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School of Social Welfare Dean’s Corner: The Most Important Thing New Social Workers Will Learn – The Lasting Impact of Social Inequality

Dear Colleagues,

Summer seems to fly by.  On May 19th the School graduated more than 250 newly minted social workers in a joyous celebration at the Staller Center.  They have begun the process of studying and sitting for their licensure with the help of our new Alumni L-Fund. Throughout the summer our Admissions staff has been working on admitting and enrolling over 300 new MSW students and over 60 BSW students.  Our new first year curriculum, including the recently adopted hybrid course schedule, is ready to launch.  New Student Handbooks and Field Manuals were published.  We submitted the School’s reaccreditation self-study to the Council on Social Work Education last week.  Our first phase departmental renovations will be finished just in the nick of time — our student orientations begin on August 23rd and classes resume on August 28th.  Whew!

As a new generation of social workers begins their studies, it seems appropriate to start this Dean’s Corner with the fundamental question of our profession: how best do we help people to thrive and succeed?

Research has shown that social determinants or what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls social inequalities, strongly influence whether people will experience positive or negative life outcomes.  Social determinants are the behavioral, social and environmental conditions that one experiences in their lives.  The evidence is accumulating that social conditions are responsible for 60% of one’s health, 60% of one’s educational success, and contribute 75% toward the likelihood that someone will not become involved in the criminal justice system.

So what are the social conditions that most impact success?  They are obvious, and I like to think of them as a sort of social hierarchy based on Maslow’s pyramid with the environment, income, food, and housing at the bottom, and access to services at the top:

•    Living in a safe and non-toxic environment (both physical and human)
•    Reliable, consistent, and sufficient income either through employment or benefits
•    Food security
•    Safe and affordable housing
•    Being socially engaged with a good support system
•    Access to transportation
•    Access to caregiving (either child care or elder care)
•    Access to Services

Strikingly, results of poor social conditions appear to persist over time, throughout an individual’s lifetime and beyond.  Remarkably, stress markers in blood samples tend to show up in the DNA of generations far beyond those that are initially exposed to poor conditions. It is argued that the social conditions of your zip code are as influential in your life chances as your genetic code.

Our students will learn a great deal about the factors that help people succeed.  They will learn about the so-called safety net of income supports and social care (e.g. food stamps, Section 8 vouchers, public housing, fuel subsidies, the ACA, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, home health and child care).  These programs not only protect people against the worst ravages of poverty, but also enhance their capacity for wellness and success.  To paraphrase Senator Al Franken, these social programs are the boots that allow us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Students will also learn the beneficial effects of education, training, and employment.  An Associate degree increases entry level salary, adds to lifetime earnings, and lowers the vulnerability to unemployment by 3.8%.  A Bachelors degree increases entry level salary by almost $30,000, increases lifetime earnings, and lowers the potential for unemployment to 2.8%.  Steady employment makes a difference not only in income, but also in one’s mental health.  Employment is the factor most likely to help someone get off and stay off drugs.

Importantly, our students will learn that social connections—both the quantity and quality, affect mental health, health behaviors, physical health, and mortality risk.  Ties to family members, friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and civic engagement all appear to relate strongly to life satisfaction and happiness.

Our profession fully embraces diversity, and we do that for good reason.  We know that organizations function better if they are diverse.  We know that acceptance and responsiveness to one’s sense of identity and difference results in better mental health and productivity.

The things that make for success are the very things that all of us want in our lives.   Our neighbors and our clients have the same needs, hopes, and dreams we have.  So the first thing that social work students will learn at Stony Brook is this:  Social justice is the very bedrock of our profession.  I can’t wait for the discussions and debates to begin!

Yours in peace and solidarity,

Jacqueline Mondros,
Dean and Assistant Vice President for Social Determinants

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