Tag Archives: social policy

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:


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.

Not predictions. Just aspirations.

I cannot even pretend to know what this year has in store.

At this point, I’m just wondering what Christmas must feel like for people for whom it isn’t just “the calm before the legislative storm”.

You know that feeling, when you wake up in the morning and remember that something is terribly wrong, and it takes you just a minute to figure out what it is?

I have had that feeling every single day since August 7th.

Here in Kansas, 2013 could be a really, really long year.

But I’m a strengths-based social work practitioner. I am an organizer. An advocate.

And, I think still sometimes, an optimist.

So, instead of predictions about this year just-upon-us, I just have some hopes. Even dreams. And some resolutions, about my small piece in this puzzle.

What are yours? What are your aspirations for 2013? What are you committing yourself to do, in pursuit of them?

And, if anyone does have a crystal ball, will you share?

I hope:

  • that, when our legislature inevitably overreaches, in their ideological zeal, we can get people to pay attention, because I just don’t believe that most Kansans (or, fill in the blank, if your state is headed in that same direction) share a vision of the U.S. in which everyone is responsible for themselves and the commons is put to the curb.
  • that the ‘we need to soften the rhetoric on immigration’ rhetoric (let’s be honest, here) translates into real ideas and real momentum for immigration reform, not a reprise of tired and unworkable ideas designed to let politicians say that they’re ‘coming to the table’.
  • that we can–in Kansas, at the U.S. Supreme Court, and in states around the country, stave off some of the most permanent policy changes that would mean that even a reversal of political fortunes would have relatively little impact on future policies. In Kansas, we’re looking at the very real possibility that the legislature could amend the constitution, taking out, for example, the requirement that the legislature make ‘suitable provision for the financing of public education’. We can’t get that back.
  • that we can reclaim the narrative about work–who does it, what it means, and why it matters–in this country, in sharp contrast to the current debate, where we revere workers except for when they want a decent union contract (when firefighters become freeloaders, inexplicably) or affordable health care.
  • that the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, as we move towards full implementation, work in much the same way as then-reviled Social Security, which, once people have gotten used to it, has become not only ideologically palatable but also political untouchable. It’s one thing to hate a program that isn’t doing anything for you; it’s quite another to look a gift horse in the mouth.
  • that there is at least a bit of a lull in the federal campaign season, not because I’m anti-campaigning, obviously–I believe that they are essential venues of policy contest–but because I think our polity needs a bit of healing, and I don’t see that happening if we immediately pivot to 2014, and beyond.
  • that the U.S. Supreme Court rules that arbitrary restrictions on who can marry are as anathema to our constitutional protections today–when it’s gender at stake–as when we based the limits on race. Ultimately, the parallels between where the GLBT equality movement and the civil rights movement for people of color are, in terms of positioning in the electorate and the courts, are limited; I believe that marriage equality is inevitable, while we have obviously still struggled to desegregate with anything resembling deliberate speed, but, still, a shot of adrenaline wouldn’t hurt.

They are dreams. Please don’t hold me to them.

But, to get there, I’m resolving to:

  • read more. I am surrounded by words all the time, but I don’t spend nearly as many hours as I would like reading really challenging material that makes me question how and what I think. I need to be more informed, despite a wealth of information.
  • actively mentor direct social workers interested in advocacy. I’m not at the point in my career, yet, where I see myself as a ‘mentor’, really, except to my students, but I know that there are social work direct practitioners who want and need guidance on how to weave advocacy into their work, and I think that I can help them, so I’m going to try to seek people out and make myself available, for support and encouragement and some free technical assistance.
  • register some voters, apart from a campaign cycle, just because they need to be heard.
  • write at least two letters to the editor. I have good luck getting things printed, but it’s been awhile since I submitted anything under my own name, not as a part of my work, just because it matters to me. I’ll get that done this year.

And I need to exercise more, and spend more time with my kids without looking at a screen. And I’d love to get a little more sleep.

Here’s to a new year.

Why a safety net still matters

I’m giving a presentation tomorrow on the safety net–what it is, how it is threatened, and why it should matter to all of us.

If you’re in the Kansas City area, you should totally come.

