Tag Archives: policy

Equal doesn’t always mean equal.

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One of my favorite things about my kids–and I truly think mine are better about this than most–is their intuitive understanding of what each needs, and their recognition that Mommy’s job is to try to do that, instead of making sure that everyone gets exactly the same.

This does not apply to Sprite or ice cream, it must be said.

But, when it comes to the most precious commodity in our house, Mommy’s time, they are very gracious about how a sibling might need more, or different, attention from Mommy at a particular time.

They see this as fair.

Because ‘equal’ doesn’t always have to mean the same.

And, sometimes, the same wouldn’t be equal at all.

That means that no one really bats an eye when Ben gets to go to Wendy’s with just Mom a couple of times a month. They know that my sensitive and quieter youngest son needs that 1:1 time, and that that is a comforting place for him to connect with me.

The twins have long understood that Sam will get to go places and do things they don’t, not just because he’s older, but because he is interested in things that they just are not. And that Evie needs extra help, as the youngest, and also extra forgiveness, as she learns.

If only our public policy structures got this as well.

I think about my kids every time I hear someone complaining about how people get XYZ public benefit. I want to say, ‘but you don’t really want that, do you? I mean, you don’t want to be in their shoes, so that you could get it. Do you?’

My kids will be ineligible for means-tested financial aid because we make too much money.

And the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that they will be at a distinct advantage precisely because they come to post-secondary education equipped with these resources.

There are other examples–Affirmative Action, certainly, but also provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other accommodations for those with disabilities.

When we reduce ‘equality’ to a base understanding of sheer numerical or even face-valid ‘identicality’, we miss the far more important question about whether a given policy or program is delivering to each an equal measure of opportunity, an equal chance at getting his/her needs met.

What my kids are essentially saying, with actions that speak much more clearly than I can here, is this: Why would I begrudge someone else the assistance they need, just because I don’t get it, even if I wouldn’t wish to need it, if I am getting what I need?

Exactly.

I know it sounds simplistic, but I can’t help but think that, if we weren’t so concerned with what others are getting, and with these false metrics of what ‘equal’ should look like, we would have a better chance at building a policy system that can deliver what we each need.

Even if that doesn’t seem ‘equal’.

Ask my kids.

Of Dreams, and Redeeming Them

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Today, obviously, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

There are a lot of things I thought about writing about on this day–my personal struggle with how little connection there is between the man and this day, for so many; my efforts to raise my children in the shadow of that dream (not ‘his’ dream, because it must be ours); reflections on these 50 years since the March on Washington…

But I settled on another dream, and what threatens it, and how quickly we like to forget that Dr. King spoke of not just a dream of racial equality but of economic opportunity, prosperity for all, and an end to the crushing poverty that, while certainly not equally distributed, harms all it touches.

I recently read Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream, a book so discouraging, really, that I had to make myself finish it, even though it’s compelling and exhaustive and extremely well-written.

It’s a book that I hated to explain to my Sam, when he read the title and asked what it meant.

But we can’t avert our eyes, here. The evidence is clear that we are witnessing a centralization of power and an inequality of resources not unprecedented–the current ‘wage premium’ for those with at least a Bachelor’s degree mirrors the divide of the 1920s, so there is certainly historical precedent–but undeniably damaging.

The American Dream is eroding, unraveling, not just for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, but, increasingly, for all but those at the top.

Regular readers will recognize that a lot of my writing these days (and more to come) has revolved around these themes: student loans and the decreasing democracy of financial aid, the need for new economic policies and approaches to restore the position of the middle class, the dangerous risk shifts that imperil economic security. I’ve been increasingly obsessed, I guess, with these social, political, and economic trends, and that spills over into what I share here.

Today’s post, then, is my effort to pull together some of the insights from Smith’s book that, in light of Dr. King’s exhortations, I see as most urgent. Tomorrow, I hope to spark some conversation about what it will take, in today’s context, to really build a movement to redeem the full vision Dr. King so presciently laid out, not just of children of different races sitting together, but of an economy that delivers dignity and hope and comfort…an American dream of real equality of opportunity, the way we have never–not in 1963 or 2014 or 1776–known.

