Tag Archives: policy analysis

Admitting we’re stumped

Photo credit, Adrian Midgley, via Flickr Creative Commons license

Photo credit, Adrian Midgley, via Flickr Creative Commons license

We are so sure that we are right.

Even when we are so completely not.

My kids are like this, often.

My youngest son, in particular, almost never says ‘maybe’.

He is very, very confident. Even when he is very, very wrong.

And, apparently, he is not alone.

Decisive discusses this at length, describing the phenomenon this way: “A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped” (2).

Even lacking crucial pieces of information that we would need to make informed decisions doesn’t stop us from feeling quite sure that we have everything we need to proceed. We are even certain in our own predictions, despite the obvious fact that we don’t even know very much about the current reality, let alone the future (17).

And our confidence, of course, can be very misleading.

I see this (of course, I would) in our policymaking, and, really, in how we advocate, too.

We face challenges that we truly don’t know how to solve. Acknowledging the uncertainty that surrounds them and the implications of those doubts for successfully approaching them is a critical step in building a process that will take us to a sound resolution, but, instead, we tend to plow right through.

And, here, I really do mean ‘we’. It’s not just members of Congress or state legislators who are loathe to admit when they’re perplexed, when they might need some help to assemble the right information and consult with the best advisers and just reflect a while.

As advocates, I believe that we often perceive expressions of uncertainty as signs of weakness instead of honest recognition of complexity and unavoidable limitations of knowledge.

In one of my projects, I am constantly having to force myself to say that certain outcomes ‘may’ result, or that particular advantages ‘might’ be realized. It’s not natural to me, having spent most of my career asserting in the most compelling way possible the near-certain gains to be secured if we just follow my policy prescriptions.

If this was all just a matter of ensuring that we are being intellectually honest and ethically responsible, that would be one thing. Instead, it’s quite clear that failing to admit when we’re stumped leads to worse decisions.

We are literally suffering from our false certainty.

So, I believe, if we are to succeed in equipping ourselves to take on the big challenges, we have to create spaces in which we can admit our questioning, own our uncertainty, and actively seek out the additional knowledge and insights we need to craft the best decisions, as well as build structures that allow us to choose different paths if new information points us in another direction.

It will mean getting a lot more comfortable with hedging, and leaving room for asking and wondering.

But this culture shift can help us avoid some bad decisions and change the conversation about the limits of our own omnipotence.

No doubt.

Blind Spots and Grave Errors: Why do we think we’re immune today?

My oldest son is prone to getting really (REALLY) into something, for a brief period of time, and then moving quickly on. As parents, we try to keep up, encouraging his inquiry and trying not to reel too much when he abandons one topic for another.

For awhile, this winter, it was cholera.

As in, specifically, the cholera outbreak in Victorian London, and its contributions to the study of epidemiology and the development of modern sanitation.

He made a ‘ghost map’ showing how a cold outbreak could travel through his school, modeled after the map that Dr. John Snow made to finally prove that cholera resulted from contaminated water and not from bad smells.

And I, to make sure I could understand what he was talking about (and because most of his interests are, actually, quite interesting), read The Ghost Map myself.

And one part that stuck with me was how absolutely certain the best minds of the day were, at the time, that the deadly diseases they confronted must come from the smells of the sewers and of the decay with which they were surrounded. It made so much sense. London smelled really bad, according to almost all contemporary sources, and people were frequently ill, so, then, it made sense that the two would be related. They kept on believing this, even when houses with worse sanitation suffered lower death rates than the richer houses that happened to be downstream. They believed it because it seemed so right, even when data suggested that it wasn’t. At all. They believed it even when believing meant studiously ignoring countervailing facts, and even when believing one way led to behaviors significantly more likely to result in their deaths. They took clear action based on these flawed beliefs, never apologizing for or even seeming to doubt the veracity of beliefs based on no sound science at all.

The author asks, and we must ask ourselves, “How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline–the sociology of error” (15).

Because, of course, this wasn’t the first time in history when powerful beliefs that defy truth have led to grave errors. During one outbreak of plague, a belief that the disease was spread by dogs and cats led to mass extermination which, of course, increased the plague, since it was actually spread by rats formerly kept in check by the dogs and cats (120).

And it wasn’t the last.

We have, with a greater or lesser degree of consensus, believed that interning Japanese-Americans would keep us safer; that cigarettes have no ill health effects; that people with mental illnesses belong in institutions; that nuclear power is infallibly safe…

We console ourselves that that was then, before we knew, because we don’t want to contemplate the very finite limits of the knowledge we have today.