Much of the presentation is evidence on what we know to be truths: the safety net has too many holes–and people are falling through; the short-term effects of the recession and the longer-term reshaping of our economy place increasing strains on the safety net; and the safety net’s reach is inadequate to cushion all those who really need it (because benefits are too meager and eligibility criteria too tight).

I trace the origins of these threats to the safety net to an overlapping set of ‘culprits’: tax cuts that erode the revenue foundation, the budget cuts we have chosen over other alternatives, the preference for privatization and block grants instead of entitlements, the recession and its exposure of the fragility of the safety net, and the overt attacks on the poor (more on that tomorrow!).

But the piece that I think may have the greatest impact on the audience is my contention that part of how we get to a better place is by celebrating the safety net and all that it does for our society.

Yes, we absolutely need to put the safety net in its proper ‘place’ in our economy. We need good jobs that pay well, and the safety net should be a place of refuge, not a way of life. No one grows up dreaming of the day when they can receive emergency food assistance.

But the safety net, when it’s structured appropriately and (critical point) funded adequately, really works.

That’s something that often gets lost in the rhetoric (from one side) about a ‘Food Stamp culture’ (what, in the world, that is, I do not know) and (from the practitioner side) complaints about the gaps and their failures.

But we cannot save that which we are always so busy complaining about.

So understanding, and, yes, celebrating, the role of the safety net is important. We know a lot more today about the impact of safety net programs, because of the Supplemental Poverty Measure. And we need to start sharing what we’ve learned.

  • Without government assistance programs, the poverty rate would have been nearly twice as high in 2010:  an estimated 28.6 percent, compared with the actual figure of 15.5 percent.  If the safety net hadn’t existed, another 40 million people would have been poor.
  • The number of young adults with private health coverage has risen by ~2.5 million because of the Affordable Care Act.
  • In 2009, the Kansas EITC returned more than $81 million to low-income Kansas taxpayers.
  • Despite increased poverty and unemployment, hunger did not increase during the recession, largely due to investments in SNAP.
  • Social Security lifts more than 20 million Americans out of poverty, including more than 128,000 seniors in Kansas and more than 1 million children nationwide.
  • Federal rental assistance programs lifted about 3 million families out of poverty in 2010.

We know, of course, that these data are only part of the equation, though. What are your stories about why the safety net matters, and what stories do you believe we need to tell, about why there should–really–be something to catch people when they inevitably fall?

Quality of Life, and Building it for my Kids

**I’m still catching up on posts about all of the reading that I did between Thanksgiving and the beginning of February–my most prolific reading period of the entire year, for sure–and slowly going through the pile of sticky notes that I accumulated as I processed what I read, and what it made me think.**

This week, I have three posts related to the really excellent book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. You should totally read the book, which is full of data that turns what we think we know about poverty, and wealth, and well-being, on its head.

But, as usual, this isn’t so much a traditional ‘review’ as it is my reflections on what a particular concept means for me, and, I hope, for us.

Every parent wants a good quality of life for her/his children, right? I mean, I know not just for my neighbors–here in this pretty affluent suburb–but also for the immigrant parents with whom I have the honor to work, it’s the hope that the future holds something promising, and secure, and healthy for one’s children that motivates much of what we do.

But thinking about what the evidence says about real quality of life, and about how to get it, must provoke a reconsideration of our pursuits. Because, increasingly, we know that having more doesn’t mean having it better.

In the United States, especially for those not in the lowest income tiers, we’re reading the limit of what increasing living standards can offer us, in terms of health and life expectancy and all-around wellness.

In fact, we know that, inequality matters a lot in determining how healthy people are, how much they learn, even how happy they feel, even controlling for income.

It matters even more than we want to admit, because acknowledging how important equality is in shaping our own well-being means that we have to spend more collective energy (and public resources) figuring out wealth distribution instead of trying to get as much as we can for ourselves, or even just adding to the total aggregate.

Mental illness rates are higher in societies with more inequality, with even health among higher-income populations affected by overall levels of inequality.

It’s not enough to have ‘enough’ for yourself.

You’re harmed, in some real, tangible ways, as well as some more subtle psychological ones, by the existence of others who have far less than enough.

