Showing up: TANF and the social work profession

Chart from the National Conference of State Legislatures--the states in blue have proposed or adopted drug-testing requirements

In the past 2 years, more than 80 bills–in more than 30 states, plus Congress–have been proposed to require drug-testing for recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, or ‘welfare’).

There are, of course, several pretty objective problems with these proposals, including the fact that most studies find that TANF recipients are only slightly more likely to be using substances than the general population, drug-testing is quite expensive (and would, then, likely result in reductions in benefits for needy families), and drug-testing requirements (especially when, as proposed in some states, the low-income recipients themselves would be responsible for paying for the drug test–the proposals often stipulate that they could be reimbursed if they pass!) serve as deterrents to TANF participation even for families living in dire poverty (which, of course, is probably not an unintended consequence of these proposals).

But this post is really about the moral objection that we all, especially as social workers, should have to the idea that it’s permissible to cast such widespread suspicion on a group of people, simply because they are in need. And, further, that we might stand by while such suspicions are used to justify highly intrusive, demeaning, discriminatory practices.

Because stand by we often do.

In Kansas, a bill requiring drug testing for TANF recipients was opposed by just one conferee, an intern with the ACLU who has been enrolled in a social work program.

The bill flew out of committee, and the rest of our profession (including me) were, indefensibly, silent.

I have a question on my midterm for the foundation policy course about why TANF features so prominently in social work students’ study of social policy, and why, especially because relatively few of our clients actually receive TANF anymore (since, let’s be honest, ‘welfare’ as we understood it did really end in 1996), it should still matter so much.

It’s a question that I admit asking myself, especially early in my career, when my policy advocacy focused almost entirely on the rights of immigrants, almost none of whom are eligible for any cash assistance.

If it doesn’t really affect that many people, and if the benefits are so meager as to be not that valuable anyway, then why would we pack the hearing room for debate about forcing (mostly) single moms to take a urinalysis before they can get some money to feed and clothe their children?

Because this isn’t about who the clients are, or how many of them there are.

It’s about us, about who we are, and about what we’re going to stand for.

It’s about saying that we won’t accept policy that imposes punishment when sustenance is needed, or that wastes precious resources on ‘gotcha’ games when children are hungry.

It’s about saying that we know that a policy that rationalizes intrusions into our most basic liberties in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘personal accountability’ won’t stop with TANF recipients and their supposed drug use, and that we’re not going to abide a slippery slope.

It’s about being there to make sure that our clients–those on TANF, those who wish they were, and those who refuse to accept it even when eligible–know that social workers speak out when people are attacked, so that they’ll know that we’ll do the same for them.

The answer to that midterm, if students want full credit, is that working with people in poverty has always been a critical part of who we are as a profession and that our Code of Ethics requires that we work for social justice, especially on behalf of vulnerable populations.

I, obviously, deserve a point deduction.

25 responses to “Showing up: TANF and the social work profession

  1. You are the best. And you are right. It isn’t about who they are-it’s about who we are. And what is right.

  2. Very well said.

  3. Pingback: » Showing up: TANF and the social work profession The Rank-and-Filer

  4. Mallory Padilla

    In less than a year since you wrote this post, it’s interesting to see how this issue has evolved in Kansas. Brownback has just recently signed a bill that that lets the Department of Children and Families require urine testing of any welfare recipient suspected of using illegal drugs. Reasonable suspicion could be a result of the person’s demeanor, missed appointments, or police records. Those welfare recipients who fail their drug test will lose their benefits until they can complete a drug treatment program and job skills program. If a recipient fails a second drug test they will lose their benefits for a year-long. There are several issues with this bill, but there is also a positive. As a social worker and per our Code of Ethics, we should strive to provide and ensure access to services and resources. If someone is denied their benefits for testing positive for drugs we are failing to meet our ethical principles as a social worker. Furthermore, should a child be denied their access to nutrition because their parent possibly made an irresponsible decision? Social workers also have a commitment to taking reasonable steps in abandoning clients who are still in need of a service. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if a recipient tested positive for a substance to then offer them substance abuse services instead of immediately denying their welfare services (services that help them and their children survive)? Also, why should one assume that because an individual tests positive for a substance that they need to complete a job skills program? The positive of this bill is that we will be able to provide substance abuse services, with federal funds, to these individuals that may be in need.

