At the same time that the recession-weakened nation experiences headlined slashes in public services, Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) students are being trained to identify and implement low-cost or no-cost ways to help the needy, and to become a force which shows that society can improve despite the Great Recession.

New York City Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky addressed this topic when he spoke to students in Professor Allan Luks’s Advocacy and Public Policy class on Feb. 1. “It’s always hard to get social changes approved,” said Yassky, “but I don’t think it’s any harder now to get change, as long as it doesn’t cost a lot of money. And you, as social workers, through your daily experiences, can identify such solutions and fight to get them adopted.”

Each one of the second-year students in Luks’s course must identify and advocate for a new, small public policy that can improve society at little cost. The students have had no problem finding these issues and their public policy solutions. Some examples include: stopping users of suboxone, a methadone-like drug, from selling their supply to get others high; requiring people who are HIV positive to inform those they are sexually active with; have public TV and radio regularly post social indexes on how well or poorly society is solving its social ills and invite public involvement where changes are most needed; offering affordable transportation for low-income cancer patients, who now may be late or even miss appointments; regular mental health seminars in high schools so students can identify warning signs in themselves and others and prevent the violent behaviors; a requirement that public housing conditions that cause asthma be fixed within a month rather than a year; and allowing pregnant women to avoid going through school metal detectors.

“Social workers are required by their profession to identify solutions to public problems and advocate for their implementation,” said Luks, who also directs Fordham’s Center for Nonprofit Leaders. “For the needy, who are most affected by the Great Recession, these small ideas of social workers become a balance that says optimism for the future is still possible.”

A former nonprofit executive with more than two decades of experience, Luks tells students of his successful efforts to champion laws that have since become national models. In the 1980s, he led the adoption of New York City’s law requiring posters in bars and restaurants warning about drinking during pregnancy, which resulted in national legislation. He also advocated successfully for the city law preventing job discrimination against recovered alcoholics, which was then adopted by many states and cities. In 2007, he led the call for the state law requiring mentoring programs to inform parents about whether or not they did background checks on their mentors.

“Social workers starting out today have high tuition bills, a high cost of living and the worry of their charitable employers cutting back,” he said. “So, there is pressure on them to just do the work they are employed to do and not to go beyond and start trying to change public policies.

“The goal of the Fordham program is to show the second-year graduate students that social workers are one vital counterweight to the Great Recession.”