And that’s our blind spot, this idea that we could be just as wrong now, about something else, as we recognize in hindsight. We could be ignoring just as many warning signs, about what’s wrong with our economic structure, or what it will take to really make schools work, or what supports young families need to thrive.

We could be just as wrong. And the consequences could be just as tragic.

If we don’t keep asking, why? And wondering, maybe?

Solving my babysitting problems while promoting intergenerational policy convergence

March 16, 2010 Rally for Public Schools, Topeka, KS--my parents, kids, and I are standing just out of view to your left

I won’t try to pretend that my main motivation for having my kids’ grandparents babysit them so much is to spur increased commitment on the part of each (kids and grandparents) to the kinds of intergenerationally equitable policy solutions that are so often elusive, or at least presented as such, particularly in the areas of entitlement reform, taxation, and budget cuts.

But I really think it’s a side benefit.

Okay, so my kids are too young to voice their support for productive aging strategies, universal design, and a robust income support policy for older adults. The younger two are still working on talking, and the older one is currently obsessed with Captain Underpants, so we’ll give them a little time.

But my parents get it, I think more than many retired people, and they pay more attention, which is perhaps just as important. And, granted, some of that could be because they’re my parents, and they’re wonderful, and they have to listen to me going on and on about this and that policy debate all the time.

But I think there’s good evidence, anecdotally at least, that their frequent, sustained, and meaningful contact with my kids changes their perspective on policies that affect children and young adults, in ways that have potentially powerful implications for building public support for the kind of policy infrastructure that all generations need and deserve.

  • When they pick my son up at preschool, they see what well-paid early childhood educators working in a clean and spacious environment can do with little kids, and they recognize the importance of every child having access to such a resource.
  • When they take my sick daughter to the doctor, they are reminded of the importance of each child having a medical ‘home’ and the insurance coverage to pay for it.
  • When they see the twins’ faces light up at the public park, they think about the erosion of quality public spaces and the need to preserve areas where children can play safely.
  • When they hear my older son’s friend talk about how he was supposed to go to all-day kindergarten but can’t because his parents can’t afford it, they realize that many programs within our “public” schools aren’t free, and that young families face real challenges in providing for their children’s educations.
  • When they hear my voice on the phone, trying to sound calm as I tell them that the other babysitter cancelled and I’m supposed to give a speech in an hour, but it will take me 40 minutes to get there, they remember (as they grab their keys) that childcare arrangements are precarious for so many families, and that parents can’t work unless someone is providing good, quality, affordable care for their children.

    I would never discount the very real struggles of grandparents raising grandchildren–I, too, am reminded of the importance of supports for older adults when I see my parents’ relief when I pull up to take over the childcare once again–nor do I naively assume that seeing need in the eyes of one’s own grandchildren automatically translates into commitment to meet the needs of children everywhere.

    But I see how my Dad learns so much about our community, and the realities of young families, while he’s watching the kids play at the sandbox and talking to (as he calls them) “the other moms”. I see how my Mom reads the whole newsletter that my son brings home from school, and often asks me questions about it. I see how their lives become integrated with those of other generations as they learn to inhabit the same spaces, and share the same resources, and I think…maybe I’m onto something after all.

  • Value differences and international policy analysis

    A few years ago, another instructor and I redesigned the Advanced Policies class to include a focus on comparative international social policy. The School ended up deciding that it detracted too much from the emphasis on U.S. social policy that students needed to succeed in policy practice, and I don’t disagree, but there is something that I took from that course and from my subsequent comparative policy analyses that I still find very illuminating.

    Often, when I assign my students to read about child welfare policies in Japan or Sweden’s support for new parents or the phenomenon of female poverty around the world, they think that I am expressing a preference for those policy approaches and a desire to see them brought to the U.S. And it’s true that there is a lot to admire in the way that other countries approach some of the same social problems with which we grapple here, and I want to see us learn from others’ efforts, since the search for ‘best practices’ in a lot of policy work is quite elusive. However, we have learned enough about all of the moving parts in policy development–political climate, economic capacity, demographic imperatives, shared history and culture–to know that no social policy can be neatly picked up and plopped down in another nation. So I think that the global search for the next “bright shiny object” is a rather fruitless endeavor.

    Instead, what I think is most helpful about comparative social policy analysis is what it can help us to understand about social policy in the United States. Often, because we are embedded in this culture and this context, we have a hard time disentangling the social policy which surrounds us from the values which propel it. We can’t see these values clearly because they are a part of who we are, how we see the world, how we’ve always done things. And this is a trap.