  • There is no guarantee this ends well: We’re not just going through a tough economic cycle. We’re not just experiencing a rough patch in terms of political partisanship. As a quote cited in the prologue of the book spells out, “Civilizations die of disenchantment. If enough people doubt their society, the whole venture falls apart” (p. xi, attributed to John W. Gardner). And that’s where we are, right? My kids’ hero, Abraham Lincoln, knew that we couldn’t survive a divided nation, and we are divided today, not just ‘red/blue’ state, but rich and poor, ‘the United States works’ v. ‘there is no American dream for me’. This may not just be a phase. It may be the beginning of the end. If there is anything that should be keeping us all up at night, it is this: our nation is not destined to succeed. If we want it to, we have to make it happen.
  • It’s getting worse: I could cite statistics from virtually any page of Smith’s book that would underscore this point (which is one of the reasons it’s so valuable), but here’s one that really gets me: Between 2002-2007, the top 1% reaped 2/3 of the nation’s entire economic gains. In 2010, the first full year of the economic recovery, the top 1% captured 93% of the nation’s gains. That’s really inconceivable, in terms of the scale of the devastation it is wreaking on people’s lives, and also on people’s belief in this whole political experiment of our society.
  • These economic trends are not ‘natural’: Smith relies heavily on Germany’s experience to highlight the very different outcomes that result from different policy choices. Germany has seen a much lower unemployment rate during the recession, a much less significant loss in its manufacturing industries, and a much small growth in inequality…not because they have been subject to radically different economic cycles or forces, but because they have chosen different paths, that come with different consequences. Lest some conclude that there’s something in German ‘culture’ (or maybe the water?) that leads to greater equality, Smith also highlights outcomes from the ‘Great Compression’, a period of relative classlessness in U.S. history (post-war), when a rising tide really did lift all boats. And then he traces the policy choices that unraveled that structure.
  • We’re not handling the risk shift well: One of the points that Smith makes well is how inferior the ‘new safety net’ (largely composed of individual approaches that shift responsibility onto consumers, like 401(k)s) are, in providing for Americans’ well-being. We have to stop pretending that unequal outcomes are, somehow, equal–that it doesn’t matter how people finance college, if they just go, or that incentives to save for your own retirement are the same as being assured them. The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, people, and we have to stop pretending. “The burden shift has turned the traditional definition of the American Dream ‘on its ear’” (p. 89).
  • Coalitions have their limits: Social workers like to think that we can make common cause with anyone. And, indeed, we have an ethical obligation not to unduly demonize even our most ardent political opponents. But, given the increasing evidence that, today, the fates of ‘Main Street’ and Wall Street diverge, we can’t build tents so big that we’re missing the ways in which our supposed allies are working against us, or at least perpetuating systems that are.
  • We need to tell honest stories about ourselves: The American dream can’t be so vague and so distorted that it loses all meaning. But, today, that’s usually how we talk about it, because it lets us pretend that it’s still really functioning. Instead, “the view that American is the land of opportunity doesn’t entirely square with the facts” (p. 65, attributed to Isabel v. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution). Young people in the ‘old Europe’ economies of Norway, France, Germany, and Denmark, among others, have a better chance of moving up than those in the U.S. That’s not who we like to think we are.

We don’t do a great job, today, acknowledging how far we fall short of the Dream of racial integration and equality, but I would argue that we are more willing to acknowledge that failing, at least in that we identify that as a dream to which we need to continue to aspire, unlike a vision of economic equality, which we largely try to fool ourselves into thinking is just a part of our political ‘DNA’.

In other words, because we pretend that we’ve ‘got this’, when it comes to economic opportunity and equality, we don’t even really know where the goalposts are, in order to recognize how much farther we have to go.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we must start by claiming all of our dreams.

So that we can set out to live them.

Exposure and comfort

One of the psychological studies that the authors of Decisive reviewed for their commentary of how we make decisions (and how we can improve that process) related to findings that the most-viewed words are the best-liked, which provides some powerful evidence of the ‘familiarity breeds more contentment’ idea (p. 164).

This aligns with other findings that confirm the ‘mere exposure’ principle, which affirms that human beings have a strong preference for things that are familiar.

This gets at what I wrote about yesterday–the need for policymakers to really understand the realities of the lives of those who will be most affected by their policy changes and, indeed, the need to flip that ‘exchange’ idea on its head, so that clients are the ones coming closer to the seats of power.

In a way, what some of these studies about the effects of exposure suggest is that, on one level, it may not matter so much where and how we’re bringing disparate populations together, only that we are.

It gets at the idea that maybe culture change has to happen before, or at least alongside, policy change, and that changing people’s hearts and minds matters a lot in promoting the kind of justice we crave.

I struggle with that, as you know. I tend to come down more on the side of ‘get power so you can dictate the terms of the debate’ rather than ‘engage in mutual dialogue’.

Not very social work-y of me, I know.

And findings like this remind me:

There are people of good will whose attitudes and beliefs about the populations I so firmly believe are getting a raw deal in this society are shaped, in large part, by the same structures that lock people into strata.

It is a form of privilege, I believe, the exposure to injustice and to diversity afforded to me by my parents, my education, and my social networks.

We have, then, an obligation to share that access with others, for the transformational effects it can bring.

