4:19 pm


Your article is a refreshing reminder that our love of people and service to them is valuable. Thank you for sharing insights that many of us in the field FEEL every day! Keep writing and expressing the importance of living and striving for a better life. Peace.


avatar Pete Meyers September 14, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Great piece, Lane! Great to see your spirit out there in the world. Interesting to reflect upon the paradox ‘tween building a movement to really change things—alongside the necessary elements of social work that help to connect with real people. The paradox ‘tween the individual responsibility alongside the collective!


avatar Baruch Gadot September 15, 2009 at 8:28 am

Great article. Very passionate and informative. My thanks and appreciation are to you and to your colleagues for doing this work. But in order to really change things, people like you have to get to the power positions where you could affect and change the policies and the public awareness. 25 is the right age to start making a difference.


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