    We know that failing to recognize these values and the role that they play in shaping social policy will make social policy change much more difficult, because it is only through appealing to values and value motivations that we maximize our chances of changing the conversation about a given social problem and, thus, the social policy that stems from it.

    Because that’s really the job of values in social policy development–constraining the view of a particular social problem so that solving it in a particular way becomes, then, ‘common sense’. If we can win that battle over value alignment, it’s like rolling a snowball downhill to change the policy.

    And, so, once we can see the values at work in other nations’ approaches to their social problem challenges, and see how those values compare and contrast with our own, our analytical tools are sharpened to examine the value foundations of our own social policy structures and the ways in which those values do, and do not, align with social work’s values. And then we can really get to work.

    As an example, think about how bizarre Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ low benefit levels and strict work requirements for families with young children would seem to someone not imbued with our values around work and self-sufficiency. Conversely, how could we explain even the existence of TANF without understanding the value we place on family? Our social policy development process is best understood, then, as battlegrounds in which the values of social control and social assistance, charitable obligation and patriarchal oppression, community and autonomy duel for supremacy. And the resulting policies are most fully understood as efforts to reconcile these competing aims in ways that are often contradictory or, at least, confused.

    To begin this journey of value exploration, look at social policies in your area of interest within another national context (or several). What values shine through? How do these values shape the definition of the social problem and the decision to intervene in the first place?

    Now look at the U.S. approach to this social problem. Applying a kind of “stranger in a strange land” technique, how can you uncover the layers of values at work here? How can you appeal to these values as you frame your desired policy change? Or, if necessary, how can you begin the process of shifting the values held around this particular problem to open up political space for new interventions? We can’t assume that values are immutable–look at the evolution of ideas about women in the labor market, for example.

    Perhaps even more difficult, explore your own values in this policy arena. Are your values aligned with those of the social work profession? If not, how are yours different? How do your values align with society’s? What has shaped the development of your value orientation to this problem, and how might you tap into those same dynamics to shift the public consensus around the problem?

    We are an undeniably advanced society, with a complex governmental structure, robust private institutions, and unparalleled (even in today’s economic downturn) wealth. We could eradicate poverty, provide access to health care for all, and give every family the tools it needs to keep its children safe. The persistence of our social problems is not a technical dilemma; it is the rather natural consequence of the expression of our value preferences.

    We can ‘unlearn’ much of what we now take for granted, and we can envision new ways to approach our world. But we need fresh eyes with which to see. And that’s what international policy analysis can give us.

    Now do you understand why we care about the social insurance system in Germany?

    Is a Feminist Uprising the Traditional Ninth Anniversary Gift, or the Modern?

    Today is my wedding anniversary.

    Which, in retrospect, is perhaps not the best time to finally get around to reading Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.

    Anyway, the combination of the anniversary and the book, and my continued thinking about motherhood and women’s struggles for equality and justice and health and peace…have me thinking about what a truly pro-women policy agenda would look like, and what such a movement would mean for families, the nation, and our social work profession.

    Women’s experiences in our society are distinct, and we need political power that recognizes that, demands policies that support us, and changes the expectations that we have internalized, which, after all, is what the backlash is really about: making women police ourselves, so that no one else even needs to consciously repress us.

    And I think that all of that is tremendously important, which I why I read blogs like MomsRising and Feministing, why I include content in my policy classes about “gendered budgets” and how social welfare policy has oppressed women, and why I think that we need policy reforms that give women real options and real equity and real authority. Absolutely.

    But, on this day, my thoughts are really more on my own journey as a woman, how the personal is always political and, for me, the political is personal now, too. I’m thinking about how I couldn’t see how sexism and proscribed gender roles impacted my life until I was a married woman, largely because I had bought into the conceit of exceptionalism. I’m thinking about how many people have nodded sympathetically (approvingly?) when I said that I quit my full-time job because I missed my kids too much when I was traveling, and how their reactions affirm the backlash at work: “see, another woman who tried to have it all and thought better of it.” I’m thinking about how my wonderful husband, who had to actually show me where we get things dry cleaned when I first went to part-time work (because I never, ever got off work in time to go to a dry cleaners before!) has only made dinner a few times in the past three years. I’m thinking about how nice it would be, at least sometimes, to be the one to rush off to work in the morning, and about how much I miss the recognition and respect that came with a more prominent job. I’m thinking about how many mothers at the park say “lucky” when I tell them that I work part-time, and how many of my full-time employed friends say the same. I’m thinking about how our own social service organizations fail in creating the kinds of jobs that work for working mothers, and about how many times I asked for more help so that I could cut my hours back, before I quit. I’m thinking about how glad I am that my son told me, “when I’m older, sometimes I’ll have to get off work early to pick up my kids because my wife will be at work,” and how to make sure that he sees all of me, not just the Mommy side. I’m thinking about how many people told me to “work less” when I couldn’t get pregnant, and how no one told my husband that. I’m thinking that many of the same groups that attack women’s right to an abortion attack the technologies that helped us build our family, too, and about how my grief cemented my commitment to women’s full spectrum of reproductive freedoms. I’m thinking about the kind of example that I may have inadvertently set for the young immigrant women with whom I organized when I stepped back from that work…and about how missing my kids can be construed as a statement about something entirely different.

