Ethical Practice Amidst Retrenchment

My very favorite thing about writing this blog is that it forces me to think about questions and issues that matter a great deal to me–how nonprofit organizations can be powerful voices for social change, how weaving grassroots principles into organizational development helps us to practice what we preach, how social work education can be part of a movement for justice–that I might not sit down to ponder if not for the imperative to write at least a few posts a week. And the fact that some of my favorite people, in both the online and offline worlds, regularly engage in these questions with me, adding a great deal to my undertanding and challenging me in ways that my “regular” life does not, is nothing short of awesome.

And one of the greatest delights in this whole endeavor has been finding so many others, including quite a few social workers, who blog for many of the same reasons, and whose insights I value tremendously. One of the best resources I’ve found is Fighting Monsters, a blog written by a social worker in the United Kingdom whom I’m sure I’d like a ton in person, and whose approach to the profession, despite different areas of practice and obviously different contexts, dovetails with mine in some significant ways. Several months ago, Fighting Monsters had a post about ethical practice amidst budget cuts that I’ve been thinking about a lot, particularly in recent weeks as we deal in this country with the reality of a constricted federal budget and ongoing state cutbacks.

The post is written from a direct practice perspective, and it raises critical questions about how social workers should respond when budget cuts force us into patterns of practice that fly in the face of practice wisdom and even our Code of Ethics–when we have to terminate too soon, or deny services to those who should be eligible, or ration programs that we know could make a real difference in people’s lives. Those of you who are direct practitioners, in this national economic context, how are you dealing with the same vexing “no good alternatives” situations that the social work blogger grapples with in the UK?

And there’s a macro practice dimension to that quandry, too, when administrators make decisions to cut programs that abandon certain populations or problems, or when organizations aren’t paying their employees a truly fair wage, or when costs are passed onto consumers in ways that practically limit access to services. For policy practitioners, there are ethical questions involved in agreeing to some cuts in order to salvage investments in other areas, or being party to negotiations that pit different populations in need against each other.

The Fighting Monsters post focuses on the age-old dilemma in social work: Can we simultaneously be part of the system AND part of the solution? Can we ethically defend our participation in decisions that harm? Can the advocacy from within in which we engage serve as a salve for the wounds that we unwillingly, but undeniably, inflict?

Those are questions that should plague us whether we’re working in direct service or organizational administration or policy practice.

They are questions that cross sectors and obviously cross continents.

They are questions that should keep us up at night, and questions that should be foremost in our minds when we read news coverage of federal budget cuts or proposed state tax cuts or agency closures.

How do you answer those questions, for yourself, in this budget context? How does the Code of Ethics guide you? And how should our profession respond, as individual practitioners and as a collective voice, to the anguish of a social worker forced to make impossible decisions every day?

53 responses to “Ethical Practice Amidst Retrenchment

  1. These are questions that there will never be a good solution for, but will always be faced. There is not unlimited funding for all the clients, in all the programs, in the entire world. If there were, our jobs would be so much easier! Just make the connections for the clients to the services! This decision creates social workers to be creative. This is where the code of ethics is meant to guide social workers in making the best choice for the situation. What cut will create the least harm to the fewest clients? How can you provide services to clients until more funding is available? How do you choose between two families for the last opening in a shelter? There are no easy choices and there never will be, but if you know and understand the code of ethics, you can make the best choice. You must be able to find other resources and have the ability to network to provide services to all clients who need it. The professionals should make connections with each other to know where to turn if you are unable to provide services to someone you know needs them. I think the most important factor in this area is that those professionals stick together and help each other when you must make cuts. This should be on the mind of workers to understand the resources in their area, and most importantly the adminstrators to know what agencies are available to assist them and what services are available to their clients.

    • And, Bryn, I believe that our Code requires us to work for greater access to services, and reduced need for the same, so that the ethical dilemmas created by this constant gap between needs and capacity eventually recede.

  2. I think, in effect, the idea of identifying that we have been “picking winners and losers” of social services has been one that most haven’t thought about directly for a number of reasons. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but as a direct practitioner, I’m afforded the benefit (for lack of a better term) of being able to “pass the buck”, so to speak, onto the administrators. Administrators, when faced with these difficult budget decisions in turn get to point the finger at policy/budget makers who slashed an agency’s budget in the first place. Those in power probably ultimately assign blame to the bad economy.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I may very well be wrong in my thinking that this is why these issues aren’t addressed as much as they have been. I’m mostly coming at it from the perspective that everyone needs to be able to justify their actions to themselves at the end of the day to be able to sleep at night.

    • Yes, Kevin, and it’s one of the ethical perils of social work administration, really. Because it’s not just about being able to justify our decisions to ourselves–we’re quite skilled at that, usually–it’s also about being able to look clients in the eyes, when their very well-being may be at stake. As you continue to advance your career towards administration, how do you reconcile these competing aims in your mind? What guidance does the Code of Ethics give?

  3. I like your point that this is both a micro and macro issue. One of the more interesting things I learned in the SWAAP program was from my budget class. The professor taught that when making budget cuts at the agency level, that the administrator should always focus on cutting the areas that affect the clients the least. He said that if done properly, cuts could not only avoid doing any real harm to client but actually end up providing more services to the client in the end. Imagine if this was how federal and state budgets actually operated! We should always look at how we can do the most good (and cause the least harm to) for our clients. I also think this is where it’s important to have a strong understanding of the communities strengths and actual functional relationships with area agencies. If you are going to have to make cuts, I think it’s important to understand if you have other area agencies who could take care of some of the needs you are trying to address with your clients. And if you’re hurting, they’re probably hurting too. I’m sure they’d appreciate the referrals!

