Tag Archives: social policy

Starting in the Classroom: Blended Instruction for Policy Practice

I can definitively say, now, almost 4 years after the university started its experiment with instruction that is part traditional classroom format and part-online, that, for teaching social policy, I totally love it.

I promise it’s not because scheduling class around my practice and my kids’ schedules is easier when we meet only 7 times/semester, instead of every week.

The late nights on the discussion boards and trolling the Internet for new content that I want to introduce (and, still, sometimes, soothing students anxious about the long stretches we have between class periods) sort of make up for that.

No, what I like the best is how much more closely it parallels how social work practitioners engage with social policy, as compared to having access to an instructor like me for 3 hours every week.

Students learn to navigate policy information online, evaluating the respective biases of each perspective, just like they have to in practice.

They build communities of other social workers who can support them through the often isolating experiences of unraveling the layers of social injustice that constrain their effective work with clients. They pivot between untangling root causes and applying salve to the wounds of those injured by our society. They turn their attentions to the ways in which clients experience policy most–in the policies that agencies develop in order to operate within these external parameters.

They find ways to weave advocacy and investigation and constituent development into their direct practice, without overwhelming their days or (hopefully) antagonizing their practice organizations (too much).

And, I guess, that’s our hope for students in any social work policy class, but, again, year after year, my students have returned to tell me how much harder it all gets, when they graduate and no longer have the classroom experience to ‘root’ their social policy studies.

It’s one thing to stay grounded in a dual micro/macro practice approach when you have half a work day, every week, set aside for that express purpose.

It’s quite another when you’re literally on your own.

So, while I don’t consider my responsibility to my students any less in a blended course than one where I’m in front of them every week–quite the opposite–I know that they do experience me differently, and, so I leave a different impression on their social work identity.

It is my hope, and I think, it has been affirmed at least somewhat over these past few years of experimenting, that this instructional format equips my students to take on social policy in the arena where they’ll need to be effective, as policy practitioners.

In the ‘real world’, which is to say, increasingly in today’s context, online.

The best of both worlds, I hope.

Taking some things ‘off the battlefield’

I am not afraid of controversy.

Really.

But I will admit to being tired of having to contest EVERYTHING.

It seems like we should be able to agree that some things are, if not sacred, at least accepted, so that we can sort of collectively move on.

No?

I mean, the issue of whether and how to fund legal services for those in poverty is highly contested, even when that results in a complete breakdown of our legal system. One of my students created a policy brief last semester about Missouri’s practice of requiring attorneys to serve as pro bono lawyers in family court, and how all sides acknowledge that this ‘compromise’ is a mess: unprepared attorneys, unrepresented families, unhappy judges.

And there’s of course tremendous disagreement about the value of early childhood education, even though an approach like Head Start was, when it was created, understood as a political compromise, bridging liberal emphasis on helping the poor with more conservative preferences for investing in human capital, instead of direct transfers.

But not now.

I recognize that this whole lament risks me sounding like a hopeless romantic, wistfully wishing for more ‘civil’ debate.

But that’s not really what I mean.

What I mean, and what I hope, is some concession on established fact–specifically, on delivered outcomes–and some common understanding about what our aims should be.

I want to draw some parameters around what is up for negotiation, and what should not, especially where there are decades of accumulated evidence and/or broad consensus on the unworkability of the status quo.

I want a sort of ceasefire, not across the board, but on at least some things, so that, respectively, we can dedicate our political and, more importantly, analytical ‘ammunition’ to those remaining contests.

What are you tired of debating? What do you want to see ‘come off the battlefield’? Where do you think there really is more agreement, perhaps, than we’re willing to concede?

The Poor Will Always Be With Us

This might not be an April Fool’s Day post like I’ve done some years, but there’s definitely a trick.

Because, really?

Are we going to allow ourselves to believe that ‘nothing works’ in combating poverty, and, so, resign ourselves to a large population of those without, when there is evidence all around us that policy makes a huge difference in the lives of vulnerable people?

We must not.

When I talk in class about how reductions in poverty among older adults serve as evidence that policy can fight poverty, and, then, that it’s our failure to invest similarly in other populations, not lack of any ideas about what might help, that explains the perpetuation of poverty among, say, single-female headed households, I can almost see the lightbulbs going off.