And less than you.

We know that from data, but we know it from our lived and practice experience too, right?

I see the anxiety around me, from parents who put their 5-year-olds in tons of activities because they want to produce ‘well-rounded scholars’ (yes, they use that phrase) to neighbors who reluctantly acknowledge that they’re in deep debt because of out-of-control spending to couples whose marriages fall apart because of the strain of overwork. I see a harsh side of inequality in the smugness of those who accept mediocrity from our public school system, secure in the knowledge that it’s still better than what other kids get.

It’s not ‘cultural’, this stress and malaise and vindictiveness.

It’s born of the proximity of desperation, and the knowledge that we are but a few ‘failures’ away from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, which seem like such a long way down. It’s exposed by the tattered safety net and the panicking realization that there’s very little to catch us if, or when, we fall.

It’s a special kind of insecurity that can only be mitigated by building a society where everyone has enough, because we can never hoard enough for ourselves to feel safe.

And that gets me to thinking about our kids, and to facing the awareness that I cannot protect them, as long as I’m only trying to protect them.

Because I want BETTER for my kids, not better like iPads for my 3-year-olds but better like believing that people take care of each other when it’s needed, that belonging to a society comes with certain guarantees, and that no one should have too much…or too little.

There’s always a bright spot

My favorite story from Switch is about the mothers in Vietnam, and how an anti-hunger campaign there, rather than beginning with an exhaustive study about all of the factors that perpetuate the problem of child malnutrition, instead started with a search for where things were going well.

And then set out to replicate those bright spots.

Over and over and over again.

This idea aligns with how I teach social policy from the strengths perspective, taking the stance that policy approaches that build from the good things that are happening, even in the midst of social problems, will be ultimately much more successful.

It’s how I parent, too, consciously trying to spend way more time talking with my kids about what they’re doing well than about what needs to change. Because it’s really true, at least with my 3-year-old twins, that focusing on the problems mainly get you more problems.

Strengths-based social workers spend a lot of our time defending ourselves. Because, no, focusing on strengths does not mean that we ignore the problems. Or that we’re all Pollyannas. Or that we pretend that things will take care of themselves. Strengths-based social policy isn’t unrealistic.

To the contrary: it’s what works.

Because it begins from what’s working.

There are a variety of reasons why focusing on these bright spots–again, even in the context of real challenge (think: child starvation)–works, all of which will be familiar to strengths-based direct practitioners, too:

  • Beginning with a nod to what’s already going well is like starting halfway there, and that breeds hope which, in turn, gives us momentum for greater changes
  • Sometimes we can’t fully understand a problem, but we can zero in on the places where, even inexplicably, things are going well, to try to mirror that
  • In the policy context, we can bring more people to our cause by rallying them around a possibility than guilting them into caring about our disasters
  • Strengths-based policy development builds on a different process, not just a unique product; if we’re going to solve this problem by following the leads of those who have already partially solved it, then we are by default going to involve those folks more actively in the solution, rather than give them a list of directions to follow. It’s no surprise which works better (another way in which parenting is like social change!).

    All of this has me thinking about bright spots, an exercise which, I’ll admit, is a bit foreign to me, as someone who is uncomfortably attuned to the injustices and inhumanities that populate our world.

    But there are some, and I think that we’re already learning from them. What about the teenager who makes it out of a poverty-ridden neighborhood, later to credit the mentor or one caring adult who shepherded her? Why can’t we build systems that provide those shepherds for everyone? What about the welfare office that locates in a school, and sees intake rates skyrocket as barriers are erased? Why can’t we take down hurdles everywhere? What about the backpack programs that send nutritious food home with kids from school and significantly reduce food insecurity? Why can’t we make sure that every hungry child has one?

    Looking for bright spots, to me, is more than just a reflection of an ideological preference for positivity.

    It’s about turning technical problems into political ones.

    Finding what works allows us to stop pretending that we don’t know how to solve the problems that face us–or at least how to begin to solve them–and requires that we focus, instead, on overcoming our resistance to solving them.

    Which means that we need to look for other bright spots, then: the places where movements of people have, as only movements of people can, summoned the political will to light bright spots all over the place.

    To light.