    • I am working on a post, Dylan, about how we can see budget cuts as an opportunity, actually, if we think about them as forcing us to be creative in expanding services, seeking new revenues, and developing new strategic alliances. Of course, sometimes they’re just destructive for our clients, and we have to have the courage and the advocacy capacity to call them such. Not everything has an upside!

  4. I’m not sure what it is with this country (maybe done in other places, I’m not sure), but as a society we pride ourselves on holding together our non-profits with a shoestring budget. Most agencies cannot provide services to all people who qualify for services. I believe budget cuts are much more common in non-profits then they are at for profit companies. Most agencies have a ‘take it as it comes’ way of dealing with budget cuts. This reactive mentality is frustrating to me. I would prefer to take a proactive approach to secure funding of an agency.

    The problem of insecure funding poses the question of how “can we simultaneously be part of the system and part of the solution?”. This is very much an ethical question. The Code of Ethics tells social workers we have an obligation to provide services to our clients and fight against social injustice.

    When agencies face budget cuts it is still our obligation to provide the needed services to our clients. The Code of Ethics still requires us help clients. The Code of Ethics requires us to act, but gives little direction as to how to act. This is usually where I get stuck, and have difficultly developing a plan of action.

    • I don’t know if it’s priding ourselves on it as much as just a culture that believes that nonprofits are in it for the ‘good’, and that that somehow means poorly compensated. Of course, for-profit companies, by definition, generate their own revenue, so they are more in control of their own destinies, although they certainly benefit from government funding, as well.

  5. I think that this is a very interesting post regarding the ethics in both micro and macro social work practice. While those practicing in these two spheres might see the situation from different perspectives, it all comes down to the same things, clients and service. While budget cuts and ethical issues are not always the most glamorous part of social work, I think that they offer a valuable opportunity for those in the field to come together and discuss programs and services. If handled in a constructive way, resource reduction can be an opportunity for those in micro and macro work to discuss the effectiveness of interventions and the importance of particular services to clients. While I think that budget cuts often present the ethical issue of reduction of services or reduced access to resources, I think a positive way of working with the current situation is assessing how to successfully operate within new constraints and future advocacy projects in order to reduce future cuts.

    • Absolutely–there’s far less distance between macro and micro practice than we often believe. I love your reflection about the core being the impact for clients, and about, then, the importance of our focus on that essential center. How do you think we should prepare social workers for effective practice on both levels? What do you see, from class and in the field, as the essential elements about that preparation?

  6. I would like to respond specifically to one of the questions asked: (1) Can we simultaneously be part of the system and part of the solution?

    Answer: In short, yes. However, this is more a matter of sustainability, which lends itself to another question: (1) Can we establish the boundaries needed for sustainability to be part of the system and part of the solution? Ideally, we are all able to survive, thrive, and advocate for social justice within systems. Yet, the burnout rate in our field is too high and produces too much turnover for sustainability and, thus, social change. We must shed our (possibly predisposed) tendencies of self-sacrificing and be able to operate within healthy boundaries if we are to be both part of the system and solution. For me, it’s all inseparable: if you’re part of the system, healthy boundaries for sustainability must be established, and, then, advocacy for social change/justice can take place. Moreover, if this doesn’t take place, if we neglect to establish healthy boundaries for sustainability, we are only contributing to the burnout and turnover that plagues our profession, and, further, we no longer remain in compliance with our Code of Ethics or serve our clients to the measures by which they are entitled.

    • Very interesting, Samantha–I am still thinking about your connection between sustainable/healthy practice and, as I would define it, role conflict in our practice setting. I think there’s really something to that–one might be able, technically, to practice ethically in a context less supportive of social work principles, but the tension that results from constant conflict may lead to burnout more quickly than in more renewing/supportive settings. I wonder if there has been any research on that, linking social work practice in non-social work settings, or even in any context where there is a lot of conflict with social work ethics (as in budget cuts, as the post asks) and burnout? I will do some digging. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Michelle Seufert

    This post is so relevant in my life right now. Right before ending my practicum I was grappling, along with my supervisor, with the situation of funds being cut and run dry before our intervention was complete. To be exact – 7 families each had three sessions of the intervention left in order to complete the program, but funding had been “re-distributed” by higher authorities, practically leaving these clients hanging. We had a dilemma on our hands. On one side, we had budget managers and the accounts department telling us that there was no longer funds to be used and the intervention should terminate immediately, and on the other side, we had our conscience – and our ethics – telling us that terminating these clients would be harmful to their progress, not respectful of their time and effort, and not honoring their worth as a person. Trying to relay to the “money guys” why termination was ethically unjust wasn’t working – as they decided that it was near the end of the 12 session intervention anyway so a few missed sessions wouldn’t make a large difference, as taking the hit from 27 session that can not be reimbursed would make a large difference.

    After a few days of back and fourth with the “money guys”, my supervisor decided to go directly to the therapist providing the work (there was only one in this program, making this easier) and ask her how she felt about it, and where she saw her clients in their progress. The therapist agreed whole-heartedly that termination at this point was not an option she wanted to explore. So together, we brainstormed how to fund these 27 remaining sessions without pulling money and resources from other clients.

    Our solution was an interesting one that took the cooperation of the entire clinical team. In our office all supplies are funded by grants – these supplies run from folders to ink cartridges to printers and so on (i’m sure it is similar in most agencies). We noticed that if we revised our current grant and redistributed our remaining funds for supplies that we would be able to finish the intervention with these clients. This seems like an easy solution, but we needed the whole team to agree, as now supplies would be scarce. After discussing it with the team, everyone agreed that this was the best option – and everyone agreed that we would be re-using as many supplies as possible – folders, paper clips, etc – and we would work diligently to cut back on our printing!

