Abstract: Diverging Trajectories: Social Work Advocacy and Scholarship on Minimum Wage (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Diverging Trajectories: Social Work Advocacy and Scholarship on Minimum Wage

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Anita Rocha, MS, Student, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Background and Purpose: Laws that increase minimum wages above both the federal level and state levels have recently passed in over 40 localities across the United States. Prominent arguments for and against raising the minimum wage center on economic concerns. The debate, however, appears less vigorous recently on the part of social work scholars. The purpose of this paper is to examine social work’s scholarly discourse and social activism on minimum wage policies in the United States, beginning from the era that saw the first minimum wage laws enacted. First, I review social work scholarship in this arena, summarizing historic crests and hollows in journal publications. Second, I highlight social workers’ past battles for wage justice, summarizing junctures of high activist visibility, as well as the current model of coalition building that may obscure the latest social work activism concerning minimum wage. I examine the junctures at which scholarly discourse and advocacy appear to diverge.

Methods: I use two complementary research methods. First, to examine the scholarly discourse among social workers on minimum wage, I undertake a literature review from 1927 through 2019. Modifying an approach taken by Reisch (2018), I review 423 published articles and briefs. Then I apply a rating system to distinguish the level of content relevant to minimum wage, finally summarizing the number of yearly publications. Second, to review social work activism I search historical accounts of social workers as advocates for laws and policies concerning minimum wage. Using Jannson’s (2013) eras of the evolution of the American welfare state as periods in history, I encapsulate social work activism within this framework. Finally, I compare the outcomes from the two methods, both social worker scholarly discourse and historical accounts of social worker activism involving minimum wage.

Results: Since the late 19th century, historic accounts confirm social workers advocated for workplace protections including raising minimum wage levels. In parallel with social work activism, the number of articles published in social work journals from 1927 through 2019 displays peaks, such as the years surrounding passage and implementation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Conversely, the most recent era, 2016-2019, saw the fewest articles published. Yet, there has been a resurgence of interest in minimum wage as local municipalities and states mandate increases above the federal level, and social workers have taken active part. This paper suggests that levels of scholarly discourse ran roughly parallel to social work activism through most of the 20th century, but diverged recently such that the decline in scholarly discourse may not reflect the degree of social work activism on minimum wage.

Conclusions and Implications: Wage rates greatly influence the conditions under which the lowest wage earners live, and therefore, the services they require. This paper is an invitation to social workers to resume scholarly discourse on wage justice with the vigor that reflects the recent resurgence of activism and measures on minimum wage.