Thinking like a social worker

…any questions? Yes. I have plenty.

The Appeal of Economics

on April 30, 2012

The more I learn about economics, the more I can see its appeal.  Economics seems to have simple answers for complex problems.  For example, Charles Wheelan, economist and author of Naked Economics stated, “True, people are poor because they cannot find good jobs.  But that is the symptom, not the illness.  The underlying problem is a lack of skills, or human capital.”

Wheelan believes individuals living in poverty need sustainable employment in order to earn a higher income, but they first need human capital to be able to obtain employment.  Economists define human capital as soft skills, education, work experience, intelligence, creativity, and even personality.  This is an appealing idea to most because it is consistent with America’s core value of personal responsibility.  To gain success, individuals just need to pull themselves up by their education and training.

The problem is this idea ignores all of the struggles individuals and families living in poverty face with or without human capital.  Individuals in poverty often lack social networks, transportation, child care, or medical insurance.  They may also experience discrimination because of race, gender, nationality, or criminal status.  While I agree building human capital is imperative to obtaining high-quality employment, it is nearly impossible to find any job without connections, a car, or with a criminal background.

The point is: the world is messier than social science would lead you to believe.  The truth is there are no simple answers and there are no simple solutions, because individuals are not formulas.  In spite of this, economics (and sociology and political science) give me, as a social worker, hope.  To me, theories by social scientists are tools to help make sense of the senseless oppression of poverty, and social workers are the ones applying these theories in the real world to make real change.

In this blog, I plan to gather and think through views related to economic justice.  I will be on the lookout for relevant current events, books, articles, and documentaries.  If you have any suggestions, please share.  I welcome opinions and new finds anytime!

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18 responses to “The Appeal of Economics

  1. dessimoz says:

    interesting idea for a blog. Theories in this field seem to be ever changing and open for debate.

  2. Vanessa Durrant says:

    You’re right that there is no simple answers or solutions. In the end it requires QUALITY work from invested and competent social workers and a true commitment by clients, who often have many responsibilities that are hard to meet because of their varying circumstances and vulnerable positions. In reality change can not be accomplished widely unless it is accomplished one person at a time. Thus, to change this paradigm of lack of skills or lack of human capitol, one must empower our most vulnerable populations in more ways than speaking to their lacks, and instead work from their strengths.

    • eschmale says:

      Thank you for the reminder of strengths. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the barriers individuals face. Truth is that all individuals have human capital. Its just society may not place a high value on the talents and experiences in the market. How as social workers do you change that?

  3. Ginger P. says:

    You’ve done it again, Schmale. Changed my life and stolen my heart, you Social Work goddess.

  4. Ari Waschler says:

    I really like how you looked at economics with reality- a lot of times there are great theories that sound good and are well thought out, but they are idealistic. There is not a simple solution to poverty and this highlights the complexities of economics and society. Great viewpoints!

  5. Rose E. says:

    I think you raise some great points here Erika! As social workers, I think we can be broakers for people to try to develop human capital. Also, so many of the solutions we pose as social workers are criticized for being idealistic and unrealistic–I think pulling in economics into the conversation can be a powerul tool for discussing and moving towards effective AND efficient solutions.

  6. Karla says:

    Human capital is extremely important however we all know the value of a dollar. To gain knowledge and skills through education is costly and can continue to hold people back. Great idea for a blog!

  7. Ashley Harmon says:

    great thoughts Erika!! This is something I’m learning about in my Community/Public Health class. I’m passionate about advocating for vulnerable populations. It’s not simply enough to provide these populations with soft skills or human capital. We need to do a thorough and realistic assessment of the difficulties facing these populations and create methods to promote sustainability. not only do we need to empower these individuals with necessary skills but we need to ensure that there are proper measures in place so that they can maintain these skills and overcome future obstacles.

    • eschmale says:

      Its all about relationships! It is so wonderful that social workers are not alone in our journey with clients. We have nurses, teachers, congregational leaders, and family who can assist with long-term solutions.

  8. Sarah Farber says:

    So true! People often take on the position that we are all born with the same opportunities and those who don’t succeed simply don’t try hard enough. I think it’s so important to point out the struggles and lack of opportunity that shape the economic status of today’s poor. I guess it’s easy for social workers to see. Now we just have to educate others!

  9. Doug Schmale says:

    Our society and markets are extremely complex. The days of bartering services for services or goods for goods are gone. Contemplating trade in modern markets can be bewildering but it’s my belief that while the poor lack the “capital” component of “human capital” they do possess the “human” element and that is priceless. Though why must that be so? If we provided vulnerable populations with the skills to leverage what money they have into training and education then, coupled with this newfound skill set, development of a market which fairly values human organs might serve to provide the “capital” the impoverished so desperately need.

    Of course, as in all markets, the price of goods for sale will vary with the quality of each individual item and the supply available in a given tier. This factor provides an incentive for the malnourished or substance-abusive to clean up their habits. While many poor may be willing to trade a kidney for a new car, perhaps if they raise their children to value nutrition and stay away from drugs and alcohol then their children might barter that same kidney for a sum generous enough to get them out of their circumstances altogether!

    I’ve proposed an initiative that would establish a federal regulatory agency to oversee the trade of human organs from vulnerable populations and the Romney campaign has been very receptive. We both agree that individuals above the poverty line should not be allowed to participate in the sale of their organs to keep the supply artificially low so that those who really need the income such a market could provide would be given a fair price. This represents a rather substantial departure from Gov. Romney’s otherwise laissez faire regulatory policies, but he insists that his appeal to the philanthropic instincts of his conservative supporters will assuage any reservations they might otherwise have.

    It’s forward economic thinking like this, and not considered community or welfare initiatives, that will ultimately empower the poor to succeed in a complex global economy.

  10. Lynn Harris says:

    Father Sarduci (SNL) reduced the study of Economics strictly to “supply and demand”. There’s more to the dismal science in the real world of humans struggling to survive.

  11. Gail says:

    Economic justice can be related to legal justice. A blatant example is that NC has released multiple people for wrongful convictions after serving decades in jail for crimes they did not commit. When a poor person can’t afford a private lawyer, the justice system can tie him or her in knots, resulting in economic injustice even before a person is convicted of a crime.
    Can’t pay bail, stay in jail, lose your job.
    Take time to go to court; the case is continued multiple times, lose your job for not showing up. Poor transportation? Risk not arriving at court early, sit all day and perhaps be told to come back on another date.
    Forget a court date? Risk a warrant with subsequent bail/ jail problems. The cycle goes round and round.

    • eschmale says:

      Thank you for the comment! It is very sad how much more the criminal justice system impacts low-income individuals. I wonder how much the inability to pay for a lawyer affects the percentage of low-income individuals who end up in jail/prison?

  12. Sarah F. says:

    Hey! I am a friend of your sister’s, and fellow social worker (and LVC alum!) She sent me the link to your blog, and I like what you’ve posted so far!

    I’ve worked with a lot of folks who are ex-offenders (a lot of felonies for non-violent crimes, especially) and its really devastating how cyclical it all is. Had some folks in prison for years; they get released with huge fines, can’t get jobs due to felonies, the jobs they can get pay (seems like the food service industry tends to be fairly felony-friendly) no where near what can be made in drug trade, then its back to prison again.

    I think if we are ever going to going to get a handle on poverty, homelessnes, etc, prison/criminal justice system needs to be one of the first places to look at reform..

  13. eschmale says:

    Thank you for taking a look at my blog! My sister has good taste in friends. I agree with you. Two systems need reforming: both entering into prison and re-entering into society. I will let you know if I find anything interesting on the topic.

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