    What’s done is done….how do we as social workers react to this? Would it be ethical to just never find “reasonable suspicion” to drug test recipients?

    • This issue has been really maddening to me, Mallory, especially because we already do drug screening for TANF recipients, using a tested screening tool. What do you think are our best ethical options for how to operate in this context? What do we need to do to advocate around this issue as we continue to shape public opinion about drug testing and TANF, even though the legislation has passed?

  5. Ellen Hamilton

    I have a teeny tiny confession: I used to support drug testing for TANF recipients. Now, don’t go throwing stones as me just yet! Drug testing is one of those rational activities that sounds good. Of course, how do you argue that most of us take drug tests for low-income jobs so why wouldn’t you have to if you want benefits? Seems logical. So that’s where my support came from. I’m painfully pragmatic.

    But pragmatism and ethical, proper policy do not always see eye to eye. And that’s where my confusion occurred. I didn’t agree with the social work stance until I began working with TANF recipients. I learned a lot about the individuals that receive assistance and now I have plenty of responses to the clever memes that so often flood my newsfeed.

    1. TANF recipients receive VERY little money each month. I’m talking next to nothing. Not enough to become a “welfare queen” so you can leave your two or three examples at the door (I just saw another one today, thank you FOX news).

    2. TANF recipients receive benefits for no more than 60 months in a lifetime. So imagine you have one kiddo, and it costs more to pay for childcare while working than staying home until they go to school and you don’t have a support system to rely on for transportation or childcare. You’re meager TANF benefits run out after just one kid (so once again, leave the “welfare queen” out of this).

    3. If a TANF recipient doesn’t work, then they are sanctioned. They lose part of their already meager assistance. Some of these jobs require drug testing already.

    4. When TANF was piloted the participants were offered many supports such as transportation and childcare that were never offered by the real world.

    5. I’ve worked with TANF caseworkers and career counselors. I am going to leave that one alone but you can probably figure what I’m trying to say here.

    Okay, I’ve spouted what I know about TANF. And the only solution we can come up with is drug testing? I know this post is primarily about TANF and drug testing but more about social workers staying silent while policies are enacted that actually put the low-income at an even greater disadvantage. We need to be informed as social workers and not just about our own field of practice. We need to stay abreast of the policy environment and find ways to remain active. I know it can be challenging because many of us represent agencies and we should be careful how we represent ourselves. But I’m a huge supporter of letter writing. And remember, advocacy can include just educating others. So when you hear comments that dehumanize the already vulnerable populations, say something. Yes, you’ll probably get called Debbie Downer now and again but just make a crazy face, a waaah waaah, and move on. The world will be better for it.

    • No stone-throwing here! It’s actually a great example of the power of framing and how, then, we must counteract prevailing messages with not only factual information but also a strong value perspective that places human need, social justice, and personal dignity at the center of policymaking. I think you actually hit upon exactly what I had hoped for with this post–not so much debating the specifics of the drug-testing policy, but, as you point out, the dangers of being silent on issues where the social work value base is moving against the social tide. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  6. The trending topic online today was the new dress code that a Kansas senate committee introduced limiting what women can or can’t wear when they testify in front of a committee. I think this topic choice, much like many others, distracts from the main issues at hand, of what people have to say and not about how they appear.
    Much like your commentary on drug-testing for TANF recipients, the focus of the policy is not where it should be. It is creating unnecessary barriers for people who have other priorities. Creating distractions is not good policy, and prevents people from accessing the help they should rightfully have. Both of these solutions to ‘problems’ are framed incorrectly, and we as social workers should not remain silent bystanders.

    • I wonder, though, Kendra, if that’s really a ‘distraction’, or if it actually says something important about (in this case) how women are viewed, what is perceived as their legitimate roles, and how interactions between genders are to be facilitated? I mean, I don’t at all disagree about the dangers of distractions in the policy arena, but I also think that we have to really be on guard for what may seem like distractions but are actually important cues, telling us critical truths about power and how it’s distributed. I don’t see, for example, the TANF drug testing issue as a ‘distraction’, but as counterproductive social policy and, then, a menace that deserves to be dealt with. I think that we can end up hurting our cause if we label such issues as distractions and call for policymakers to get ‘back to the issues’, instead of seizing that opportunity to highlight the injustices represented by policy that pursues that approach. What do you think?