    We were fortunate to have a team willing to work together for the best of our clients – not only were we able to finish the intervention, but we also made our office more environmentally conscience and economical in the process. This turned into a win/win situation, but it could have been a much larger disaster. In our world where funds are becoming ever more elusive I think that getting creative to stick to our ethics is vital – we need to think outside the box somedays.

    • Wow, Michelle. That is a really incredible story! I am so glad that you all found a path to an ethical and fiscally sustainable solution, but I also worry about the precedent that this may set, since the ‘money folks’ may now assume that you can make do no matter what financial hand they deal you. What sort of follow up is planned to communicate with them about the harm that was averted…and the infeasibility of doing this on a routine basis?

  8. I truly have very similar feelings as the blogger. As we discussed before, my practicum agency is the state behavioral health policy maker which implements the cuts decided by the politicians. My colleagues and I have to confront the complaints from both clients and community mental health centers (CMHCs). The state funding for community mental health services used to one of major resources, but nowadays the state aid only takes less than 10 percent of the mental health funding in many of Kansas CMHCs. Recently the duration for children with severely emotional disturbance to stay in psychiatric residential treatment facilities was shrunk to 30 days from 60 days. The Medicaid program mandated the state psychiatric hospitals to discharge more patients and warned them that the Medicaid will not pay for over 185 patients. The ethical dilemma makes me think a lot about the role of social worker in the governmental agency. Social workers should not always be the governor’s follower. Besides an instrument for policy implementation, we are more like professionals who care about social justice and clients’ rights. We cannot force clients to taste the bitterness of shrinking resources alone. Social workers, outside the instrumental role in the agency, can fight back to the politicians using effective strategies. We can be the channel to convey the complaints to the politicians; we can present the impact of the policy change to the politicians; we can connect the clients with advocacy groups and provide consultation for the clients; we can sign and support the advocacy activities as individuals; we can make higher-level power pay heed to our conditions; and we can influence the colleagues to work with us on policy change. I think you are right, Melinda that we can be advocates for clients’ rights within the state agency.

    Thanks for sharing this website!

    • Thank you for this reflection, Yan. I thought of you and Kendra when I reread this. How do your social work colleagues deal with these dilemmas? How do they affect your own mental health and job satisfaction? How do you see these years–and Kansas’ budget decisions–affecting your future career goals in social work? Can taking advocacy action like you outlined address these conflicts, enabling you to sustain yourself as a social worker?

  9. Working in child welfare I see budget cuts that lead to ethical issues almost daily. Recently I had a child who was scheduled to go to a medication appointment and court on the same day. I was not informed about the court date until one day prior and the medication appointment could not be rescheduled for at lease a month, due to staffing issue within the mental health realm. Court was at 9:30 and a medication appointment at 2:30 I asked that the child leave directly after court due to the medication appointment, leaving this child without medication for a month would have been severely detrimental to his well being. I was responded with he had to visit with his parents because they could not provide transportation again this month to visit his parents. I was angry and dismayed that a social worker would make this choice, I highly support visitation with bio parents as frequently and for as long periods of time when appropriate but this was not issue. It is days like this that I make another note on my list of how budget affects our future as a state and individual children. What do I do with my list? I hope their is an opportunity to share it for an increase in services and quality of service for those I serve. This is one of many stories I see daily affecting our children. These problems do keep me up at night wondering what will and can I do. I feel more decisions in practice everyday are which bad decision do I choose. Our ethical code gives us some framework for choosing decisions but we should not be required to pick the bad for the worse on a daily bases when peoples lives matter.

    • Have I ever mentioned in this class, Emily, the colleague from the United Kingdom who quit her job, saying that she couldn’t be an ethical social worker in a climate of retrenchment? In essence, deciding that she would rather not be a social worker, than be a social worker forced to continually make these impossible choices. Here, it seems that you’re confronting not just ethical dilemmas, but also real threats to effectiveness–how can your services possibly ‘work’, if shortcuts result in illogical and unwise trade-offs?

  10. Well, one question that I easily answer for myself is about the money. I did not get into this field because the money is fantastic, I came for th challenge and the fight. Advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves, often because they aren’t aware that there is a problem in the first place is what I envisioned for myself. A passenger in my taxicab asked me why Social Work because he heard that the money was not good. I relied ITS NOT ABOUT THE MONEY, ITS ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE. The passenger then said, “Now, say that like Batman. I think you are going to do well.”

    Ethics in times of lean means must be dealt with fairness, As in the home, when times are tough, we cut services, starting with the ones least necessary for daily operations. In the beginning that means less dollars for entertainment, there are plenty of free things to do. In an agency, I suppose that I would have to follow the same protocol, starting with staffing perks, whatever they may be. In the home, the next thing to go is transportation costs. Starting walking or take the bus. In an agency, non-essential services would have to go while client services remain unchanged. Inevitably I am sure that clients accepted would have to be reduced. I have never been in the position to decide what services to cut in an agency but I understand where to start and leave client care as the last things to trim.

  11. That interaction sounds priceless! I totally hear you with the importance to attend to that non-financial bottom line. At the same time, I do think that social workers should be fairly compensated, in order to both help to attract the workforce we need and to signal to the larger society, including those we serve, that our work is valuable. Money does follow power, and, for that reason, I want to see more money flowing to those who don’t care about it so much, as paradoxical as that might sound.