Similarly, the economic expansion of the late 1990s, fueled in part by deliberate policy changes, showed that even child poverty is amenable to targeted intervention. Improving the Earned Income Tax Credit (lowering the eligibility age, providing a more adequate benefit to childless workers) would reduce poverty among working Americans whose economic instability has significant ripples in our social conditions.

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits lifted 4 million Americans out of poverty in 2012; cuts to eligibility in many states will have a direct effect on poverty rates.

Social Security keeps more than 12 million Americans out of poverty each year, and there’s no reason we can’t see similar outcomes from investing in a concerted anti-poverty approach for younger Americans, too.

This is an adaptive problem, not a technical one.

We need political will far more than new ideas.

And we need to stop ignoring problems and then concluding–when we turn around to see the mess we’ve created–that these problems are intractable, instead of very definitely human-made.

If we don’t, we’re being made fools of.

And not just today.

Review Week: So Rich, So Poor

When I see statistics like this one in So Rich, So Poor: In 2009, there were 2 million families in the United States with only SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/food stamp) benefits as income (it’s an entitlement, not a block grant like TANF, so it has the ability to expand with need during times of recession), I think:

We are better than this.

Because we ARE.

Americans are, truly, a pretty generous group.

Americans gave $316.2-billion to charity last year, which represents 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, the same as in 2011. There are reasons to be concerned about the lack of growth in giving, in light of more organizations evidencing more significant need, but, still, that’s no small exercise of altruistic expenditure.

And that contrasts, sharply, with our public policy infrastructure, where we do very little to help, in particular, those with incomes below 50% of the poverty line (even Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF, really only serves to bring these folks up to ‘regular’ poverty) and working families, who suffer acutely the decline in the value of the minimum wage.

While there is room for improvement in our efforts to make people aware of the realities of poverty, certainly–I’m intrigued by the idea of labels on products that describe the quality of the jobs that produced them, for example, for the most part, we just have to face this sharp divergence between how we give privately and what we’re willing to commit to publicly.

Indeed, even on the micro level, our narrative of the American Dream leads us to individual explanations for why people struggle, and, then, individual approaches for how to help.

I think–and this is by no means an entirely original thought–that our lack of faith in government, and our failure to be captivated by the power of the collective, are at the heart of this disconnect, fueled further by our discomfort with helping people we don’t know.

And social workers are not blameless in this separation of problem and solution, and the woeful inadequacy of the response that results.

When was the last time you heard a social worker express enthusiastic support for welfare?

Why do so many of my students–all of them absolutely committed to improving people’s lives, including reducing the poverty in which people struggle–distance themselves from macro approaches to bringing this relief?

It’s not about apathy. It’s no harder to speak out against SNAP cuts or call out Congress on tax cuts, really, than it is to find $50 in your budget to support a worthwhile organization.

It’s certainly no harder to sign a petition or even visit a legislator than it is to engage people in the tremendously difficult process of working with a broken system to navigate help they need.

Instead, it’s a lack of imagination, a failure of vision, a preference for familiar, localized channels instead of the unknowns of fundamental change.

But if we’re going to craft solutions scaled to confront the crisis of poverty–and we must–we’ve got to do that together, not one check at a time.

A 21st Century Financial Aid Policy

I have come to believe that we need dramatic changes in our financial aid system.

We have largely eroded the supports that used to be there for low-income students seeking to go to college: In the 2010-2011 school year, the maximum Pell Grant award covered only 36% of the average cost of attendance at a public four-year institution, compared to 77% in 1979-1980.

More students are having to borrow more money to leap the chasm between what they can really afford and how much college costs. Today, the median college debt is about $28,000 per year, even though research reveals the potential for significant negative effects–on college graduation and post-secondary financial outcomes–starting at only about $10,000 in borrowing.

So more students are deterred from enrolling at all, put off by high-dollar debt or uncertain about whether college is really worth it.

To me, this makes financial aid reform more than just an academic exercise (no pun intended); it is a policy imperative.

I’m working now on a report outlining AEDI’s priorities for policy changes, and so I want to use this space–and your generosity with your time–to elicit some input as we outline a way forward. The good news about being at the beginning of a policy reform effort is that there are many options. The hard thing, of course, is trying to, collectively, think differently than we ever have before.

I believe that identifying the right options–some workable, some aspirational, across the levers of potential influence–is key to getting these conversations started. And I am audacious enough to ask for your help with that. Thank you in advance!