    And, because I’m an organizer and a policy geek, I’m also thinking that I bet most of those moms at the park would agree that they do more than their fair share at home, want better options in the labor market, and reject being labeled as “just stay-at-home moms”, and I’m wondering how many would self-identify as feminists. I’m thinking about how to build a movement that can change the frames that constrain women’s lives, because “pro-family” shouldn’t mean “turn the clock back”, “gender-neutral” almost never is, and no one ever nods knowingly at working fathers who “try to have it all”. And I’m thinking personally, too, about how my wedding vows included the phrase “work with you for justice and peace in our home and in our world”, and about what building a truly equitable partnership looks like, every day. I’m thinking about that agenda: equal pay and equal education and some things that must be distinctly unequal–reproductive choice and affirmative action and economic support for single mothers. And I’m thinking about how to make sure that my kids, especially my daughter, grow up in a society that supports women in a multitude of roles, having broken through the backlash for good.

    And I’m thinking, too, happy anniversary, honey. I swear.

    Another lesson in policy implementation

    So I’m actually one of those people who really doesn’t mind saying, “I told you so.” I mean, sometimes, I did. Right?

    And this is one of those times, albeit with an example that is even more dramatic than I could have dreamed up. Mental note to work this into next fall’s lectures on how the policy analysis/advocacy processes don’t end with the passage of legislation, the signing of an executive order, or the issuance of a judicial decree.

    I recently read the book Methland. Not a good book to read before bed–does anyone else have an irrational fear of somehow, accidentally, becoming addicted to methamphetamine? Um, me neither.

    So there is a whole bunch of stuff in here that’s worth talking about, primarily the author’s really profound linkage between the collapse of American agriculture, pursuant to degregulation and deunionization of the meatpacking industry and the rise of the agricultural megaconglomerate, and the move of meth into the void created in small towns across the American Midwest. A welcome change from the “people in small towns don’t have anything else to do” rationale for meth’s popularity, a glaringly inaccurate, stereotypical, and completely unhelpful attribution popularized in much of the media, and even state policy, discourse about the scourge of meth addiction.

    But, this post isn’t about any of that, although I’d love to find a way to work that into the class I teach on global poverty, since we talk about the impact on the developing world of those same agricultural trends. It’s all about connections, people…

    But the page that I marked in this book was towards the end, in the discussion of the Combat Meth Act. Good, strong title, bipartisan congressional support=concerted effort to provide the resources to really “combat meth”, right?


    While the actual language of the bill was weakened somewhat after strong lobbying by the retain chain store industry (can’t get between people and their Sudafed, here), the industry understood what we, as social justice advocates, sometimes forget: it’s not even as important what’s in the legislation as what will control how the legislation is actually implemented.

    So, while anti-meth advocates were upset by the exclusion of “stop buy” language in the bill (which would have stopped further purchases of the components of meth in the event of excessive buys), they still largely celebrated passage of the bill.

    And then they realized that the legislation would allow states to permit pharmacies in those same chain stores to rely on handwritten logs of cold medicine sales instead of computerized systems that could communicate in real-time, help law enforcement to detect patterns, and, hopefully, actually combat meth, by reducing access to its ingredients, rather than trying to deal with the tragic human consequences later. As one of the champions of the anti-meth campaign said, “here we are, the most technologically advanced nation in history, and we have thousands of people writing hundreds of thousands of names in notebooks. We pass a law, and then we basically tell these huge companies that they’re not responsible for complying. It’s stunning” (p. 241).

    And, unfortunately, totally unsurprising.

    Rather than just bemoan this fairly predictable turn of events, we need to take this lesson as a challenge, and redouble our commitment to pay attention to the details–what are the consequences for failure to comply? What kinds of resources are put into monitoring? How will we build accountability in? WHO has ultimate responsibility for this accountability? To whom do we turn if we don’t feel that the policy is being followed?

