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Social Work and Child Welfare:

Macro-Level Changes to Improve Child Welfare System

Kathryn R. Pranger

Loras College


Poverty in the United States is at about 14.3%, which is inclusive of about 45 million people,

according to the Center for Poverty Research, (2016). This issue of poverty tends to be a major

factor in the reasons children are in need of the programs the child welfare system offers, but this

system often fails them in many ways. This paper suggests three ways to change this system to

create the most impact through macro-level programs that can be implemented in the country.

These three ways are through proving more opportunities for children to be food-secure, always

having enough to eat, through improving the situations of these children to promote their ability

to concentrate and learn while in school, and by reforming the criminal justice system to alleviate

the stresses placed on families with incarcerated parents, and more stressful homes.

Keywords: social work, child welfare, macro-level, improvements, criminal justice,

school system, food stamps, welfare programs, poverty


Social Work and Child Welfare:

Macro-Level Changes to Improve Child Welfare System

Welfare is a term commonly thrown around in political debates, journal articles, and even

daily conversation as an assumed way of life. Interestingly enough, most often when it is

mentioned, there is a number to represent it, but no proposal to fix it. This research is an attempt

to change that. Social work in the US is a profession with many hats, working with those in

hospice, hospitals, refugee centers, foster care homes, group homes, shelters, child welfare

programs and the list goes on. It seems that social workers are in a constant fight to make the

world a better place, and often times, children, the innocent and blameless, are the target or

motivation for change. Some think that helping change the childs behavior will best help the

child to move on to a better way of life, while others think that if the workers are trained enough,

they can make a big enough difference. In reality, it is only in a situation where those children

are supported through the outside systems and programs that can change really become possible.

According to the Center for Poverty Research, the poverty rate in the US right now is about

14.3%, which is about 45 million people throughout the country (2016). Child Welfare is in

place to treat many different things, and poverty is at the core of all of those issues. Poverty

causes food insecurity, poor education, and eventually makes it easier to get into crime and

ending up in the criminal justice system. If the US can give more support to these children in

poverty through better access to food, better education, and reform within the criminal justice

system, those helped by the child welfare programs are much more likely to succeed than in

smaller levels of work towards change.

In the effort to make these large-scale changes, one of the first places to look is how

children are surviving in a physical sense. Children that are in need of Welfare programs, are

most often in need of food security within their own homes due to poverty and their parents

absences to work all day. In their paper regarding the different programs available, Gunderson

and Ziliak found that there were more children in need of welfare programs than were utilizing

them, saying, One way to improve take-up rates might be to improve access to the program,

(2014). They suggested the use of online applications and more access to sign up for the

resources for these parents who were working such long hours away from home (Gundersen, &

Ziliak, 2014). A lot of the problem related to accessing the funds for food stems from the

familys ability to hide their need. Fram et al. researched food insecurity as well, concluding that

Because some children and families actively hide their food- related problems, schools should

explore ways of reaching out to all children to learn about potential food needs, (Fram et al.,

2014). These ways of reaching out could be a climate survey in class to discover who is most in

need, and the main concern was about the possible effects of food insecurity on those children

going unnoticed. In their paper, they listed many food insecurity signs, concluding that, These

and other potential expressions of child food insecurity can negatively affect a childs school

success, but they are also opportunities for school staff to identify and respond to food-related

problems. (Fram et al., 2014). On a large scale, these services like access to food programs need

to be more easily accessible for those in poverty to receive the help that they need so that their

children can have the food they need to live a healthy life. Programs can be implemented on a

larger scale to make those resources more available.

Because many of these children live in poverty, they often have little to no food as

explained above, and that makes it much more difficult to concentrate in school, another macro-

area where child welfare reform should be enacted. Education is crucial to relieving poverty, and

helping children out of the system by giving them the tools to succeed in this society. In research

on povertys effects on shooling, Suitts states, Low-income children are the students who need

the most assistance in and out of school. They are generally more likely to have developmental

issues and to score low on school tests, fall behind in school, get entangled with the criminal

justice system, and fail to graduate from high school or attain a college degree (2016). Suitts

research shows that poverty is really the key to most problems that children can face in their

lifetimes, and that it leads to many of the problems the child welfare systems attempts to

alleviate. Education is extremely important, and therefore the government should be more

focused on implementing programs on the macro-scale, through things like program

requirements within the school systems to help these children get the services they need to

succeed. These programs could be ones that are outside the school system to affect change in

childrens schooling as well. Chyi, Ozyurk, & Zhang suggest a policy plan that seemed to work

within their research saying, a policy that combines a work requirement and a 2-year welfare

time limit increases the test score of a child with median ability endowment by 3.55%, a result

that is both statistically and economically significant. (2014). They suggest that this particular

policy reform was successful in helping the children involved to gain a better education, showing

that larger policy implementation can have a substantial impact on children in the country, with

less work than implementing things on a much smaller sclae.

