According to case law which started around the civil war, corporations are entitled to equal rights under the constitution as persons. Over the years, this has become more extreme, especially in the 1970s when Buckley v. Valeo ruled that corporations have first amendment rights. Recently, the Citizens United ruling has provided even more protection in terms of corporate constitutional rights. So what does this means in terms of social work and how does corporate personhood as a social problem become a “grand challenge.” Typically, corporations main mission is to provide short term returns to stockholders and investors. Doing so often requires that corporations pay lower taxes, have less regulation and pay lower wages. Because of their increasing levels of first amendment rights, they have the ability to spend enormous amounts of money to influence government to ensure that taxes are lowered, so they endure less regulation and assault by unions. All this effects social welfare significantly. There has been many reports showing how distribution of wealth has shifted significantly since the late 70s. In fact, in the US at present (and reports of this vary), the top 1% own around 35% of wealth in the US. The bottom 80% owns 18% of the wealth. These percentages are much more severe when the whole world is taken into consideration. This is the foundation of protests movements such as Occupy which have cropped up across the nation and began a national discussion about wealth distribution. The field of social work, however, has been largely silent on this issue. Meanwhile, science has shown over and over that poverty is associated with a large number of social ills, especially those social ills where social workers specialize (e.g. child welfare, mental health, substance use, health, violence). Unfortunately, without having an equal voice in government as large multinational corporations, there is no way that any real change can be made to really resolve issues resulting from poverty and economic inequality. If there is no political will to increase taxes, for example, for social problems or to regulate banks (to protect homeowners and other credit consumers), because groups advocating such things don’t have the economic might, then many of the “grand challenges” are going to be very difficult to make reality.
How would corporate personhood be changed? Corporate personhood could be changed most effectively through a constitutional amendment. There are already different groups working towards this ends. However, the movement is quite small now and is more central to groups concerned with legal justice. Nevertheless, creating a workable amendment would improve the democratic system in the US and could also provide an example of how true democracies need to be run.
Getting a corporate personhood amendment would be quite a challenge and the innovation comes into play in how to do community organizing and where to collaborate at this point. One issue is that large multinational corporations not only can provide large amounts of money to politicians but they can also buy media sources and there is no limit to how many they can buy. This means that they also can have enormous influence on how social problems and policy are framed. Ensuring alternative sources of information that are accessible to a wide variety of different populations will be a definite challenge but social workers are trained in the art of building collaboration. Branching out into fields of engineering to determine better methods of communication is one strategy here.