  12. I have worked in an agency where I saw things that were unethical happen. I did an application for a family to get on the waiting list of a particular service that the guidelines were income contingent. This particular family was over the income guidelines by $100 a year, which meant they probably would not get access to the service, even though they really needed the service. I went and talked to the person that was in charge of enrollment and she said there was nothing we could do. This angered me because there were families enrolled in the program that were way over the income guidelines. This family was $100 over the poverty guideline, and these other families were way over the poverty guideline! This was completely unfair, but I was completely powerless to do anything about it.

    One thing that I am looking forward to the most about being a social work administrator is having the power. I’m not trying to sound power hungry; I just feel as though I will have a unique perspective as an administrator since I have been on the receiving end of services as well as worked on the front line of services. With this particular program I referenced above, the grantors set the income guidelines. As an administrator, I could contact the grantors and ask them to reconsider the income guideline to be more inclusive and tell them how expanding the guidelines would help more families in our community. I realize that this might be ineffective, but at least I could say that I tried!

    I think one way to stay on target with how you allocate your budget to your different programs, is determine how the program ties to your agency mission and vision.If it doesn’t tie to either of these, then it doesn’t need to be apart of your agency. If there isn’t another agency in the community that fits with or is willing to offer the service, then maybe your agency needs to reassess your mission to fit the service.

    • How did the families who were over the income guidelines get qualified to receive services? It seems to me that a family not receiving services who needs them, but doesn’t qualify, isn’t unethical practice in the organization, although it very well may be an immorally-constructed policy (that the agency is, then, attempting to implement). But if those same rules are being bent in order to get families into services who shouldn’t get them, then that definitely sounds unethical. I think that more ethically-minded social workers need to claim their power, so I’m glad to see you embrace that part of your career!

  13. This reminds me of a TedTalk I watched just yesterday about solving complex social problems while being part of the system. Hillary emphasizes the importance of relationships in her talk and the need to get away from doing social work as we know it and become more invested in the people we serve. I think this talk aligns with the discussion here about ethical practice amidst retrenchment and I think you should check it out.

  14. Thanks, Jessica! I will absolutely check it out! It’s a difficult call, I think–yes, I believe that a clarity about what we need to do and what’s really wrong with the system emerges as we step away from it. But, so too does our ability to make changes within the system. Precisely because relationships do matter, when we sever our relationships with powerful actors in that system, we lose at least some of our ability to influence them to change.

  15. The first thing that came to mind is that our systems are broken and we are simply surrounded by the broken pieces, as social workers, as agencies, as those whom are harmed and ultimately as those who are concerned with affecting positive change. The idea of struggling with these questions and especially surrounding the topic of ethics is what I really think social work affords you. From day one we talk about the Code of Ethics and maintaining high standards that meet the needs of our clients. I do believe ethics play less of a role outside the clinical realm and this is simply from my own observations. Especially when negotiations are happening between parties and groups seeking alternative results, we can identify that some people may give in with the idea that we got a little of what we wanted now and we will just add the new issues to our agenda. It can be frustrating for clients and communities that we represent to see that our compromises may cause additional or alternative downfalls. This can cost us credibility and trust from our own communities who frankly are seeking justice and support and when we only do “half” the job without considering the consequences we risk harming the very people we represent.

    I like to think that the efforts we apply and the work we do is valuable. We hope to do our best under the circumstances given to us, we advocate, vote and march the streets to generate impact on policies, culture, budgets and people. We have to continue to abide by the values and principles that make us social workers and engaging in conversations regarding ethical dilemmas is part of it. As long as we continue to have these conversations, expand our perspectives, learn from past experiences, plan for the future, continue to educate and be educated, I believe that we are still holding true to our values. It is tough, frustrating and often dejecting but until we are able to change the system, which requires us to be a part of it, we have to continue to celebrate the small victories and use what we have to support and maintain the safety of our communities.

  16. The first part of your post, Gallal, has me in a metaphorical mindset. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, if we’re “surrounded by broken pieces”, then isn’t there are real risk that what we attempt to do with those admittedly blunt instruments in fact harms people? I mean, if all we have to work with are shards, isn’t somebody going to get cut? I think the biggest ethical dilemma for me is not when we do only “half” the job “without considering the consequences”, but when we do consider those consequences, try hard to find some alternative way around the unacceptable outcome, and still come up short. I mean, blindly serving an unjust system isn’t an ethical dilemma; it’s ethically unacceptable. But trying our best to work from within such a system, even when our very presence legitimizes that system in some way…that’s a dilemma. And, no spoilers, that’s what we’re talking about the day before Thanksgiving break!

  17. I think that we are part of the solution and part of the problem as social workers. I work with kids. I have for years. My job is primarily to talk to kids about their abuse, give them a voice to talk about their experiences in a child friendly, non-leading manner. Then I have to testify that I have no allegiance to that child or their family. I have to testify that I am non-biased, all while trying to get others to understand how kids disclose and that we should all be surprised that kids tell adults anything at all. This is a dilemma. My job of being non-biased also goes against some of the Code of Ethics I have to abide by as a social worker. We walk a thin line as forensic interviewers because I am still a mandated reporter whether I’m working or not. I have to keep some distance from that individual child, but I have to advocate for all those disadvantaged groups, women, children, people of color, low economic backgrounds, etc. I also have to strive to educate the people that I work with who have expectations and judgments of families that are different from their own. The world right now is full of turmoil and there are so many different policies and issues that are present in our daily lives. It takes someone who is realistic but also understanding, non-judgmental but also someone who is willing to hold people accountable. Being in this field is a balance for sure, but what drives us is our passion and love for people, for equality and for assurance that everyone is allowed the same options regardless of race, class or religion or sexual preference. We are able to be in those zones that are uncomfortable in hopes that by standing in a space that is hard, we can feel some of what our clients feel and press harder to advocate for fairness and empower others to do the same.