The criminal justice system also plays a large role in the lives of the children involved in

child welfare. This system can affect children through their parents being incarcerated, being

introduced to gang relations through jail or prison, getting addicted to drugs, or even the inability

to find a job or be accepted to college in the future due to this system. Instead of being a place to

heal from old wounds or go through some rehabilitation to go back into the real world, often

times the criminal justice system is more focused on punishment than trying to help heal the

person born into such a difficult life. A paper written by Alexander on the effects of poverty in

the criminal justice system point out yet another problem with the whole of the system as he

concludes, This paper contends that poverty among African American children impact their

involvement in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, (Alexander, 2010). This

poverty is a major factor in whether or not the children in the child welfare system end up

incarcerated, and there is more evidence to also suggest that incarceration also leads to more

poverty. From their paper on the correlation between paternal incarceration and welfare

programs, Sugie finds that these models predict a large, significant association between recent

paternal incarceration and a familys receipt of food stamps and Medicaid/SCHIP the findings

suggest that the United States correctional system and particularly imprisonment is an even

more costly policy intervention than originally considered. (2012). This connection between

poverty and incarceration simply indicates a vicious cycle as parents are put in prison, children

experience more poverty, and become parents themselves, also ending up in prison as the whole

storyline repeats. Because this repeating situation of incarceration to paying for more welfare

programs, it is more than worth it for governmental policies to be put in place to help alleviate

this poverty by reforming the criminal justice system, keeping these people from becoming more

impoverished and ending up in prison again. Some possible solutions to this problem could be

raising the minimum wage to a living wage, lowering taxes on different items, or overall taxes

themselves for those with a low income, and making things necessary for life like food and

shelter more affordable (Alexander, 2010). To stop poverty, one must stop crime, and to stop

crime one must stop poverty. The cycle needs a catalyst of help to discontinue it, and that comes

from macro-level policy and support.


Even though these policies would work well to help alleviate some problems being faced

by those in poverty and those within the child welfare system today, some might argue that there

simply isnt enough money to fund these large-scale programs. Menashi, Behan, & Noonan

studied this idea of providing more services, and they found that Given the extreme budget cuts

that child welfare agencies have seen and will continue to see in the foreseeable future, figuring

out how to provide better services with fewer resources is critical. (2012). Unfortunately, the

problems that need fixing can all come down to money, which happens to be the same problem

being experienced by those being served. This makes it difficult for macro-level programs to be

implemented due to a lack of funds to help those out that are experiencing such difficult


On the contrary, government also has the advantage of creating policies for people to

follow which can be a major source of influence for change, and often require less funding from

taxpayer money directly. Government may take a long time to make up its mind, but if these

changes are able to be made, their implementation across the country will be able to help the

most people in the shortest amount of time. Helping clients out one on one to change the

behaviors of the children and the families takes a very long time, just for one family at a time, if

it even works. Training the people who work with these families and giving them more skills to

use also takes a long time, and often only provides some of the needs of the families and children

struggling through poverty. Only through the macro-level of policy and governmental regulation

can real change be made because it has access to the whole of the country at once. This kind of

change makes it possible for the employees to be supported with more resources as well as the

families they serve. Money can be a hard issue to fight, but policy change can make a huge

difference in giving support to those in poverty and giving support to the children involved to

give them the best possible chance at life.

Overall, it may cost less to assert change through the child welfare workers, and it would

certainly help to change the behavior of each of the children involved, but the best way of

dispensing the most change to the most people is through the macro-level support systems for

those in poverty. In an ideal world, all three of these methods would be utilized and combined

together to make the best possible solution for a child by helping them secure food for their

families, giving them the support they need in school for education, and helping themselves and

their parents from going through the criminal justice system only to come out worse on the other

side. Training employees can be mandated from the macro level, and helping to alleviate poverty

will automatically produce at least some change in the behaviors of the parents and children

involved in the welfare system. If poverty can be fixed, the child welfare system almost becomes

a moot organization, because life becomes a lot simpler when there is always food on the table,

the ability to learn in school, and a life of success to be had. The best way to fix poverty, is to

provide those programs so that the employees can help their clients utilize their resources.


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Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems. Forum On Public Policy Online, 2010(4),

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