    We can’t allow ourselves to be beat by these back-door, hollow ‘victories’. Taking to heart this lesson of implementation, we can ensure that our hard advocacy work isn’t for naught. Take a cue from our adversaries: seal the deal.

    Policy Reform to Make Every Day a Happy Mothers’ Day

    Who makes me a mom–my big kid at age 3 and the twins at 3 months

    Yesterday was Mothers’** Day (okay, so I’m really writing this the week before, since I usually spend Mothers’ Day sleeping late and then just playing with my kids, but give me a break–it’s Mothers’ Day!).

    This post isn’t about any inspirational lessons my kids have taught me, though, or the history of the holiday, or anything heartwarming like those email forwards about sick kids that people always send around this time of year (that I curse under my breath but still cry at?).

    It’s about public policy reforms that would make every mother’s life better, and make our country a better place in the process, and about building the kind of political movement that would make that happen.

    It’s about really believing that it could, that it can, that it will, because moms manage to make some pretty amazing things happen every day, there are a lot of us, and, well, even the most jaded politicians are afraid to be “anti-Mom”.

    This spring, I read The Motherhood Manifesto. It’s terrific–stories about ordinary moms and how public policy changes would make a difference in their lives, and in ours. For several months, I’ve been an active member of MomsRising, a truly fantastic blog/advocacy group/support for progressive parents that takes on the policy priorities (maternity leave, open/flexible work, after-school programs, health care for all, excellent childcare, realistic & fair wages, and paid sick days) that stem from The Motherhood Manifesto, but, in today’s digital age, it’s a site that uses video and social networking and the highlighted voices of real parents to inspire action. If you are a mom, or you want to honor one, check it out.

    Reading the book and communicating with other moms on the site, I think that there’s a real missed opportunity not to just press for these policy priorities, but also to activate families more and include a ‘motherhood (and apple pie is always good)’ appeal in other policy advocacy, too. For example, there’s a real claim to make that providing greater access to health care outside of the employer-employee relationship would open up job options for mothers and fathers who want flexibility but often sacrifice it for full-time positions that come with benefits (which can mean, then, that one parent settles for less employment than he/she (usually she) would like, because the other is in an overwhelming job that comes with health insurance). I don’t hear the pro-mother, pro-family, pro-labor market flexibility argument much in the health care debate these days, and it seems to be a missing element.

    Similarly, the discussion around universal preschool and greater supports for early childhood education highlights the high cost, scarce availability, and spotty quality of childcare options, but gives short shrift to the struggles of childcare providers, many of whom are themselves mothers, who, despite the unaffordability of childcare for many parents, often earn poverty wages for their families. Uniting mothers who are childcare providers and those who are childcare consumers seems key to building a coalition that will shift the public understanding of childcare to something that more parallels higher education, where considerable public subsidy is considered an essential component of a thriving economy and society.

    I am very, very aware of the many privileges that make motherhood a (usually) pleasant journey for me: a partner who shares a lot of the family work load; life insurance that would keep our family from being devastated if something happened to either one of us; a part-time job that allows me a lot of flexibility; a higher education that makes that job a possibility; extended family nearby; a safe neighborhood full of people who view our children as partly their responsibility; access to health care for my kids…I can’t imagine being a mom without these supports, and yet the reality is that most mothers are denied many of them.

    Still, my reality is that I won’t make what I did once I go back to work full-time (the motherhood wage hit is about 30%, and it lasts for years, ON TOP OF the $700,000 lifetime hit women take in earnings due to the wage gap); I’m not saving anything for my retirement; I do more than half of the housework and the vast majority of the hands-on childcare; I panic whenever our childcare falls through; I work and parent even when I’m sick; including caring for my kids, I ‘work’ about 80 hours/week, but I’ll only get Social Security credits for a fraction of that. I see around me mothers who wish they were working but couldn’t make enough to pay for childcare, mothers who wish they could see their kids more but don’t want to sacrifice their careers, mothers who only have 2-3 weeks at home after having a baby, mothers who rationalize sending their kids to poor-quality childcare because they can’t afford anything else, mothers who themselves aren’t earning what they’re really worth.

    It’s wrong, our nation can’t afford it, and our families deserve better. Nearly every other developed nation does a better job of surrounding mothers with investments for success than ours–we know what would help, and we know that the we will reap the rewards for decades to come. Please, go make it a Happy Mothers’ Day, today and tomorrow and the next day…

    **I’m intentional about the placement of the possessive here; “mother’s day” would be about honoring one’s own mother, which, you know, is fine, but certainly not revolutionary. I consider it “mothers’ day”, which, if we took it seriously enough, could change our world.