25th Anniversary

Present and Future Imperatives: New Knowledge, More Skill


thumbnail of Mitchell

One of the significant lessons of twenty-five year of experience with a social security program is that even in times of high employment and prosperity, there is a core of dependent people who are not absorbed in the economy. To move beyond alleviation to attack the cause which create this situation, it is now generally recognized that more and better research and training are essential. Mr. Mitchell, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, makes an eloquent case for the need to upgrade these if public welfare is to become more effective in reducing costs in money and manpower.

Man's years of waning vigor and productivity now come at ever later decades in his life; fewer children suffer orphanhood and fewer young wives, widowhood; an increasing number are protected against disabilities or are freed from them for productive and personally satisfying lives. At the same time, broad coverage under social security programs assures more and more Americans that some steady income will be available when retirement time comes or if orphanhood widowhood, or disablement occurs. For these risks, then, we can say we have developed some preventive measures, both against their occurring and against the most disastrous consequences of income loss if they do occur. This represents impressive progress, even granting that much more is needed.

In contrast we have achieved no noticeable progress in developing preventive measures against the occurrence of other personal and social risks and their consequences. For the so-called "socio-psychological" problems such as broken families juvenile delinquency personal inadequacy, we seldom do more than "mop up" after they occur. We do what we can to meet the resulting needs and to work with the underlying problem usually after it has passed a crisis. For lack of preventive measures, such problems increase and grow in costliness both human and monetary. In addition, we know far too little about the factors underlying poverty or their effects.

Because of the complexity of human beings--as individuals and in groups--no magic "open sesame" of inventive genius is likely to be found to answer our needs. But as we acquire more of two precious commodities now in serious short supply we will make real progress. These commodities are new knowledge, combined with more skill. The knowledge must come from painstaking research; the skill from training based on knowledge.


The disturbing gap in progress toward increasing knowledge between the physical and social sciences must be narrowed and eventually closed. The social sciences are still primarily in the philosophical stage where appeal is made most generally to judgment of the professional and the expert. Progress in the social sciences will continue to be slow and halting until we dethrone professional judgment and discount expert opinion except as they are supported by controlled research and experiments.

In addition, social welfare today is overwhelmingly the province of the practitioner who is motivated first and foremost by the desire to do something now for the problem-plagued individual or family who comes to him for help. Understandably he is impatient to have immediate answers. But this impatience can hamper the search for sound new knowledge. It often leads to answers that are purely localized and temporary in value and of doubtful validity if it does not actually prevent research as being too interruptive of the on-going job.

We must give important place in our field--as the other sciences have--to the research worker with his special skills and his constant attitude of wonderment about the world he lives in and those who inhabit it. We must be prepared to look for knowledge for its own sake, whether or not it seems to have immediate application and no matter how much time the search may take. In short, we must recognize the importance of "pure" as well as applied research, and we must conduct both scientifically. In doing so, we must also be prepared to challenge, question, and perhaps revise some of our most cherished hypotheses and assumptions. By this road, we may come to the place where we can understand the needs of man well enough to predict social problems and through prediction achieve control.

Despite some encouraging small steps toward deeper research, today in our field for the most part we count, then analyze or assess the counts. Unfortunately also we are counting just about the same things we counted a quarter century ago--how many people, how much money. We have not yet been able even to count some of the most important phenomena with which we must deal. Our counts undoubtedly do not include anyone who does not really have a problem. But do they include all who do have problems? What do we know definitively about the motivations, attitudes, opinions, and capacities of individuals or groups? Surely not enough to predict behavior with the confidence that leads to prevention and control of problem incidence.

These are just some of the questions to which research must provide the answers. And indeed, until we can assure the public that it is these answers which are our prime research goals, it will remain difficult to elicit public support. Unquestionably, lack of money is part of our problem just as increased financial support is a primary explanation of progress in the other sciences.

It may of course be necessary first to re-educate ourselves: Preoccupied with the myriad difficulties that beset people and the always unusual circumstances which attend their solution, it is sometimes hard to keep faith in the possibility that there are underlying principles which have universal application. Too often in our zeal we are likely to settle for a report of a case history or two, or at best a local demonstration project which ends up in a gratified speech and a journal article that "points with pride." When we ourselves are united in the conviction that we can and should do more than this, social science research will no longer be the plain Jane but will radiate as much fiscal sex appeal as the physical and biological sciences.


One more step is necessary if the Cinderella story is to have its happy ending--knowledge acquired through research must be translated into practice. Here we come to training: How well do we use the knowledge we have now? How effectively do we get it into practice? With regard to the contribution of training to the future, again we need more knowledge: What training, for whom? And, basically, we need to define our job more specifically.

In our field, perforce, we must face shortages of fully trained workers far into the foreseeable future. How shall we use the fully trained workers we have? At what level, in what scope of service can other workers be used? What can an agency give in its training program? How can the schools and agencies work together more successfully to recruit and train the people we need? Given the workers available to us, how realistically do we appraise the job we can do? How clearly do we tell the public what we can do, what we can't do, and what we need?


A greater portion of the money we have and spend as a nation must go into the social sciences, where the seas are still largely uncharted. A wealthy nation such as ours can afford to do what needs to be done to assure that Americans have the opportunity for personally satisfying and useful lives. Indeed, it cannot afford the costs of failing to do it. The future contribution of welfare programs depends on the extent to which we know what man's needs are and what to do about his problems, and the degree of skill we use in doing our job. The contribution will be made to the extent we are successful in achieving an effective partnership between the skills and compassion of the practitioner and the skills and wonderment of the researcher.