  • Reinvest in higher education as a collective good, to reduce the growth in college costs and reflect the truth that higher education is a common value, as much as an individual asset
  • Minimize the negative effects of student debt, especially as we shift from debt-dependent to asset-based financial aid. This means that policymakers should explore provision of ‘emergency’ aid, to prevent disruptions in academic progress often associated with financial setbacks; incentives for educational attainment, potentially including at least partial loan forgiveness for on-time degree completion for Pell-eligible students; and policies that reduce debt burdens, including income-based repayment and incentives for employer matching for student debt repayment following graduation.
  • Support college graduates as they strive to build assets, perhaps through diverting some loan repayments to savings accounts (as we do in the HUD Self-Sufficiency program, with rents), protecting graduates’ credit scores from student loan effects, and directing the financial services industry to aggressively extend savings opportunities to Americans.
  • Improve quality of K-12 education, to reduce the need for remediation in college and close the gap between how children need to perform and what they are prepared to do–too many students are failed in high school and then have to pay to catch up in college. Since educational quality is highly inequitable, too, this serves to exacerbate other layers of inequity.
  • Eliminate disincentives for college savings in the public assistance and means-tested financial aid systems–today, we have a bifurcated financial aid system, where wealthy students mostly enjoy asset-based financing, while low-income students grapple with the fallout of high-dollar debt. And strict asset limits in financial aid and public assistance determinations enforce this inequity.
  • Incorporate savings into current financial aid programs, using the variable of timing to convert them into ‘early commitment’ programs. This might mean incorporating savings into the Pell Grant program and/or diverting some scholarship money from academic merit-based to rewarding savings, at the university or local level.
  • Build progressive, lifelong, universal, asset-building child savings structure, paralleling asset incentives through the tax code for wealthy students. To make Child Savings Accounts (CSAs) work for low-income households, some policy features are essential: automatic enrollment (opt-out), ideally at birth; initial deposits that give all children an immediate stake in their futures; program features to ease access, like low initial deposit requirements; concerted outreach and education; and special incentives, such as refundable tax credits and/or direct matches. Accounts should be in students’ names, and at least some of the deposits should be available as they go through school, to help them confront financial obstacles to academic achievement.

What’s missing? What concerns you? What confuses you?

What is your vision for a financial aid policy for tomorrow’s challenges, and how do you think we get there?

Coming out of our bunkers

Sometimes my students say things in class that just make me love them so much.

I try not to gush, because that’s a little strange; I mean, I cheerlead my own kids A LOT (“It’s a beautiful day to be these kids’ mom”, sung to the tune of the Mr. Rogers theme song, is one of my calling cards), but my students and I have a little different of a relationship.

But when they are so enthusiastic about policy practice, or so angry about an injustice they’ve witnessed at practicum, or just so curious about why things are the way they are, well, I just bubble over with affection for them.

And when they are so earnest and transparent and vulnerable, it touches my heart.

So this post is offered in that spirit, not in condemnation of the student who shared this reaction, nor, indeed, of the many who didn’t voice a similar response even if they feel it.

But in love and shared commitment to find ways to seek solace in coming together, rather than in hiding out.

It happened early in this fall semester, when I asked students to share their experiences trying to navigate information about policies and policy changes affecting their practices and their clients, and one student, somewhat hesitantly at first, shared that she really avoids paying attention to ‘anything political’, not because she doesn’t think it’s important, or doesn’t see the connection, but, really, because it just hurts too much.

She called it ‘self-preservation’ and said that, because she feels so emotionally overextended in her direct service provision, the only way that she can handle the emotional fallout of being a social worker is to focus narrowly on the immediate realm of her ‘control’ (even she acknowledged this control is elusive), closing her eyes to the world beyond her agency.

And, you know, I sort of get that.

My moments of greatest helplessness come when facing questions from my oldest son about why policies are the way they are–Why would Syria’s president hurt his own people and no one stops him? Why do so many states still ban gay marriage? Why would poor children lose preschool when the government shuts down (but Congress still gets paid)? Why is a teen mom separated from her baby so that her foster family can afford to take care of her, with the right level of reimbursement? Why do immigrants have to wait in Mexico for 10 years before they can be reunited with their families? Why?

Sometimes, when my mind is filled with regrets for the way that I spoke to his brother and mental to-do lists for work, I wish that he wouldn’t ask, “What happened in the world today, Mom, while I was at school?” Because it seems easier just to focus on dinner and our day and these four walls.