And there are examples of this everywhere: in the spring break trips that students at my alma mater take to work in disadvantaged communities, which move them to the point of tears, even 10 years later; in the ways that social work students find themselves dedicating their careers to populations they previously thought they could ‘never work with’; in the way that my grandparents discovered upon moving to the U.S./Mexico border that they actually really like Mexican people; in the way that even people with entrenched heterosexist beliefs find themselves championing the rights of the particular gay people they have come to know.

And so, I wonder, armed with evidence about how (and some of why) this proximity effect works, how we might use it in our advocacy.

How can we structure our services so that we break down barriers between populations, perhaps through developing intentional volunteer efforts, increasing the profile of our clients, and targeting outreach at influential community leaders?

How can we organize issue campaigns so that they reduce negative emotions about the populations with which we work and help targets to identify with our clients?

How can we, on the flip side, increase clients’ exposure to policymakers and advocacy arenas, in order to help them feel more comfortable advocating, too?

How can we consciously, deliberately, and repeatedly position our work so as to build exposure and familiarity…with an eye towards how that engagement can change how people think and interact and, ultimately, legislate?

How?

Walking in their shoes, going to the ‘genba’

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Photo credit Seite-3, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

One of the questions that I frequently ask clients of the social service organizations with which I’m working on advocacy is: “What do you wish that policymakers understood about your life?”

I ask something similar of staff, about what they think that policymakers need to understand about the challenges facing their clients, in order to craft effective policy responses.

And, most of the time, I get somewhat vague answers.

Because what clients want, and what staff want for them, is just for those with power over the systems that affect their lives to know what their lives are really like.

Even if they can’t imagine how that would really happen.

They usually say something about wishing that members of Congress just had to live in their shoes for a few days, to see what it’s like to find childcare that fits the work schedule of a single mom on an odd shift, or to live in a nursing home just because you can’t find affordable housing with services to meet your mental health needs, or to ride the bus in the snow home from the grocery store with 2 kids in strollers and a 2-bag limit (really).

Remember the mental health center client who made the connection to her time as a production supervisor, and how she never could have overseen the factory operations if she wasn’t spending time on the floor?

In Creating Room to Read, I learned a new phrase for this: ‘going to the genba‘ (sometimes seen as ‘gemba’–sources are contradictory). It’s a concept from manufacturing, fittingly enough, and it means ‘the real place’–the idea that problems are visible, when we connect at the place where they happen. It captures this idea, translated in policy terms, that policymakers need to really see and live the situations in which social problems exist, if we are to have our best chance of solving them (131).

And, yet, that kind of authentic interaction is elusive, especially when we’re talking about powerful political actors and some of the most marginalized populations in our society.

Even when we bring policymakers to our organizations to talk with clients, the conversations are stilted, even scripted, and there’s certainly no true parallel to the grinding pressures of living in deprivation day in and day out, without an escape hatch.

At best, there are a few new insights, and some greater mutual understanding, and maybe some concrete ideas about ways that policies need to be changed, for them to really work on the ground.

At worst, clients feel ‘on display’, as though policymakers are using them to pretend that they are ‘close to the people’, before they go back to their comfortable lives.

So, I’m thinking, maybe we’re thinking about the wrong feet walking in the wrong shoes.

Maybe the people who need to get to the source of the problem aren’t the policymakers coming to glean wisdom from clients, in their world, but the other way around.

Maybe what we need is to help clients build the kind of power that would give them greater access to policymaking worlds, a chance to walk in those shoes for awhile, and the opportunity to see the ‘factory floor’ of policymaking and where the processes are breaking down there.

If these ‘gemba walks’ are about actually seeing the process, asking questions, and understanding the work, maybe the work that needs to be observed is that of crafting the constraints that either hinder or facilitate people’s success, not the more obvious truth: being poor, or mentally ill, or without health insurance is…hard.

Maybe instead of asking what policymakers need to understand about the lives of our clients, we should be asking what clients need to understand about policymaking, in order to shape it.

To fit their own shoes.

Better budget cutting

One of the most unnecessarily obvious things I’ve ever said here:

We’re in budget-cutting mode.

In Congress and in state legislatures and in local and county government and in nonprofit organizations.

And these exercises in austerity tend, for the most part, to follow the same script:

Cut, with only superficial attention to the acknowledged impact of the cuts, even when they are dire. Cuts, without considering other options to deal with deficits. Cuts, without much consideration of the long-term consequences.

Cuts, sometimes, just for cuts’ sake.

In Decisive, the discussion about how corporations should approach decision-making around budgets holds a lot of lessons for these budget-cutting frenzies, too.

And it makes me feel less alone, because I’ve been making some of these points for a long time.

