Costs and Benefits

By Neil Guterman, MSW, PhD

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


We have recently heard a great deal in the public discourse about growing economic disparities in the U.S., mixed with a heavy dose of language about “unaffordable” government programs. Some have characterized what they see as a deepening paradox in the U.S., wherein we have recently made progress toward greater social inclusion, placing value on “equality of opportunity,” while simultaneously we appear to be increasingly tolerant of “inequality of condition” for our citizens.

Such paradoxes are deeply troubling when we acknowledge that differential life conditions have profound real-world consequences for us all. Those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum face far higher risk for shorter life spans and debilitating and costly medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancers, autoimmune diseases, respiratory illnesses and mental illnesses, along with greater risk for exposure to accidents, violence and other potentially lethal hazards. Further, such consequences spawn their own dire consequences, in a downward spiral of damage and cost.

The detriment wrought by such conditions extends from those immediately affected, to their families and communities, and to us all. For example, the University of Chicago Crime Lab, directed by SSA faculty members Jens Ludwig and Harold Pollack, has conservatively estimated that the problem of violent crime costs the wider U.S. economy about one trillion dollars per year, factoring in lost worker productivity, medical costs, mental health costs, costs to government vis-à-vis the criminal justice system and so forth.

Tackling such deep, complex and costly social problems to strengthen both individuals and our broader society is what SSA is all about. SSA remains at the vanguard of shaping, testing, analyzing and rethinking social policies and practices that directly affect our community’s most vulnerable citizens and the wider society. We carry out research in a way that is engaged in the world. The programs, research and projects that we’ve covered in this issue of SSA Magazine strive to tangibly improve children’s learning, keep people healthy, make neighborhoods better places to live and make families stronger and more resilient. At SSA and in the field of social work, those clear intrinsic benefits are why we do this work.

There is another tangible benefit for this kind of work. In today’s political climate, sometimes the refrain is that social justice and social welfare for our fellow citizens are just too expensive. America no longer has, the argument goes, the capacity to afford such luxuries.

The fact is, the policy and practice strategies we test, evaluate and disseminate in the classroom, when delivered effectively and efficiently, also save public dollars from being wasted down the road on more intensive and expensive health care, mental health and criminal justice interventions.

Take, for example, the work being done by Susan Lambert, Heather Hill, Julia Henly and Marci Ybarra, all of whom are involved in our new interdisciplinary scholar network investigating employment instability and family well-being, covered in the feature story “Many Disciplines, One Goal.” By finding ways to make low-wage work mesh better with family life, more workers can keep their jobs, more businesses can avoid the cost of finding and training new workers, and more families have less stress and more time together. Each of these outcomes has clear economic benefits.

As a second example, studies in my own field and that of SSA faculty member Sydney Hans that examine early home visitation services for vulnerable families have found an array of benefits to children and families served, and an average savings to the public of five dollars for every dollar spent on such services over the longer term due to a reduced subsequent need for public assistance, child welfare, juvenile justice and criminal justice services.

When you read this issue’s “Conversation” about public health’s role in limiting obesity and other chronic health issues and our feature story about how treatment of diabetes will change under the new Affordable Care Act, be mindful of the many dollars that will be saved in medical and social costs down the road from these preventative efforts as well. When you’re attuned to these kinds of cost benefits, the same underlying truth is clear: The case for better schools, more efficacious social services and smarter social welfare policies isn’t only that they promote individual and family wellbeing. They also strengthen the wider societal fabric, reduce more severe problems and interventions, save the public dollars and save lives. It’s “win-win.”

We need to be able to bring this hard evidence to debates on the utility of social welfare programs. SSA’s distinctive interdisciplinary approach to understanding and addressing deep social problems uniquely positions us to make the case for multiple benefits— including economic ones—of the programs and interventions we study, and we look forward to helping to lead the movement in this direction.

I also want to take a moment to comment on the energy, excitement and appreciation I feel at SSA this academic year. We are proud to welcome three new assistant professors to our faculty, Roberto Gonzales, Miwa Yasui and Marci Ybarra—you can read about their background and interests in the “Faculty News” section on page 30. I’m also delighted to announce a new chair to SSA’s Visiting Committee, Peter Darrow, who is leading the Visiting Committee through an evaluation of SSA’s fundraising priorities in preparation for a University-wide capital campaign. We are also pleased to welcome the return to campus of faculty members Charles Payne, Jens Ludwig, Waldo Johnson and Jeanne Marsh, all of whom recently spent time away from SSA expanding their research and experience.

Finally, I want to express deep appreciation on behalf of the entire SSA community to Karen Teigiser who, as our deputy dean of curriculum, has retired after 35 years of dedicated service to SSA. Karen has left a lasting imprint on literally thousands of our students, on our curriculum and on the vibrant culture of SSA. I am grateful that Karen will continue to stay involved with SSA as she takes up volunteer leadership in our efforts to raise funds for an endowment that strengthens and supports our distinctive fieldwork education model for our students.

All told, there has been a bracing mix of old friends and colleagues and new faces around the halls of the Mies building this year, including another great class of incoming students. This past year SSA welcomed a record number of applicants to our master’s program. This significant increase shows that SSA continues to be a highly sought-after school for those who want to devote their career to serving those most vulnerable in our society.

I’m always inspired by the ideas and projects of the faculty, staff, students and alumni of SSA. Undoubtedly there are serious issues that beleaguer our society, and the environment to address these issues seems to be getting even more challenging. As long as such talented, dedicated, caring people are putting their efforts into finding better answers to these issues, though, I remain ever hopeful for the future. Thank you for your support of our work.

Neil Guterman, MSW, Ph.D., is the Dean and Mose & Sylvia Firestone Professor in the School of Social Service Administration.