Since the 2016 presidential election, members of communities traditionally prevented or discouraged from engaging in electoral politics have challenged barriers to political power. Social work’s current research base about political action (and therefore our classroom and field approaches) reflects the pre-2016 political landscape. We examined the political efficacy of social workers and social work students before and after 2016 to find whether internal efficacy (sense of one’s own power in the political system) or external efficacy (sense of the system’s responsiveness) changed during this time period. Our research asks two questions:
- What was the impact of the 2016 election on the political efficacy of social workers and social work students?
- How do characteristics such as previous level of political engagement, race, gender, level of education, and type of program attended affect political efficacy?
The current study is a secondary analysis of data collected from social work students and practitioners (n=1,930) in two national programs over four years, comparing data from participants collected in 2015-2016 (n=384) to data collected in 2017-2019 (n=1,546). Questions relevant to this research question included demographics (race, gender, age, and student status) as well as perceived political efficacy using items from the American National Election Studies (ANES).
Bivariate analyses found the participants pre-2016 were older (average age of 26 pre-2016 compared to 29 post-2016), less likely to be female (79% to 88%), more likely to be Black/African American (19% to 12%) and less likely to identify as Latinx/Hispanic (12% to 20%). Participants after 2016 were more likely to be registered to vote and know who represented them in the state and federal legislature. There were numerous significant differences on individual items of the political efficacy scale between participants in the two time frames. For example, after 2016, they were more likely to agree that public officials care about what people think and that politics and government are too complicated to understand. They were more likely to believe that under our form of government, the people have the final say about how the country is run, no matter who is in office. Post-2016 respondents were less likely to report understanding the important political issues facing our country. All these differences were significant, however, there were no significant differences in total scale scores on efficacy for the two time periods.
Conclusions and Implications
The results of this study support updating political social work research, practice, and policy course content to reflect the current context and increase student/practitioner efficacy. Past work suggested that social work educators perceived students as uninterested in political content; our results challenge these assumptions. Changes in the U.S. political context call for a more nuanced political efficacy scale that reflects the challenges of this particular environment and community-level efficacy and barriers. Finally, these results can help with efforts such as the Special Commission to Advance Macro Practice in Social Work’s goals to increase the numbers of macro social work students and practitioners.