  • We need to widen our options, including looking to other sources of revenue as a way out. As my students and I discuss every semester, and as families everywhere know from their own budgets (the only extent of the valid comparison between government budgets and household budgets, in my opinion): there are two ways to fill budget gaps, either by cutting expenses or by increasing income (or both).
  • We need to be strategic with cuts, where they must be made, instead of just making cuts across the board. All cuts are not created equal, and the ones that can be made with less infliction of pain are, in real ways, better than others.
  • And, the piece that I think is the most promising, applied to government budgets: we need to consider where we might cut even more deeply than we would otherwise need to in order to free up funds to invest in exciting new opportunities, including, of course, those that could generate better revenue potential (in government terms, economic growth).

What would that look like, in the context of government budget cutting, if we were thinking about growth and investment even alongside preparing for retrenchment and reduction? And what might be the economic impact, especially over the long haul, of that kind of foresight? And how could approaching budget cutting (and, for social workers, the critical task of staying at the table during the budget cutting negotiations, even when we loathe the process and the outcome) with this more intentional and strategic thinking?

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever like the idea of retreating from our public commitments to the common welfare.

But maybe budget cutting can be better.

Attention to process

I will have several posts in the next few weeks with insights from Decisive, a book that had so many sticky notes in it when I was finished that it would have been easier, probably, to mark the pages that I didn’t think I needed to highlight.

I’m starting with this, a finding from some of the academic literature (mostly from the business world) reviewed in the book:

When it comes to producing solid decisions, process matters more than analysis, by a factor of six, in influencing the quality of the outcome (p. 5).

Essentially, how much we know–about the issue at hand, and even about ourselves and our own biases–does not matter nearly as much as the process we develop to guide us towards our conclusions. In part, this is because even knowing our limitations isn’t enough to correct for them, and because we can never know everything that we need to know, in order to independently arrive at the best result.

Process matters, for helping us to identify the range of best options, for ensuring that we incorporate others’ perspectives as needed, for encouraging small failures that facilitate innovation while minimizing risk.

We get better decisions, all else held constant, if we work those decisions through a better decision-making process.

And that, I believe, has profound implications for government policymaking.

The fall semester just started, which means that I’m teaching policy classes again, charged with helping social work students to not only understand how policy is made in this country, but, at least on some level, to believe in that process, at least enough to want to work through it, and to improve it.

But the truth is that much of my students’ impressions about our policymaking structure is correct: we really shouldn’t leave the most important decisions about how we want to live and what we want to value, as a nation, to a process that we jokingly refer to as ‘like watching sausage being made’.

We shouldn’t be surprised, after all, to so often get bad results from such a bad (read: too much influence of money, too short a timeline of measuring impacts, too polarized in terms of district boundaries) process.

But, and I think this is fundamentally important, too:

Process matters not just for shaping the kinds of outcomes that result, but also for influencing how people feel about a decision.

We call it “procedural justice” for a reason and, when people perceive that a process is bad/unfair/illogical, they don’t feel as good about the decision that results, even if they would otherwise prefer it.

And that makes me wonder, could we restore engagement in government, even if people disagree with the outcomes, by improving the process through which those decisions are arrived?

Could that motivation be enough to compel some critical changes (maybe changes to Senate rules, certainly campaign finance, districting), in ways that more base desires to shift advantage to one side or another have failed?

We’re social workers. We ‘get’ process.

What would it take for us to have a policymaking process worthy of our democratic ideals?

And what difference would it make?

We can’t call it a ‘failure’

The crux of the analysis in A Problem from Hell is really quite chilling: the author came to the conclusion, reviewing the U.S. response (and lack thereof) to genocide in different countries around the world, during different U.S. administrations, that our U.S. political system is working.

Our interests are being maximized, and no one is having to pay a price for doing what they want to do (mostly, fail to act). We prioritize calculations about how much risk we’re willing to tolerate, and the system allows us to preference decisions that maximize those ‘goods’.

So we can’t call it a ‘failure’, even when hundreds of thousands (or more) people die, essentially as we just watch.

If we’re not setting out to prevent, or at least interrupt, those deaths, then we’re not failing, by not doing so.

Stunning and scary, but pretty obvious, when you think about it. And about our reaction–and sometimes, lack thereof–to other social problems, too.

Since the goals of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, what we used to call ‘welfare’) didn’t include reducing child poverty or improving child well-being, then is it a failure that the move to TANF has not achieved those ends?

If our educational system doesn’t set out to produce critical thinkers who can invigorate our democracy, are we failing that they aren’t…and can’t?

If our food policies do not aim to ensure that people have adequate access to healthy, affordable food, in order to promote overall health and well-being, is our system really failing us?

If our tax policies are not designed to provide adequate revenues to support essential infrastructure and core services, then are they failing when they inevitably produce deficits and necessitate retrenchment?

And if we don’t label these failures as such, because we’re not setting the right goals in the first place, then can we ever expect to generate adequate momentum for different policies, that could bring us to different ends?