But his face, and his eagerness, and his whys, are my most poignant reminders of what’s at stake, and why hiding in a bunker isn’t safe for any of us.

Not when the world needs us out there.

So my response to my student was, in many respects, speaking to myself.

We talked about how joining with others to tackle root causes can combat burnout, and about humans’ greater ability to deal with that for which we feel prepared, rather than what blindsides us.

We talked about power, and vacuums, and about our responsibility to be at that metaphorical table when decisions are being made.

And we talked about Sam.

And about how, sometimes, when it seems like too much and I wish for the temporary solace of ignorance, I think about his wonderings.

And I take comfort in, at least, being able to tell him that I was paying attention. And that we tried. Together.

As we greet the new year, here’s to opening the door to the world, pulling the covers down, and facing our battles.

The new ‘mommy wars’

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I am all for more Mommy Wars.

Not the ‘stay-at-home’ v. ‘work-full-time’ type.

Those are offensive (because they totally ignore the reality of families’ economic needs for two incomes, and the policies that have driven them, as well as the ongoing gender imbalance in the workplace and in domestic responsibilities), soul-sucking (because being a mother is hard work, and the last thing we need is more alienation), divisive (our biggest challenges are not each other), and, ultimately, really misguided.

No, I want more of the ‘Moms v. Injustice’ type of Mommy wars, the kind where Senator Mitch McConnell has to walk past lines of moms in strollers to get to his office, after leading the charge against mandatory background checks.

The kind where mothers and children celebrate Mothers’ Day by demanding immigration reform that will stop separating families.

The kind where mothers (and fathers) work together, across lines of class and race, to demand sick-leave policy to protect their families and preserve their jobs.

The kind of collective ‘mom war’ on what’s besieging our families, perhaps starting with the lack of recognition of the value of the caregiving work that women do–whether they also work for pay outside the home or not–and the need for society to share all of our responsibilities.

This year, for my birthday, I’m making donations to MomsRising, and I would love for you to join me.

My hope for this next year of my life is that moms–self included–feel less ‘stressed’ and more angry, together.

  • Angry at lack of affordable childcare and flexible workplace policies
  • Angry at society’s failure to take basic steps towards protecting our children
  • Angry at the gendered nature of caregiving and the reality of ongoing pay discrimination
  • Angry at the politicization of health care–for women and also for our families
  • Angry at how often women, in the U.S. and around the world, are expected to pick up the slack created by policy gaps, and at how unrecognized women’s work is, despite being the lifeblood of the economy
  • Angry at messages that convince us to compete with other moms or to focus inward on achieving ‘balance’, rather than seeking justice at home and work
  • Angry at forces that push us to tear each other down for our ‘choices’, instead of revealing the false nature of many of the options we face

We need a war on the system that tries to turn public failings into personal problems.

And Moms are just the ones to wage it.

Tripwires in social policy

One of the greatest insights that I gleaned from Decisive was this idea of ‘tripwires’.

First, let me say that this is not anything like the automatic budget cuts that triggered the sequester, nor, certainly, the border security ‘benchmarks’ that received so much attention during this summer’s congressional debate on immigration reform.

Not like those at all.

Instead, tripwires are sort of like signals that we need to make a decision about something. They don’t tell you what the decision should be, necessarily, but they can be used to jar you out of continuing on autopilot, without recognizing when a new course of action–or at least the consideration of the same–is warranted.

And that has me thinking about what smart use of tripwires might look like in the social policy arena.

How could we use social indicators to identify when a problem demands our attention?

Would tripwires have helped us to mobilize more quickly around rising obesity? Should we have tripwires set now to draw our attention to the dramatic increases in Americans receiving federal disability? Would clearer economic tripwires have helped us to notice–in a real, actionable way, not just analysts connecting dots–warning signs in the housing and credit markets?

Would having tripwires set encourage innovation and allow greater focus, with the relative certainty that, when something gets to the level that it demands our attention, we’ll know?

In Decisive, the authors explain tripwires this way: “[they] allow us the certainty of committing to a course of action, even a risky one, while minimizing the costs of overconfidence” (p. 231).

We are committing to revisiting critical questions, even when we might otherwise overlook them.

Again, we’re not pretending to know now what the answer should be then, but we are reminding ourselves, possibly in statute, that we need to intentionally ask the right questions, when we get there.