  18. Thanks for sharing this, Brandy. You voice what is an obvious dilemma–how do you build authentic rapport with a child, while maintaining a distance that gives you credibility in the legal process? How do you present yourself to children as a safe ally, when you cannot keep their confidence? On the macro level, how do you construct organizations that help workers navigate these tensions? How do you advocate for your advocates, so that they have as much power as possible, to fulfill these often-competing responsibilities?

  19. The constraining environment of the system is relevant for the agency I’m working at right now because of the cuts refugee resettlement programs have experienced this year. Throughout the last year the agency has gone through dramatic changes and cuts in staff, affecting the access that clients have to employees and employee’s ability to do their job. We have clients waiting for family members they expected to come this year but were not able to because of the travel ban. Since these decisions are made on an executive level it’s hard to feel like there is anything the agency can do that will make this right.
    Financial and policy constraints will limit our abilities as administrators and policy practitioners to do the best thing for our clients. In order to help our clients, we will have to compromise. I think the important thing is to continue to work towards getting the funding for all parts of a program, even when we are denied initially, and to keep working towards policies that will support those in need even after we are unable to pass all the parts that we wanted. I think compromise can feel like going against the ethical standard that we are tied to, and sometimes it might be. Certainly criticism will come from compromises that administrators and policy practitioners make that do not meet their initial goal. This criticism should be welcomed, and macro social workers should hold onto the initial goals they had for their organization and policy and not get sucked into the status quo. The principles of social justice and worth and dignity of each person should guide macro social workers in their work. These principles support striving to change things even when there are barriers and the process is slow.

    • I am struck, Katy, by your reminder that we should ‘welcome’ the criticism that we’re not doing enough for those we serve, seeing it as a reflection of support for the mission we serve and the vision we advance. It’s an important admonition not to treat all critique as created equal, nor to confuse impatience with intolerance…I wonder, too, if you have seen the power of standing with those you serve, even when the agency is relatively powerless to solve their immediate policy problem, particularly when they might otherwise feel alone? I sometimes feel like a good deal of my advocacy is of the ‘standing in the door’ sort, bearing witness that this (fill in the blank: unfair tax policy, cruel refugee policies) is not done in my name. Maybe it’s a way of consoling myself, but it still feels better than the alternative. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

      On Fri, Nov 17, 2017 at 1:44 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  20. The notion of social workers being apart of the problem and the solution was made very clear to me during my practicum placement last year (my first “real social work” experience!). I was placed a job training site for single parents living in poverty. The program was 8-4 Mon-Fri and the participants were compensated with a tiny living stipend each week. Unfortunately, this stipend counted as income because we gave it to them in cash. Those that reported this change to the state in any way, such as those who applied for state subsidized childcare so that they could complete the program without having to bring their child to work, had their benefits slashed. One woman moved from DV shelter to shelter all year, with her two small children in tow, and was thrilled at this opportunity for a new career. Her Medicaid benefits were completely cut, and she was unable to get the medication she needed for her PTSD and other medical issues.

    I was shocked: here we were, trying to empower clients and work towards breaking the cycle of poverty, and we’re just making it worse by taking away their already extremely limited resources. However, the program was brand new and now its staff can learn from that first year about what to change to make sure this doesn’t happen with future participants.

    • Oh, my, Aly–this is so problematic! Did the organization not understand what the implications would be? As they came to understand the effects, what changes did they make, in order to solve this problem? How could including affected individuals in the organization, from the beginning, have made a difference in this issue? Are there structural changes the organization could pursue in order to prevent similar problems in the future?

      • I don’t think they understood, sadly. I saw a lot of what I interpreted as a savior complex in the beginning. When I was there, they researched partnering with the state to get job training funding that wouldn’t be counted as income. Not having an accountant or someone well-versed in this area on staff was a real challenge, and they also reached out to lawyers and accountants for help. A community needs assessment before the formation of the organization would have been extremely helpful; I’m not sure if this occurred. As far as structural changes, I’m not sure… they have hired more staff who can find more resources for clients but obviously much more is needed.

  21. And there’s a need to address the policy that creates these disincentives to work, too, because otherwise, it’s going to be persistently difficult for clients to ‘get ahead’. Are they connected to other organizations doing similar work, so that they can lift up their concerns together?

  22. Trinity Carpenter

    “You invest in what you care about”. This sentiment rings loud every time I find myself in a room with people discussing and weighing basic humanity against capital. We like to discuss limited budgets and shrinking resources when that is not an accurate depiction of the state of affairs. If that was true we would not be increasing other budgets. Our work and those we serve are being targeted from the highest levels. I live in a state where these attacks are not new. However, at a federal level even more detrimental. I believe what is really being considered is “how can we continue to do work when the meager means that were already available are under attack”? “How will we respond to the fallout to the billions removed from housing”? The questions are BIG. This should be a sad time for any social worker watching world leaders and politicians denounce the need for investment in vulnerable populations while demonizing these populations in the same breath as if they are not the product of society but a mark against a portrayed “greatness”. I feel as a field and profession we have a responsibility to not just resist through creativity, innovation and risk but to document the magnitude of hate being thrown towards those we serve. My education has illuminated that politics dictate the very livelihood of so many. This is the concentrated power politics and government holds that should invoke fear. There have been those across the globe speaking to the possibility of these very circumstances for decades but complacency, fear and privilege have kept the masses silent. The next steps could be nothing less of further cultivating political power and clout across our field along with growing lobby efforts. Divesting from oppressive system and structures whenever possible. Reckoning with our own collusion and participation and doing the work to combat the harm and having honest and critical conversations about our role and power within the communities we serve and being actively trying to give that power away. Me, myself, I have no idea where I fall. I envision myself perpetually job less due to having the inability to collude AND BE SILENT. Even getting this far people have the expectation that you get quiet. I can tell you this….if we all adhere to what is safe the reality for those we serve is dire.

