Interview with Dr. Jim Baumohl – Professor at Bryn Mawr College | Social Policy & Social Welfare

About Dr. Jim Baumohl, Ph.D., MSW: Jim Baumohl earned his undergraduate, MSW, and Ph.D. degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a professor at Bryn Mawr College, where he has been teaching since 1990. Prior to Bryn Mawr, he assisted in the development of Canada’s first joint degree in law and social work at McGill University. Dr. Jim Baumohl was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] Before we launch into the main questions, may we have a brief description of your educational and professional background?

[Dr. Jim Baumohl, Ph.D., MSW] I was an English major at Berkeley in the late 1960s. I wanted to write fiction but wasn’t any good at it. I was smart and articulate, though, and pretty good at organizing people to accomplish things, so I was recruited by older heads into social service and political work that addressed what we call homelessness these days. I got an MSW from Berkeley in 1974.

I have always been a reader. I’ve always used writing as a way to think, and I’ve never been able to resist a good scrap, so part-time research and some organizing projects combined comfortably for me until my mid-30s, when I needed to make a predictable living with luxuries like health insurance. So I finished a doctorate at Berkeley and in 1986 took a teaching job at McGill University, where an old friend was on the faculty. I liked McGill, and lent a hand on some interesting welfare rights work and helped organize Canada’s first joint law and social work program. But I didn’t like Montreal weather or the ex-pat life, so in 1990 I moved with my family to Bryn Mawr College, outside Philadelphia.

At Bryn Mawr, I retired from grassroots organizing. I served on agency boards and task forces, but it didn’t amount to much except bringing the “housing first” concept to Philadelphia long before it was federal policy. That was an interesting struggle. Anti-homelessness work has become an industry in the 30 years since the McKinney Act, and organizations deeply invested in a particular approach — service agencies and funders alike — balk at the necessity to experiment and change, especially when it involves financial risk. Service orthodoxies are no different from other forms of unreflective true belief.

As to my scholarship, I’m an old guy now and I’ve published a lot over the years, but I’m most proud of two group efforts. I worked as the editor for almost three years on a benefit book for the National Coalition for the Homeless, published in 1996 (“Homelessness in America”). Some of it is dated now, but the chapters driven by ideas rather than information remain useful. From 1996 to 2003 I worked with another group on a study of disabled substance abusers affected by the elimination of addiction as a qualifying impairment in federal disability programs. We studied a large sample of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients for two years in nine cities over five states. I was the senior editor of the volume that collected the study’s findings.

[] Before becoming an academic, you worked as a shelter director and a tenant organizer, amongst other occupations. How did these experiences make you a well-rounded social worker? Should social workers have a diversity of professional experiences before specializing?

[Dr. Jim Baumohl, Ph.D., MSW] I got a fine liberal arts education and I have some intellectual breadth, but I don’t think I ever became a “well-rounded social worker.” I had enough casework training in grad school to learn some valuable listening skills but mostly I did “political” social work. I was a gifted or at least persistent hell-raiser and was anointed a leader while quite young. That’s a mixed blessing, to be sure, and I was never comfortable with it. I am the last living founder of what is now a large anti-poverty agency, and over the years I worked my way down from director to volunteer, doing different jobs in the organization on my way to the ground.

That experience and others since inform some deep biases of mine: 1) There is a curvilinear relationship between size and organizational effectiveness: big is better until it’s not, and that point is reached pretty quickly. 2) Supervisors and administrators should know and respect the demands on those whose work they oversee and coordinate. 3) Leadership is based on doing the work with colleagues, not exhorting and directing from on high or running out to lead parades. I think Michael Lipsky’s “Street-Level Bureaucracy” is the single most important book for a social work student to read.

[] You specialize in homelessness, which you’ve written about extensively. How does this specialization manifest in the courses you teach? What should students who hope to specialize in homelessness expect from their curricula and their careers?

[Dr. Jim Baumohl, Ph.D., MSW] I’m interested in human misery and political, institutional, and informal responses to it. From this perspective, homelessness is a very interesting problem. To understand it requires attention to policy across almost every domain of social welfare. For someone like me, who teaches foundation courses in social theory, social policy, and social welfare history, it’s a great lens for viewing these matters and teaching them.

[] Another one of your concentrations is social welfare history. How has social welfare changed in the recent past and how will it evolve in the near future? How should social work students and professionals account for these changes?

[Dr. Jim Baumohl, Ph.D., MSW] Social work is what social workers get paid to do and what social workers do is defined by social policy. Policy sets the job market for social work and the job market defines the skills that schools of social work teach. Allowing for a brief renaissance of organizing fueled by War on Poverty money, social work has been for the most part a mental health profession, broadly speaking, since the Social Security amendments of 1962 and the Community Mental Health Centers Act of 1963 primed that pump. I don’t expect that to change in my lifetime, but I’m not sore about it. Addressing emotional pain competently is very important. Unfortunately, doing much more than that requires after-5 dedication. Very few social workers get paid to change the world during working hours.

The greatest challenge in social welfare is the ubiquity of neo-liberal thinking about the aims and methods of anti-poverty policy. Under the circumstances, we help poor people just enough to get them ready for another beating in the market. In 1934 Nels Anderson, the most revered American student of homelessness, wrote that social workers mean well but are inevitably the ambulance drivers of capitalism. He was correct then and if he were alive to reiterate the point, he’d be correct now.

[] Your research interests also include alcohol- and drug-control policy. What are the largest alcohol- and drug-control policy issues currently looming? How can social workers ensure that these policies head the right direction?

[Dr. Jim Baumohl, Ph.D., MSW] My greatest expertise in this area concerns the period from about 1820 to the Second World War. This said, it has been quite disturbing to see the reappearance of iatrogenic opioid addiction like we haven’t seen since early in the 20th century, and the mass incarceration of minor drug offenders that has devastated African-American communities in particular.

The first issue raises important questions about pain management and the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and medical education. The second highlights the entrenched biases of criminal justice policy and the disastrous consequences of punitive practices. Like other policy matters, these are after-5 issues for all but the small number of social workers who find niches in the policy world.

[] Rather than offering a Master of Social Work, Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research offers a Master of Social Service. What distinguishes the two degrees? How can students know which is right for them?

[Dr. Jim Baumohl, Ph.D., MSW] To my knowledge, this distinction is idiosyncratic and doesn’t mean anything. Students looking to apply to social work schools should look at curricular offerings, class sizes, whether foundation courses are taught mainly by tenure-track members of the faculty, and the breadth of field placements. I’m an old-school guy. I think classes should be small (15-18 students), intellectually challenging, and taught by instructors who emphasize ideas over information. Information is what you look up. Ideas teach you why to bother doing so.

Thank you Dr. Jim Baumohl for your time and insight into social work!

Last updated: April 2020