Thoughts on studying social welfare policy in a period of political regression

December 1, 2020

I’m just wrapping up a semester of teaching social welfare policy (and related systems) to multiple sections of undergraduate social work students. To say that the contextual circumstances of teaching this term – let alone this topic during this term – have been unprecedented (my nomination for 2020’s word of the year) is a gross understatement. Here’s a summary of the key “takeaways” that I sought to impart:

  1. In ideal form, policy making is for social workers nothing other than problem solving in the most public, “macro” form.
  2. In reality, however, many factors intrude on this ideal, undermining a rational, let alone democratic, process of policy making.
  3. Most important of these factors is the unequal distribution of power in society, which in turn is structurally grounded in class, race, and gender inequities.
  4. These inequities – abetted by the hegemonic ideology of neoliberalism (celebrating “free markets” and demanding “small government” and deregulation of corporate behavior) – have, in our lifetimes, led to a virtual “capture” of government by the rich and powerful.  Our policy making system is, as a result, far more oligarchic and plutocratic than it is democratic in any meaningful sense.
  5. The present situation is one of interlocking and severe crises – health, economic, political, racial/social, and ecological.  Far from permitting a reasonable premise that society may steadily, incrementally progress toward increasing public good in a context of relative stability, these multiple crises ensure that instability and regression are the leading characteristics of the age.
  6. One effect of the new instability is that the social work vision of a just society, grounded in values of reciprocity, cooperation, compassion, social capital, etc., is on the defensive, if not in full retreat.
  7. The situation is urgent, and at least in the short run, likely to worsen.  The momentum moves in the wrong direction; the power is in the wrong hands.
  8. If there’s hope, it lies in the growing awareness that the current system is not working for the vast majority of ordinary people – neither in the U.S. nor in the world.  Signs of “resistance” are all around – both in the electoral system, and in the plethora of “movements” active in trying to stave off disaster, injustice, and a worsening of conditions, and working for a better world.
  9. The profession of social work needs to embrace, at a higher level of activity and urgency than it presently demonstrates, both these vehicles for change.  We need to occupy meaningful space in the electoral arena, and we need to join with, if not lead, broad-based movements – keeping in mind the great Saul Alinsky’s insight that power is organized money and organized people. We may not have the most money, but we do, in principle, have the people.
  10. Success in the struggle for justice-promoting policy (our vision of the “world we want and need”) is less a given than a matter of hope.  Hope is a term that social work – living always in the tension between two worlds – has warmly embraced.  But our form of hope cannot be a weak-kneed form of wish fulfillment. Rather, it needs be grounded in the hard-nosed insight of St. Augustine – “Hope,” he said, “has two daughters – anger and courage: anger at the way things are, and courage to fight to make them as they ought to be.”

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