    • Yes, Trinity–how often do we hear statements about “limited resources” or “shrinking budgets”, framed in ways that depersonalize those actions, as those they were inexorable trends, even natural phenomena, instead of the tangible result of cruel policy choices? And how diligent are we to call out those actions and the actors that perpetrate them…rather than merely lamenting the consequences? What have you seen in terms of strategies to “document the magnitude of hate” leveled against those we serve? What lessons are there for social workers in terms of the power of witness, as well as resistance?

  23. I came across this very issue at my practicum placement last year. There are many residents in KCK, who require minor home repairs in order to remain up to code. Organizations such as Christmas in October, do a great job with efforts to help residents in the area, but it is only done once a year, and due to funding, there is a waiting list. Many residents who are eligible, do not receive help simply because of this funding issue. This is why the Unified government with the support of a few commissioners, provided a 20,000 fund, administered by livable neighborhoods, for the use of minor home repairs to people who could not receive help from other area organizations and had code violations. Once we began to write policy and implement the program, we came across some issues with the same few people calling for multiple repairs. So the issue was that we need to spend the money to show the commission that their is a need, but do we allow all of these funds to just a couple people to basically fix up their house? This is why the agency advocated for the need of a clinical social worker, to be able to visit with those in need and assess any other underlying causes that may need to be addressed. Again, theres a funding issue. So do we run the program like other programs with a bandaid type of care and a revolving door of service? Do we advocate and manage to get the funding to have a clinical social worker, to make the overall program more wholistic and helpful for clients? Or do we just scrap the program all together, if it can’t be implemented for long term success of client empowerment? I know that i put together a presentation and presented it last year for the need of a clinical social worker to make it successful. I’m not sure how it went, or if the program still exists. But after many classes this year, I wonder if livable neighborhoods was the right agency to administer the program. I think if there is a need for some clinical work, which livable neighborhoods is more of a community liaison agency, if the money couldn’t be given to another area agency that already has access to clinical services and implement in coordination with livable neighborhood’s local network. That way it’s instituting a program into a place that is more equipped to provide various services in the area.

    • Really important questions raised here. Even more broadly, what should social workers do when we have waiting lists for important services–including, in some cases, those that may be absolutely essential to life, or at least to quality of life–only because there isn’t enough money? How do we live with the reality of denying people not because they’re not eligible, or certainly not because they’re not needy, but instead because there just isn’t enough to go around?

  24. Funding cuts, lack of resources to begin with, waiting lists- none of these are new to social services. Why is it that more social service agencies have not planned for this? Why have we not responded with more innovative solutions? I’m not saying that I know the answers, but we seemingly react in a similar way when we are faced with funding issues. We cut programs, reduce the number of clients served, cut staff, etc. How can agencies better utilize volunteers, partner with other agencies, maximize the impact of the community, FUNDRAISE? The more I am learning about the non-profit world and public policy, the more I realize that we need innovation. We also need more people to engage in systems advocacy. We need to be proactive, rather than reactive. We need to be vigilant and we need more social workers willing to speak up and show up! And maybe the truth is we need a revolution, one that cannot happen within our current systems. However, it is unlikely that that work to be funded. For me, it is hard to imagine achieving true equity if we are searching for solutions within systems that are inherently oppressive…however bleak that may be.

  25. I am often wary of the language surrounding budget cuts. I moved to KCMO recently and while I watch gentrification surround me, I wonder why the city doesn’t choose to invest in affordable housing in an impactful way. My peers counter my question with issues around budgeting, but the way I see it, the city has chosen to invest in businesses and luxury lofts in the downtown area while displacing folks in the eastern regions. Budgeting doesn’t always mean less money, it often means prioritization. There is sound rationale for offering incentives for businesses to develop in downtown KCMO, perhaps creating jobs when they may otherwise take their business to Kansas where (until recently) they would barely pay taxes. But the conversation seems to always end there. Social workers especially need to push this conversation and others like it, to expand our local government’s imagination – why is job growth more important than housing at this particular moment in time? Are these decisions sustainable throughout decades, while the tax incentives fade, will the businesses remain? A lot of smart people get paid a lot of money to figure out which venture will deliver the highest capital return. I am eager for an environment which values social workers and similar professions’ voices in figuring out which ventures deliver the best social capital return.

  26. Really, super, tremendously important stuff here, Leslie. And very relevant right now. Congress just passed tax policies that will decimate our federal budget and make future cuts pretty much inevitable. We’ll hear the refrains of ‘budget constraints’ a lot…and we cannot let anyone forget where those constraints came from, how created they were, and how important it is that we undo those policies. Your comments are a powerful reminder of how much more we need to do here.

