A few years ago, another instructor and I redesigned the Advanced Policies class to include a focus on comparative international social policy. The School ended up deciding that it detracted too much from the emphasis on U.S. social policy that students needed to succeed in policy practice, and I don’t disagree, but there is something that I took from that course and from my subsequent comparative policy analyses that I still find very illuminating.
Often, when I assign my students to read about child welfare policies in Japan or Sweden’s support for new parents or the phenomenon of female poverty around the world, they think that I am expressing a preference for those policy approaches and a desire to see them brought to the U.S. And it’s true that there is a lot to admire in the way that other countries approach some of the same social problems with which we grapple here, and I want to see us learn from others’ efforts, since the search for ‘best practices’ in a lot of policy work is quite elusive. However, we have learned enough about all of the moving parts in policy development–political climate, economic capacity, demographic imperatives, shared history and culture–to know that no social policy can be neatly picked up and plopped down in another nation. So I think that the global search for the next “bright shiny object” is a rather fruitless endeavor.
Instead, what I think is most helpful about comparative social policy analysis is what it can help us to understand about social policy in the United States. Often, because we are embedded in this culture and this context, we have a hard time disentangling the social policy which surrounds us from the values which propel it. We can’t see these values clearly because they are a part of who we are, how we see the world, how we’ve always done things. And this is a trap.
We know that failing to recognize these values and the role that they play in shaping social policy will make social policy change much more difficult, because it is only through appealing to values and value motivations that we maximize our chances of changing the conversation about a given social problem and, thus, the social policy that stems from it.
Because that’s really the job of values in social policy development–constraining the view of a particular social problem so that solving it in a particular way becomes, then, ‘common sense’. If we can win that battle over value alignment, it’s like rolling a snowball downhill to change the policy.
And, so, once we can see the values at work in other nations’ approaches to their social problem challenges, and see how those values compare and contrast with our own, our analytical tools are sharpened to examine the value foundations of our own social policy structures and the ways in which those values do, and do not, align with social work’s values. And then we can really get to work.
As an example, think about how bizarre Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ low benefit levels and strict work requirements for families with young children would seem to someone not imbued with our values around work and self-sufficiency. Conversely, how could we explain even the existence of TANF without understanding the value we place on family? Our social policy development process is best understood, then, as battlegrounds in which the values of social control and social assistance, charitable obligation and patriarchal oppression, community and autonomy duel for supremacy. And the resulting policies are most fully understood as efforts to reconcile these competing aims in ways that are often contradictory or, at least, confused.
To begin this journey of value exploration, look at social policies in your area of interest within another national context (or several). What values shine through? How do these values shape the definition of the social problem and the decision to intervene in the first place?
Now look at the U.S. approach to this social problem. Applying a kind of “stranger in a strange land” technique, how can you uncover the layers of values at work here? How can you appeal to these values as you frame your desired policy change? Or, if necessary, how can you begin the process of shifting the values held around this particular problem to open up political space for new interventions? We can’t assume that values are immutable–look at the evolution of ideas about women in the labor market, for example.
Perhaps even more difficult, explore your own values in this policy arena. Are your values aligned with those of the social work profession? If not, how are yours different? How do your values align with society’s? What has shaped the development of your value orientation to this problem, and how might you tap into those same dynamics to shift the public consensus around the problem?
We are an undeniably advanced society, with a complex governmental structure, robust private institutions, and unparalleled (even in today’s economic downturn) wealth. We could eradicate poverty, provide access to health care for all, and give every family the tools it needs to keep its children safe. The persistence of our social problems is not a technical dilemma; it is the rather natural consequence of the expression of our value preferences.
We can ‘unlearn’ much of what we now take for granted, and we can envision new ways to approach our world. But we need fresh eyes with which to see. And that’s what international policy analysis can give us.
Now do you understand why we care about the social insurance system in Germany?