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Social Workers Will Play Critical Role in Reforming Human Services, says Thurmond

Michael Thurmond

Keynote: Video | Audio
Distribution of Wealth Skit: Video
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Posted Oct. 24, 2011
Reported by Emily Williams & Molly Berg

The human services system in the U.S. is on the verge of a major transformation and innovations are desperately needed to address the 21st century needs of Americans, said Michael Thurmond in his keynote address Nov. 8 at the School of Social Work's annual Parham Policy Day. Social workers will play a critical role in shaping how the new system will look.

"The challenge is not to abolish [the human service delivery system]," said Thurmond, GA's former labor commissioner. "That doesn't take any innovation—that doesn't require any intelligence. The challenge is how do you take these depression-era programs and reengineer, reenvison and redeploy them so that they can become more effective and efficient in the 21st century environment."

Thurmond explained the economics behind the renovation, pointing to the national budget crisis and federal, state, and local governments who can no longer afford to finance programs they way they had been in the past. He also called attention to the high unemployment rate in the U.S.

"When America is not working, taxes are not being collected," he explained, resulting in reduced funding to social welfare programs.

Even social workers will have a tougher time finding a job, he warned, and unemployment will become the most critical issue of this century. "This is not just about the poor folks on the other side of town. This is about all of us," he said.

"Those of you who will be most successful will be the ones who innovate new ideas and strategies," he said. "You are blessed to be graduating into this environment because now you can make changes that were not even considered in the past."

Thurmond's own innovation, the Georgia Works program, which he conceptualized while labor commissioner, was opposed and shot down when he first introduced it. Eight years later, it is a model for part of President Obama's jobs bill.

The innovations must be more cost effective and efficient or the social welfare programs will cease to exist, he suggested. "If welfare is going to be reformed, we should be the reformers."

Solving current social service issues will take creative thinkers who associate themselves with the best minds regardless of their ethnic, political or religious background. Thurmond encouraged members of the audience to step out of their comfort zone and engage with others to come up with effective solutions.

"I am a lifelong Democrat, but I don't believe there is a purely Democratic solution. I know there's not a Republican solution. I believe there's an American solution," he said.

Parham Policy Day is hosted annually by the School of Social Work. The daylong program, organized by Parham Professor June Gary Hopps and students in her policy course, aims to highlight the impact and importance of social policy in our society.