    • I think this idea, like many others Kansas legislature has had before, shows where our state government has its priorities. They want to limit women from being distracting. They want to limit welfare recipients from going to the pool. They want to keep refugees out of the state.
      Our government is the laughing stock of other states because of our outdated, backwards views. I don’t want to have an asterisk when I say I’m from Kansas that I’m not one of those people who are so against different types.
      With the attack on women, people in poverty, and refugees, I understand the point Melinda brings up that we need to speak up. In the current political climate, it’s not likely to change the way bills are written, but it does let the legislators and citizens of Kansas and other states know that this is not right, it’s not okay, and there are at least some of us that will not stand for it.

  7. That’s how I felt when the legislation was introduced, too, Emily, but what I think it’s important for us to focus on, in this particular case, is how our profession (all of us, then) failed to show that we “will not stand for it.” It’s easy sometimes to think that, because we’re not as bad as those who are attaching vulnerable populations, we’re somehow ‘excused’ for failing to be forces of peace and hope and justice…when that inaction is also to blame for the damage that results. How can we translate our outrage to organized action? And how do we sustain that, over time, as we need to respond on so many different fronts?

    • There was enough backlash for the senator to apologize and retract his proposed guidelines. I think it is important to remember that our voices do mean something and that we, not just as social workers, but as citizens of this state and nation, must speak up. That senator didn’t wake up today with significantly more respect for women as people. The backlash did not change his views. There are some people who took that bill and used it to support their own sexist opinions. But there are more who heard about it and said that is not what Kansas wants to be as a state.
      I think it is important to individually choose one or two different fronts to focus on and one must be accepting of small, incremental change. Trying to fix everything tomorrow is a good way to get burnt out. Thinking about all the injustices that need to be righted leaves me feeling overwhelmed and like it’s pointless to try at all. But thinking that maybe I can change one or two people’s views, and each of them could change one or two other people’s views, I can work with that.

  8. Its instances like these that really leave me wondering about people and their motives. Restrictions imposed on TANF recipients and others receiving needed benefits comes across as vindictive and demeaning. I think if those responsible for imposing restrictions actually worked and interacted with low-income TANF recipients, we would probably notice a different tone in any future actions concerning the needy. My particular agency recently had a significant funding cut that diminished our ability to provide help to low-income individuals with in-home services. The funding cut not only stopped our ability to offer assistance to new individuals, but also forced us to cut the existing hours of help for people currently utilizing the service. As an employee of a helping agency, its ethically difficult to tell a client that the services they rely on for weekly support, have been cut down to 5 hours a month. As a social worker, I’m not really sure the NASW was designed for or has limited guidance to offer in this type of situation. With this unique scenario, as agency employees, we relied on communicating with our supervisors and others in the field on any possible solutions for our clients.

    • Thanks for this, Chris. What do you think should be the role of NASW in policy advocacy, then? To me, there is far less technical expertise needed here than in some of the issues related to licensure and billing that they get involved in. This seems more about the values of the profession and standing with a unified voice…which seems to me to be directly under their purview…but I am very interested to hear how you might see the landscape differently.

