Today will be my last day, for quite a while or perhaps ever, as a professional social worker. I’ll go in to the office to tie up a shockingly small number of loose ends, make one final home visit to hand off one last case, and be back home this evening unemployed for the two weeks it will take to finish packing, move to Colorado, and set up house. Just like the past two mornings I’m up early, though today I just gave in and got out of bed, in hopes that doing this would put order to my thoughts and the ensuing peace earned would do more good than a bit more sleep. And just like the past two mornings I’ll leave the house and go through the day with a subtle, burning anxiety riding in my stomach, because one of the following must be true:
-Russian hackers tampered with voter returns.
-Millions of Americans want Donald Trump as their president.
I must assume it is the later, because as appalling as that is the other option is even worse. And I’m not talking about the disaffected folks who as Michael Moore explained so well voted for Trump out of alienation or unthinking hereditary misogyny or simple malaise, but those far smaller number who made a more deliberate choice. Those people who thought and think that Trump isn’t the least worst option, but a genuinely good one. I can respect the structural reasons why a populist would be appealing in 2016, understand why any Democrat would have an uphill road in the shadow of Obama, and have no problem blaming Hillary Clinton for a campaign at once timid and arrogant, but can’t make the leap to Trump being an acceptable choice. As president I hope he disrupts American political culture in an enduring fashion, uses his unpredictability as an asset to make progress on the thorny international problems in which we are currently swimming, and is ideologically pragmatic in a way his pre-campaign actions would suggest, but I can’t let go of how bad a role model he has been, nationally and globally, for the last year.
I was, in hindsight, extraordinarily lucky to have been in Egypt in early 2010, not quite a year into the Obama presidency and right after his speech in Cairo. The reception we got as Americans was extraordinary, and had everything to do with our president. Being hailed on the street and harangued by shopkeepers became routine, and I could not help but be proud that the fame usually given the US by virtue of simple economics was finally being earned much better. That Trump enthuses people like Marine Le Pen only enforces my pessimism.
The last eight years have, inevitably, made me more of a lefty. Today you don’t find many Republicans in social work, and the few which come easily to mind are only conspicuous as bad practitioners, folks whose work suffered due to both laziness and myopia. Graduate school set me well on the road to seeing how structural poverty is, how transgenerational mental illness and social maladaption are what make social and economic mobility so intransigent, and by extension so expensive to facilitate. JD Vance chose a good year to publish, and as a result has gotten lots of time on TV news this fall. I think his explanation of Trump’s appeal in unimpeachable, but the press has given almost no attention to his thesis that economic factors and the structure of government programs have conspired to create learned helplessness, which is as significant a factor as any in promulgating poverty. And by extension, the disaffection which made Donald Trump president.
Early in my six year tenure I gave up writing here about the job I’ll soon leave. The daily grind of social work is a tough thing to put into words, in no small part because the job simultaneously requires intense emotional investment and profound personal detachment. This paradox is clearly embodied in all the good meta-analyses of mental health treatment outcomes, which universally show that the best predictor of positive outcomes is the consistent perception, by the client, that the therapist/doctor/worker has genuine empathy and emotional regard. Different studies of the same data show that exploitation of the worker-client relationship, often in the form of sexual relationships, is a disconcertingly widespread problem. I’ve had more you-can’t-make-this-shit-up moments in the last six years than I can hope to easily remember, a significant minority of them involving fellow social workers, but have always held back from telling those stories due to concerns over confidentiality. I want to let myself go from that, at least a little, before I forget too much.
It is easy and simple, as a social worker, to blame and be hostile towards your clients. I’ve had plenty of cases for which society currently has no good solution. Violent or suicidal 10 year olds, for example, are generally not served in most group homes, residential treatment centers, or even hospitals. The police are also generally flummoxed by the mother of an 4th grader who calls for help because she can’t control her son and is afraid he might follow through on his threat to cut off his own hand with a kitchen knife. There are, thankfully, not enough of these cases for specific services to have evolved for them, at least in Montana.
Most of my cases have not been like that. Most of them have had solutions which both had a decent chance of working and were, for a professional conveniently removed from the daily chaos, obvious. The difficulty is in herding someone towards the obvious, ideally having them embrace the ideas as their own, and sustaining that commitment through the year or two or three it takes for changing habits to show rewards. I don’t have too many questions left, in a broad sense, about what works, about what can get a family to break the hereditary pattern of high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, absent fathers, and intrafamily emotional abuse. The big question I have left is where do we, as a society, draw the line. How many years of therapy, billed to the government at 65 dollars an hour and with parental non-involvement, should be allowed before the family is cut off? Talk therapy is great for some kids, especially girls, even if the family isn’t bought in and the weekly dropoff just serves to check mom’s mental box of parental responsibility, but in the end it is no substitute for doing something. How many weeks and years of case management, for children currently billed to the state of Montana (and through to the feds) at over 72 dollars per hour, is justified absent progress or at least investment? How many times does a family get to ignore a recommendation, if the service in question is paid for by the state?
As Vance points out in the aforementioned interview, questions like this are an almost invisible tightrope, stretched between learned helplessness, which social services without question reinforcement, and economic privilege. If historical factors and the circumstances into which they are born are largely responsible for folks being unable to extract themselves from poverty, who are college educated professionals to arbitrate what they should or should not do?
My concern with Donald Trump is at base that he has been nothing more than a spectacular fraud. While he has implicitly held himself up as the embodiment of the American Dream (of bootstrapping social mobility), his personal history proves that dream to be the fiction it almost certainly always has been. And unlike past presidents (two prominent examples are both named Roosevelt) there is little evidence that he’ll transcend his background and act out of anything other than his own view of the world. In this I sincerely hope I am mistaken.