  27. I appreciate the question that “The Fighting Monsters” highlights “Can we simultaneously be part of the system AND part of the solution?” As a social worker, I do think we can do both. As a macro social worker we need to evaluate budget cuts based on what will do the least harm to the client and explain our decision making process to the direct practice social workers. Our code of ethics states we will “enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people…” in order to fulfill this we must always keep the needs of the clients in the forefront of our minds when making executive decisions that will ultimately affect their very welfare. Being attune to the communities in which we operate, partnering with them when we as an agency may struggle, and seeking other opportunities to meet the needs of the clients if we are unable to do so as an agency. Social work and social workers in my opinion are extraordinary, passionate, and innovative individuals. They have the capability to problem solve with the most unique outside of the box thinking and this often is how our clients are served when budgets are cut or operate on a nearly non-existent budget. It’s also the responsibility of the direct practice and macro practice social workers to ensure these decisions are justified in a manner to which they can then be explained to a client. Client’s have the right to know why budgets are cut and how their voice and advocacy for themselves can help elicit change. As a social worker we must abide by the NASW COE, we must be able to educate and partner with our clients, stakeholders, community partners and the like so they may have an understanding of the impact and importance funding has on the very well-being of those who seek it.

    • It strikes me, Beri, that being able to live up to these ethical expectations requires not just individual commitment and skill, but also structures and internal systems. We can’t, for example, ensure that clients have a real voice in the process of budget cuts if an organization keeps those decisions mostly hidden from those most affected. The decision about how transparent to be in times of cutbacks is not, ultimately, usually the individual social worker’s, so we often have work to do within our own ‘house’, so that we can be effective advocates for external social change.

  28. Budget cuts often make our jobs as social workers extremely difficult. When we face budget cuts, our ethical code is often challenged, in that as social workers, we are responsible for providing and advocating for services for vulnerable populations, and when we have to turn people away, we are going against the code we took an oath to follow. In college, I worked for a therapeutic daycare where the children who attended had a diagnosis of SED (seriously emotionally disturbed). The staff ratio was supposed to be 1 staff to every 3 kids to ensure the safety of everyone in the classroom, as well a to ensure we could meet maximum service delivery to help the child succeed. However, one summer there were huge cuts that resulted in the daycare only being able to carry a total of 20 kids in the entire preschool, 2-5, and we actually had to turn people away who had been denied to attend mainstream preschool due to their child’s extreme, aggressive behaviors. So now, we have parents who are already struggling, now at risk of losing their job due to no daycare options to help their child, and the child not receiving services they desperately need to help them learn social skills, anger management, and help them to be able to function in society as well as the typical classroom setting. This is a huge ethical dilemma because as social workers, we are dedicated to helping vulnerable populations and those who need our help to improve their lives. When we turn people away, we allow children, or adults, to slip through the cracks and potentially lead to a life of challenge that could have been prevented if early intervention were given, not denied. We need to make it known to our policy makers and also state officials that taking away funding for mental health, community support programs or housing assistance programs does not in anyway improve the economy. If anything it makes it worse by raising the poverty rate and unemployment, leading to more dependency on programs such as SNAP, which they are always complaining is “costing too much money for the state” yet they are directly contributing to the issue with taking away needed programs for vulnerable populations. As a social worker, we never stop advocating for what is right, and even not constricting environments, we cannot let that stop us from doing what is right.

  29. I have had the unfortunate experience of implementing budget cuts during my time as a case manager for the elderly populations in largely rural Northern Kansas. The state-funded program which provided subsidized in-home services for our clients was voted to be cut by over 25%, which meant not only were we as an organization unable to begin new clients on services despite the often-urgent need for assistance, but clients already receiving subsidized assistance had to be informed existing assistance would be reduced to bring program spending down (and I apologize for being intentionally vague – I do not know how much detail I am at liberty to divulge from my previous employer). The blog post from Fighting Monsters profoundly resonated with me, having been in a situation where the best course of action I could provide to my clients was advocating for sending “complaints” to local lawmakers. How was I as an individual and the organization I affiliated myself with supposed to adhere to both the rules which guided our organization and the ethical standards which guided our practice? The difficult truth of the matter was the system took precedence and cuts were implemented; however, this does not mean I or my organization did not strive to be part of the solution as well. Through policy advocacy conducted by my organization and concentrated efforts to bring our client-base’s voices to legislators, my organization made it clear we did not agree with the budget cuts and worked tirelessly to overturn the budget cuts (ultimately the budget cuts were reversed after I left the organization). Perhaps my viewpoint is somewhat naïve, but I do believe we as social workers have the propensity to tackle “impossible decisions” head-on and promote changes which benefit our target populations despite being forced to implement changes which hurt the same populations on occasion and really, social workers’ willing to be that voice for change provides a semblance of justification for the difficult decisions we are forced to make. I believe, though certainly not ideal, budget cuts and similarly-difficult decisions should be expected and planned for; the desire and drive to continue helping marginalized populations in the face of financially-related adversity, however, is what I think separates social workers from other professions in this budget context.

  30. Thank you so much for sharing this experience, Josh. Your reflections on how hard it was to be in this situation and how unsatisfying it was to direct clients not to the services they needed but to their elected officials to register their complaints, really resonated with me, too. I also appreciate your insight that, since funding cuts are so crushingly routine, we really need to be preparing for them, at least as much as we can. That means not only having ‘contingency’ plans in place (indeed, sometimes that’s actually impossible), but also involving clients as constituents in the process of making budgeting decisions and discussing how you’ll handle threats to service provision…before there’s a crisis that demands action. Again, thank you for sharing this part of your social work journey.