      On Sat, Feb 4, 2017 at 5:48 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  9. I find it unfortunate that instead of gaining ground for this population of TANF applicants, our state has instead proposed even more stipulations. The overarching tone given to TANF recipients, based on these policies, paints a picture that this population encompasses more substance users, abusing the welfare system meant to help them. New guidelines stating that recipients can no longer spend cash assistance on cruises? As Melinda stated, the benefits are scarce as is, and I’m unaware of any recipients taking their surplus cash from the government and putting towards a trip to the Bahamas. The assumption of assistance misuse has plagued this population with even more oppression and degrading labels. By enacting a policy with an underlying premise of recipients taking their benefits and spending it on unnecessary items instead of providing for their family, it’s creating the connotation that these families are simply un-deserving and un-grateful. Perhaps this is the luxurious scene they have to set to also enact a shorter lifetimes caps for these individuals. Where do our ethics come in here? The new stipulations are phrased to seem like a push for welfare beneficiaries to choose employment instead of applying for aid, as if the two are mutually exclusive. They fail to mention that many starting salaries cannot support a family, and that many salaries fall under the guidelines for “needy families”. Sure, social workers and policy advocates should support this movement to create a sustainable future and empower those involved, but at what cost? The ethics say to fight for those who fall under the realm of receiving social injustices, but, how? The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is one that is still enacted for these families, as if their only reason for being in poverty is their drug addiction and frequent visits to psychic fortune tellers. The only solution I see to combat the negative impression given to TANF recipients is simple education and information to those who wrongly assume the negative characteristics. While the Code requires that we fight for oppressed populations, nothing can guarantee that we make ground, and nothing can ensure a change of heart for the supporters of these new guidelines, even if presented with new information. How do you change the world when your audience has already made up their minds?

  10. Victoria Stracke

    Although I am surprised only a single individual stood up in opposition to the bill introduced in Kansas to drug test TANF recipients, I can also understand how it may have happened. With frequent attacks on vulnerable populations (especially under our current administration), I find it challenging to remain aware and actively work to deflect/oppose unjust practices. It is not an excuse, but rather a possible explanation. I can honestly say I am still working to find ways to be a well-informed advocate, while still maintaining self-care. I am not sure how we balance this, while also not letting something slip through. If you have ideas, tactics, or resources for staying abreast of issues such as this one, I would love to hear them. I often fear things are going on that I haven’t heard of, and therefore did not have the chance to act on, even though I attempt to be a well-informed individual. Indeed, something to work on.

  11. Part of the challenge, I think, is how one defines ‘self-care’. For me, not being present–in some way, which obviously doesn’t always mean physically–on the issues that shape our collective well-being wouldn’t feel anything like taking care of myself. That doesn’t mean, at least for me, being glued to news updates, but, instead, leaning into relationships with individuals and organizations who are deeply engaged in at least one of the issues I care about. In this particular case, though, to be clear, I specifically invited organizations to come testify on the TANF drug testing bill (I made sure, in other words, that they knew), and the decision was that they didn’t want to involve themselves in something that ‘political’. That’s not to deny the difficulty, many times, of staying informed on a variety of issues, but just to say that that wasn’t the actual issue in this case.

  12. I agree with the points made here. This drug-testing policy for receiving benefits just makes me feel icky, and hearkens back to the days of the untrue and unhelpful “welfare queen” stereotype pushed by Reagan and others. It seems to say: “We want to help you, but only in our way and with our rules.” This is why I have a lot of trouble with the language around these benefits, and how they are called “entitlements” or “handouts” in the first place. The clients I have worked with that were receiving TANF, SNAP, or Medicaid did not feel entitled to this assistance; they desperately clung to it and made sure they did everything that was required of them to keep them up. They are the hardest-working people I have ever encountered; these rules unfairly characterize them as lazy or wanting something free for nothing.

  13. Those messages are so powerful, no? And become so self-defining; it’s another example, really, of the intersections between policy issues and micro practice, since, here, how public assistance policy treats those who receive it undoubtedly affects their mental health. Thanks for commenting, Aly.

  14. Your statement that it’s not about who the clients are or how many of them there are, it’s about who WE are, and what we are exhorted to defend…that hit me hard. One of the things I love about social work is that we strive to preserve the notion of humanity and human rights, believe people and that ALL people have inherent dignity and worth, and are entitled to justice and quality of life. We challenge the capitalistic notion that people are worthy of a certain quality of life only if they can earn it with their labor or income. We are supposed to be challenging that every day, all the time.

