An Advocacy Agenda for the End of the Recession

Recession Lane by ZenTraveler, via Flickr Creative Commons

I’m no investment guru. OK, that’s a major understatement. I’m not even responsible for balancing my own checkbook.

But, I read. And, so, I know that the smartest investors and business leaders are planning NOW for the end of the recession, positioning themselves now to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise when the economic conditions improve. The advice, essentially, is that waiting until things get better to make your move will be too late, that we have to step out of our retrenchment, reactive mode and start thinking about what it is that we want and need to get out of the immediate post-recession period, and, much more importantly, how we’re going to get there.

So that has me thinking: what would a post-recession policy agenda look like for the social services? And what should we be doing today to position ourselves to make it a reality?

Becuase we get it. The economy is really bad now. State budgets are horrible. We have a terrible federal deficit and stimulus funds that will run out soon, and our local governments are absolutely in dire need of funds. Not-for-profit organizations are, in many cases, even worse off, because private donations have dropped as well. It’s all bad.

Until it’s not, anymore.

And, then, what are we going to do about it?

Unfortunately, history suggests that the answer may be, “not that much.” Too often, we have failed to demand what it is we know we deserve during the good times, and then we almost completely go away, or at least just fade to defense, during the bad times. I mean, think about it, when was the last time that a state legislature or U.S. Congress ever approached the social work profession and asked, “You know, we have some extra funds right now. What can we do for you?”

They don’t. Which is why we’ve got to be ready. Here, in no particular order, are my 5 things we should demand when this recession ends, and the 5 things we should be doing now to position ourselves to win them. No, 5 is not a magic number here; it was going to be 10, but, you know, I have 3 kids to raise!

Our advocacy agenda for the end of the recession:</strong>

  • Full restoration of cuts in social service and community development programs, and an index for inflation: In the past few months, several people have asked me what I view as the chances that programs will be restored to their full, pre-slash levels. My answer? Almost none, unless we demand it. Yet we cannot let ourselves forget that, even before this most recent round of assaults, services were woefully, and sometimes even dangerously, inadequate. We can’t allow that to happen again. Means-tested benefit levels should be automatically indexed for inflation, both at the individual level and for overall program growth, which will require:
  • Progressive tax policy: We will make a huge mistake if we head into a post-recession period ONLY talking about spending. The truth is that this recession would not have been nearly so painful if not for the widespread and often deep tax cuts at the state and federal levels in the late 1990s and early part of this decade. We need to restore vigor and progressivity to the tax structure, close tax loopholes, and build a strong foundation for the future, in times of feast and famine. And, yes, this means that nonprofits need to get on board with the Obama Administration’s proposed changes to deductible contributions for very high earners.
  • Full restoration of outreach and optional items within entitlement programs: States and localities, in particular, have been quite creative in how they have cut costs in this recession, and we must be vigilant in our post-crisis advocacy. One of the main ways that programs have been cut without being “cut” has been through reductions in outreach and some optional items, because, after all, if no one is applying for a given program, then we don’t have to spend any money on it, right? Only close connection to those most affected by these programs and their reductions can inform our advocacy priorities along these lines.
  • Increases in state institutional aid and federal financial aid for higher education: Of course we social workers are primarily concerned with social services funding–it’s what we do, what pays our bills, and what our clients need, every day. But we also need to be concerned about the future of our profession, and that requires attention to the dramatic rise in college tuition around the country. We can’t build the kind of social work profession we and our clients need if we don’t increase access to higher education.
  • A shift towards instititutional social welfare, starting with universal preschool programs: Enough of the safety net. Why are so many people falling in the first place? We need a transformation in favor of universal supports, and a good place to start is with universal preschool, especially given the increasing recognition of the importance of early childhood education. It’s only a small start–we need universal health care (STILL WAITING, folks), greater investments in housing, maternity and paternity policies, etc…but preschool kids are a good place to start.

    And the 5 things we need to be doing today to get there:

  • Relationships, relationships, relationships: I’m sure that my students are tired of hearing me say this, but it’s really true: relationships are pretty much everything when it comes to lobbying. We can’t afford to sit out this legislative session, or 2011, just because there may not be money to accomplish our ‘wish lists’. We need to be there, making our case, presenting data, organizing constituents, demonstrating that we will never, ever, ever go away.
  • Messaging of economic investment arguments: I firmly believe that we shouldn’t go overboard on the money-saving arguments–some of the things that we need to do are important despite their costs, quite honestly, and we also potentially weaken the moral strength of our arguments–but where we can make the claim, as I believe we often can, that investing in our nation’s human capital will make us better positioned for the next economic downturn, we need to be ready to make that claim, effectively.
  • Voter registration, naturalization, youth voter engagement: Numbers don’t equal power. Anyway you calculate them. BUT, organized numbers are the best way to guarantee a seat at the table and, many times, the substantive policy changes we want and deserve. Check out this map and tell me how happy you are. And now let’s go out and do something to shape the nature of the electorate not only in 2010, but in 2012 and 2014 and 2016, too.
  • Coalition building–we need a ‘big tent’: We need coordinated campaigns that make the case for broad investments in our social infrastructure, not ad hoc and sometimes oppositional appeals for special dispensation here and there. This will take a lot of organizing and may result in some uncomfortable alliances, but we know that it works. I mean, the Joint Chiefs of Staff go in with one united voice, right, and they get what they want. Well maybe we need a Joint Chiefs of the Social Economy, or something, and we need to speak with a big, powerful voice.
  • Organizational capacity for social change, even if that means nonprofit consolidation: I don’t believe that the growth in the number of nonprofits is necessarily a cause for any concern–where there are unmet needs and people with great capacity to meet them, we absolutely need an organizational response to facilitate that. But a post I read recently about the idea of requiring nonprofit peer review before charter got me thinking about the role that mergers and acquisitions play in the corporate world during economic hardship, and the generally-held belief that such processes play a role in the emergence of stronger, healthier corporations post-recession. And that got me thinking about the fact that, while we may not have too many nonprofits in the abstract, we all know of some that just aren’t really doing much, or not doing all that they should, or not doing things as well as they should, or not doing what they could if they were complemented by another organization, or…you get the idea. And, so, I’ll be so bold as to suggest that, in our pursuit of organizational strength and capacity for advocacy, which absolutely has to be a priority as we gear up for the end, we need to be willing to consider consolidation of organizations as a tool in that process.

    All of this said, I recognize that the recession is far from over. The human cost is real and huge. And social workers will absolutely play a key role in stopping the bleeding during the months to come.

    But, to really do justice for those whose lives have been ripped apart by the economic turmoil of the past few years, we have to be ready to act decisively and victoriously when the tide turns. There must be some honor from their suffering.

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