Casualty of war

As Congress ploughs billions into the US campaign in Iraq, staff in the social care sector are having to face up to a future of dwindling budgets and reduced political clout, says Katherine van Wormer.   

Despite the barrage of propaganda on the news, it is difficult to find anyone where I live in Iowa who is enthusiastic about this war in Iraq. My mother who lives in rural Kentucky says she finds the same thing. Recent US opinion polls reveal widespread scepticism concerning the impact of this war on curbing terrorism.

The further the government sinks resources into the quagmire in Iraq – Congress has allocated $87bn (£48bn) – the less that is available to maintain social services at state and local levels. Internationally, the war on terrorism has pushed the fight against poverty and disease off the world agenda.

With the protracted US presidential election campaign now under way, commentators continue to overlook the link between the drastic social welfare cuts and the draining from the states of federal money to support the war effort.

“Which one will dominate the current election campaign – the war or the economy?” is the question that is the most commonly asked. As if the two can be separated.

Social workers, however, perceive the link. The war society is not a people-friendly society. I felt a wave of pride when, even in the early days just before the bombing of Iraq began, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the International Federation of Social Workers condemned the impending invasion.

NASW president Terry Mizrahi issued a bold statement for peace, a statement that is consistent with social work’s anti-violence stance on all matters.

Among the concerns expressed in her statement were the havoc that war would wreak on the Iraqi people, the social costs on the home front in the form of loss of life and deficits and downsizing of our domestic programmes.

According to a 2003 report by the National Council of State Legislators, the states face a $68.5bn shortfall for 2004. Facing their worst crises since the second world war, collectively the states have cut billions in public services, health, and welfare benefits.

Billions of dollars are coming to the states, but they are earmarked for homeland security as part of the so-called war on terror.

Yet what kind of homeland security do you have when an estimated 800,000 people (including many families) are homeless; when 43 million earn less than a living wage; when child welfare workers have caseloads of more than 80 clients and are quitting in droves; when many women who are addicted to drugs are deliberately going to prison for treatment they cannot afford to access otherwise? Social workers, through their clients, experience the impact of the redirected spending priorities daily.

Social workers also see the direct impact of the war itself – the trauma, broken families, family violence and an increased crime rate. For each soldier killed, it is estimated that 10 return home seriously wounded.

Social workers will address the emotional injuries for years to come, in hospital work, at mental health clinics and substance abuse treatment centres and in correctional institutions.

In a war economy bolstered by a timid, corporate-influenced media, the social work profession, with its long-standing peace mission, global perspective and advocacy for members of ethnic minority communities who are associated with “the enemy,” is apt to lose political clout. All these tendencies have come into play in Iowa.

If the first casualty of war is the truth, the second is social welfare. CC

Katherine van Wormer is professor of social work, University of Northern Iowa, and is the author of Confronting Oppression and Restoring Justice: From Policy Analysis to Social Action, Council on Social Work Education, 2004

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