    Regarding my own practice, what I am about to share is perhaps not so much of an ethical dilemma, but more of a practice challenge for social workers when it comes to building relationships with clients and addressing and checking our own bias. I have witnessed too many social workers demonize clients that have characteristics that we view as bad or blameworthy. The “good” client vs the “bad” client is a dichotomy we have GOT to get away from as a profession. I see this all too often in policy work as well, when framing populations as sympathetic or unsympathetic. Sympathetic populations are easy targets/low hanging fruit for advocates. I understand from a strategy standpoint that going after sympathetic populations first lends itself favorable to win efforts in incremental reform, but it can’t just end there. It’s not all what we’re called to do. If we want to take it even a step further, the whole idea of any population being more sympathetic than the other is utterly flawed and thus needs to be deconstructed, as it is antithetical to social work values of service, dignity and worth of the person, and social justice, and probably others too. Using this language doesn’t demonstrate that we are actually believing the values that ALL people have dignity and worth, and therefore ALL are of deserving of a full realization of justice.

    Melinda, Thank you for the critique of our profession. As proud as we can be of the work we do, it’s critical to our growth as individual practitioners and as a community to critically reflect on where we fail and how we can move forward and do better.

  15. Thanks, Marion. I have encountered the peeling off of ‘sympathetic’ populations frequently, and I admit that, while I am proud of having refused to participate in that on numerous occasions, and even of convincing others to change that approach, I more often approach it strategically (because separating the more sympathetic makes it harder to win for the others) than morally. In large part, that’s because we’re so often advocating alongside those who do not necessarily share our social work value perspective, but I still think I have a lot of work to do in order to share that value orientation more consistently and effectively. Those are real, potential ‘teachable’ moments, but only if we make them so. Thanks for commenting!

  16. Christina Cowart

    This is such an important conversation that needs to be had among social workers. I particularly like the point that policies such as this, and the relative silence around the enactment of such policies, is a reflection of us and our values.

    Prior to starting this graduate program I worked in direct client practice at a community mental health center. Looking back, the lack of acknowledgement or discussion around the Code of Ethics is striking. To be completely honest, I didn’t know that social workers had a formal code of ethics until I started to apply for graduate school (which is shameful considering I worked around social workers for 5 years). I will never forget a moment when a co-worker returned from grabbing lunch at Sonic. They had forgotten to give her a straw and she made the remark, “And these people want $15 an hour.” I was stunned by the statement, particularly given the fact that she had a masters degree in social work from KU. To this day I feel guilty about my own silence in this brief interaction. And as I read this blog post about the relative silence from the social work profession as discriminatory attacks are thwarted at those seeking meager forms of public assistance, I can’t help but feel the same. If we are really going to stand behind our Code of Ethics which calls us to serve these vulnerable populations, we must speak up. I think this includes everything from contacting our legislators, to having honest conversations with our colleagues when they make remarks which are contrary to our code of ethics. I also think there is another issue at play regarding a total disregard and ignorance around the social work Code of Ethics among some social work spheres. I think it is up to us as social workers to reinforce these values both in large and small ways.

  17. That really makes me feel kind of sick to my stomach, Christina. We know that our actions speak incredibly loudly, when it comes to portraying and conveying our values, and I know what message that statement–and her response to the workers she encountered–said to others about not only who she is, but also who we are, as a profession. It sounds like you’ll find a way to speak up next time.

  18. I see this issue as quite simple, actually. First, our code of ethics tells us that we should advocate for social justice, especially for vulnerable populations. The NASW and the Kansas Chapter should publicly oppose such discriminatory and awful policies. And we as individual social workers should oppose them, as well. What I really want to talk about is how social workers can start to frame these conversations in a different way. The conversation should be about helping people that are struggling with addiction, and ensuring that individuals and families have access to benefits when they need them. We have allowed politicians and media to paint a nasty and untrue picture about who needs public benefits and who is struggling with addiction. We have framed poverty and addiction as circumstances that people find themselves in when they make bad choices, rather than acknowledging the systemic factors that create and maintain such conditions. We have criminalized addiction, rather than treating it as a health problem. As social workers and advocates, reframing the conversation is the real challenge. And if successful, we just may be able to change hearts, minds, and policies.

  19. And if we are not successful, we may still be victorious, at least inasmuch as we remind ourselves of the core values of our profession and live ‘our best selves’. It may not sound like much, but it has mattered a lot to me, during many losses on the advocacy front.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s