  31. Yes, I believe social workers can be a part of the system and the solution at the same time. Defending decisions that cause harm is difficult to justify broadly, though I think it’s possible. If defending means bringing attention to the issue that caused harm and taking the impact on clients to decision makers to advocate for change.
    When I think about advocacy as a remedy for the harm caused, I think of the code of ethics as an affirming lighthouse to assist with navigation through the tumultuous sea of systems. I think about how workers sometimes can be lifeboats or offer a tow for folks lost in the waves. Remaining humble and honest in our work with clients is just as important as advocating with policy makers. Maybe writing a letter to the governor to paint a picture of how the crossover youth in the child welfare system has cost taxpayers millions of dollars with less than stellar outcomes is useful. How useful is that letter to the mom who doesn’t understand why her 14-year-old is now in a foster home instead of juvenile detention or a intensive mental health treatment program like she thought would happen when the court placed her in DCF custody? In this situation the best thing I can do as a social worker is help the family to navigate this with transparency and humility. It’s amazing how open communication and treating people with dignity and respect, helps people to see their own worth. Emotions always run high in child welfare one simple thing I’ve noticed is when parents escalate or get disrespectful, it’s important to normalize their feelings of protest and outrage. This means to help parents understand their outrage is a powerful energy that can be a strong agent of change and is not only accepted but valued. I always try to commend parents for using their voices and by showing how much they care, and encourage workers to do the same, to never take peoples anger personal, it’s not about us.
    Social workers do face impossible decisions every day in every area of practice. Individually we must show clients we believe they can accomplish what they desire to accomplish. Collectively we must believe in ourselves as professional social workers.

  32. When considering future practice, constraints due to policy, funding, politics, etc. will no doubt be part of my environment and a challenge to social work values and ethics. As budgets for social services are cut, whether due to fiscal or political reasons, clients empowered by those services will lose out, often without warning or the ability to respond. As an administrator or policy practitioner with decision-making authority regarding budget and program changes, the values and ethical principles that make up the NASW Code of Ethics should guide behaviors surrounding relevant constraints. For example, if faced with a decrease in funding and the need to subsequently decrease expenses, the values of Service, Social Justice, and Dignity and Worth of the Person can readily be considered. What cuts would impact the agency’s ability to help clients in need? How would cuts to salaries change the agency’s ability to pursue through social justice by paying equitable and living wages? In what ways can the dignity and worth of clients be honored by being transparent about program changes?
    Further, for policy practitioners, I think Melinda’s point about ethical questions surrounding agreeing to cuts in negotiations to “salvage investments in other areas” is important. When working in the policy arena, compromises are inevitable, especially if working across party lines. During those compromises, social workers must consider who will be impacted by certain budget or program cuts and if those individuals and communities are empowered to give their input to policymakers. If they are not, how can they be brought into the conversation? Ultimately, I do think social workers can be part of the system and the solution; in fact, I think it is necessary. In the midst of budget cuts and other constraints, millions of people will still be eligible and in need of services, all while social workers and other advocates can work to increase the quantity of and access to said services. Working with and within constraints will unfortunately always be the reality, but it is our job to be one of the voices speaking up about the real impact of those limitations and the solutions at hand.

    • What do you see as the ‘line in the sand’, then, Hayden, when being within the system makes one too complicit for ethical practice or effective intervention? What signals would you look for, in other words, to know ‘when to say when’? I look forward to our class discussion about ethical dilemmas this evening!

  33. I think the answer to this issue starts with the leadership teams through out local social work agencies. So often we get caught up in taking care of everyone else that we don’t take care of our own needs. We want someone to take care of us just as we have taken care of our clients. Our administrative team (the ones who hold all the power) seem to want to bring change to our offices but we never see anything come to fruition. I think the social workers in my field would be much more willing to engage in the politics and advocacy if they felt like someone was advocating for their needs as well their client needs. Once social workers feel supported by their superiors, they will be much more likely to engage in the work they are doing with their clients because they feel secure and supported in their role. Workers will then begin engaging in advocacy for their clients, because they see how helpful and beneficial it was when somebody did the same for them.

  34. Interesting, Alex, this idea that it’s a sense of being a victim, oppressed by forces larger than themselves, that keeps many social workers from more visibly standing with those they serve. Probing a bit deeper, then, what do you think explains why you don’t see leaders within your (or many?) agencies championing the needs of frontline workers? Do they similarly feel besieged by forces beyond their control? Do they lack the skills to advocate effectively? Are they driven by other priorities? What’s your analysis about where this downward spiral begins…so that we can think about how to untangle it?

  35. You raise a lot of good points Melinda, but I would argue that it is hard to make any real change from outside of a system that you will not partake in. Sadly, the only real change that can be made, other than that of political opinion, is made from within the very structures that we wish to either change or remove. I had a teacher in undergrad that put in a much better way than I am about to explain it, but essentially he said that when it came to Native Americans wanting to fit more into society, and make changes, we had to make our way into the middle of it, to be able to fight in the way to mattered to them. To get our ponies back, we had to become ranchers and buy the ponies back. I think that is why Macro social work is so important, once we understand the systems at play, we can formulate ways to fight back that fit within their purview of what is allowed. The only thing to do is to assmilate into their system and tear it down from the inside out for the betterment of all people.

    • This is so tough, Clayton. I do hear what you’re saying, and I really respect the judgment of people who are and have been oppressed, about the paths to their own liberation. At the same time, it’s really hard to accept the idea of acquiescence to power, as a prerequisite progress. There are examples, in history and across the globe, at least, of how people have been able to work outside systems to change paradigms; I’m thinking of Gandhi in India, you know? At the same time, I recognize the limits of stone-throwing from the outside and absolutely believe that people working for social change should have access to the instruments others use to advance their interests, which does mean working from the inside. As is obvious, I’m pretty conflicted about all this…

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