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Why is so much of Asia under-invested in its social work infrastructure? Multiple studies show significant economic and social returns from well-designed social work interventions. Social workers can assess and respond to the many complex needs that vulnerable groups face in countries in the Asia region, and their work enhances and sustains positive health and education outcomes. Yet a recent mapping of social work and associated professions in East Asia and the Pacific found some countries have only 15-20 workers for every 100,000 children in the population, a ratio that is completely inadequate for meeting today’s needs.
Social work is an essential component of good public policy
Healthcare workers seek to prevent and heal disease and injury. Education sector workers seek to provide students with the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed in all aspects of life. These are necessary, but not sufficient, functions that all societies need for their socio-economic development.
Social workers carry out the third essential function: to promote the well-being of individuals and families so they can meet their full potential. When properly equipped and trained, social workers help vulnerable individuals to identify and access the services they need. These can include linking them to available economic and nutritional supports, psycho-social services, parenting programs, kinship/foster/adoption programs, violence prevention and mitigation, housing and shelter, and a host of similar services.
Effective social services promote human capital
While we only have limited evidence from Asia to date, study after study elsewhere shows the positive impact of well-designed social service interventions. A multi-country systemic review found that providing access to social work interventions in schools led to improved attendance, enhanced mental health, reduced aggression, and other positive outcomes. The City Connects program in Boston (USA) appointed a dedicated social worker in public schools to identify the strengths and needs of students, to connect those students to community programs, and to work with family members. Relative to their peers, students receiving support had much higher attendance rates and significantly elevated math and reading scores. Another multinational systematic review showed that access to targeted social work interventions improved health outcomes and reduced demand for health care services. Social workers are often at the front lines of addressing domestic violence and abuse and the factors that lead individuals to come into contact with the law.
There is a wide spectrum of needs outside of the classroom or the health clinic. Countries that are serious about taking a comprehensive approach to strengthening their human capital should take a serious look at their social work infrastructure and the availability and quality of their social services.
Social services demonstrate strong economic returns
Effective social service programs (often run by social workers or related professionals) regularly demonstrate financial rates of return well in excess of investments, often through decreased utilization of health services, reduced costs to the interior and justice systems, higher labor force participation, increases in future earnings, less institutionalization, reductions in substance abuse, and other factors. KPMG and the Commonwealth Fund found that programs targeting the complex social determinants of health can yield high internal rates of return — in some of their business cases positive returns were obtained in less than a year. Robust data from Washington State (U.S.) show mean benefit cost ratios for social programs that are often many multiples of the amounts invested regardless of the age of the target group. Shortly after its introduction, Chile’s Puente al Desarrollo program reduced multidimensional poverty by 41% by taking a holistic social work approach to the needs of beneficiaries, with a limited impact on the government budget. In the United States, the benefits of social work interventions in health settings ranged from US$107 and US$19,000 per patient depending on the study and health area.
The economic costs of crime, homicide and suicide in the Asia-Pacific region were estimated at roughly US$300 billion in 2019. A recent comprehensive global study found that the costs to society of childhood disability can be equivalent to the annual per capita GDP level per affected child. There is little question that social work interventions in the Asia region should yield substantial economic returns.
Strengthening social work: considerations
Strengthening social work and related professions – often referred to as the ‘social service workforce’ – requires systemic thinking and a comprehensive approach. The Global Social Service Workforce Alliance has prepared helpful tools and resources built around three inter-related elements: (1) workforce planning; (2) developing the workforce; and (3) supporting the workforce. A very recent addition to those tools helps national actors assess the desirable ratio of workers to the population, taking into account local context and needs.
Well-meaning social work efforts have gone awry when governments and their partners fail to account for historical and cultural context. For example, U.S. social workers have been intensively reevaluating their role in the highly disproportionate removal of children from families of color and indigenous families. It is important to address social work capacity building through an equity lens and with the engagement and voice of affected communities.
We encourage any social work initiatives in the Asia region to build in, a priori, an economic analysis model to assess the costs and benefits of social work programs and services. Comparative analysis of different programs will not only show how those programs are yielding benefits, but which of them is most cost-effective relative to the others. Such studies will build the evidence base for informing social policy approaches in the countries that AVPN members work in.