Tag Archives: budgets

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?

Last one in shut the door?

In the interest of full disclosure, right from the beginning:

This is not one of those posts with any helpful lessons to impart.

I hope that sometimes you find those, and I am more grateful than you can know for those who share their reactions to what I write, particularly as to how my thoughts at least occasionally contribute to your own journeys in advocacy, learning, community work, and the pursuit of justice.

But, today, I’m just perplexed.

Not too long ago, I was copied on an email from a teacher friend of mine who was asking her contacts to get involved in the ongoing debate over budgets at our local district and, particularly, at the state level. She wrote a little about the challenges she’s facing in her own classroom and emphasized the importance of parents and other teachers including their voices in the discussion over decisions that will shape our children’s futures.

You can see why we’re friends, right?

And I was also copied on the response to her from one of the recipients.

What struck me most was the line about how wrong it is that all of “these kids” are getting free and reduced lunch. Now, the nuance here, and what I’ve been mulling over, is that she wasn’t upset about her own child NOT getting free and reduced lunch. Her apparent anger, expressed on a computer screen, was not over some injustice visited upon her own family, but on the injustice she perceived in someone else’s receipt of something.

Now, to some extent, I get this: I’m upset, for example, when corporations get huge tax breaks that undermine our nation’s financial security, and it’s not because I think I should be getting one, too, but because I object to the basis on which that entitlement is granted.

And maybe that’s where her outrage is coming from, even though her email didn’t reference anything about the costs of the free and reduced lunch program, and even though (whether she knows it or not) our district actually gets more money because of the presence of these students–federal money pays for the meals themselves, and the students receive additional weightings in our school finance formula as “at-risk” students: money that the district then uses to fund our overall educational system, including that of her own child.

But a conversation I had with my own state representative the other day made me think that maybe it’s not even this “we can’t afford it so they shouldn’t get it” rationale, at least not explicitly. She and I were talking about our state’s instate tuition policy, her support of it, and some of the communications she has received from constituents about that support. Her exact quote was something along the lines of, “I can’t understand how people can be so upset about others getting something that doesn’t affect them at all. It’s like they want to deny it just for spite.”

When undocumented immigrants, even immigrant kids, are concerned, I certainly wouldn’t rule out the influence of spite.

And certainly it could be immigrant children and those who look like them who were in the mind of the woman upset about free lunches (the literal kind), too.

Because our instate tuition policy does not cost the state. The students pay full price, and our higher educational system isn’t funded on a per-pupil basis anyway. The universities themselves, who certainly wouldn’t support a policy that harmed them, have been the strongest supporters. And the constituents that are contacting my representative are, themselves, also eligible for instate tuition, if they chose to attend one of our state schools.

So they’re not upset because they aren’t getting something, and they can’t even be upset because they’re paying for someone else to get something.

Instead, it’s more of a scarcity thinking, kind of to the extreme, what I’ve been mentally labeling a “last one in shut the door behind you” mentality, that views one’s own gains in life as so precious that denying those same tools to others seems like the only way to preserve them.

And, I’ll admit. I just don’t get it.

I think that I need to, because this kind of thinking is finding its way into our public policies, and because I need to know how to advocate with those who have adopted this “I don’t need it but no one else should have it” rationale. But I can’t quite crack the code, so to speak, to figure out where to start. Which is why this post doesn’t have answers.

Please, wise readers: help me. Where have you encountered these same reactions, and to what do you attribute them? What am I missing that would make this make sense, and where do I start in building some bridges (at least in communication) with those who approach life from this perspective?