Sort of like when I put huge sticky notes in my calendar to remind me of certain needed actions, such that I can’t write anything on that day until I do something about whatever issue the note prompts, so that I can take it off.

Sort of.

The idea, cognitively, is that we can be coached to recognize patterns of threat or opportunity. Indeed, history is replete with examples of some people noticing the signs, but we have not established mechanisms to capture this wisdom in our social policy decision making.

Or, even more importantly, to do anything with it.

Where do you see a need for tripwires? How could we build them into policy? What concerns would you have about instituting this kind of structure? What could we gain?

Policymaking for small failures

This one has been in my draft folder for awhile, while I spent the first part of the summer teaching and consulting and the month of July mostly playing.

One of my favorite bloggers anywhere, Beth Kanter, had a post on one of my favorite topics:

failure.

Specifically, how nonprofits can and should plan for ‘affordable losses or little bets to improve impact’.

Like everything she writes, it’s well worth reading.

But I am thinking about these small failures not in the nonprofit organizational context, as Beth so ably covers, but in terms of policymaking.

Because there’s a lot that we need to learn in that arena, too, and, so, a lot on which we need to fail.

Our hesitancy to risk policy innovations stems, I think, in large part from fear of failure, when such failures may be exactly what we need, as long as they are small enough and contained enough not to become disasters.

We don’t know, for example, all that much about what it’s going to take to stem the rise in obesity rates, but we have some ideas of things to try. The same thing is certainly true in addressing educational disparities, or combating addiction, or other vexing problems where we have many more questions than answers.

We need more research, yes, and analysis, but we also need to take some chances, with the understanding that we will scale those approaches that don’t fail and quickly abandon those that do.

Such deliberate failures require nimble structures, though, and courageous leaders.

And we don’t necessarily have those in abundance in our policymaking systems. I recognize that.

But I think it’s worth putting it out there as a valid aim, this goal of small failures and the context that would support them.

The pressing nature of our greatest social problems demands that we accept neither reiterations of the same policies that aren’t bringing the impact we need, or wholesale rejection of those approaches in favor of the next shiny thing that may or may not work any better.

Instead, we need to move boldly but modestly, testing and evaluating and adjusting and adopting or abandoning.

Small failures, in pursuit of big change.

Flipping Frames

My students’ favorite class period, usually, in the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course, is when we talk about framing.

Everybody loves reading Lakoff, right?

The fun part for me is watching their realization develop, as they consider the roots of what they have always held to be ‘true’, as, instead, socially constructed and shaped by the language we use to talk about the concepts the words represent.

We talk about how often we find ourselves slipping into language, and buying into frames, that do not fit our values. Even though we can’t afford to shore up a competing frame.

We talk about ‘tax relief’, and about how it makes no sense to talk like that.

And, as they get it, they peel away the frames that shape our thinking. They reject frames that clash with the visions we hold.

Together, we reclaim language, refuse to accept language that misrepresents or demonizes vulnerable populations, and assert new ways of talking about issues.

We talk about how talking differently can lead to thinking differently, and about how we can lead the way to new potential solutions by changing the mental cues that our words evoke.

This isn’t about blaming the media for spin, or pretending that there are magic phrases that can galvanize the public around our way of seeing the world. Instead, it’s about understanding the cognitive link between language and beliefs, and using that brain science to our advantage, in the literal war over words.

In small groups, students practice ‘flipping’ frames. They analyze how a particular policy or problem is framed today–like tax policy, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment, homelessness, or the Affordable Care Act–in policy discourse/public media, and generate alternative ways that they could be framed.

Then we assess what it would take to assert this alternative way of thinking about these issues. We talk about how we might begin this process of transition. I use examples from advocacy debates today, like the work DREAM Act youth have done around pushing media outlets to abandon use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe undocumented immigrants, about how language can drive policy.

For many of them, it’s the first time that they have really thought about how what we say, together, shapes what we think, and about the insidious ways in which language determines what is seen as a ‘problem’ and which solutions are seen as ‘feasible’.

It’s satisfying, then, when they send me media clips, by email or through social media, even years later, pointing out how language around gay rights has shifted, or questioning why we’re all talking about a ‘fiscal cliff’.

We know, from research about the powerful intersection between language and thought, that we are what we say, to a great extent.

So we have some frames that need to be flipped.