“Short course” in thinking about social welfare policy making in the U.S. today

April 30, 2021

I just wrapped up delivering three undergrad courses in social welfare policy and programs. We covered a lot of detailed ground over the term, to be sure, but the main purpose of these courses is not to master detail, but to sharpen thinking about both the process and content of social welfare policy making in America today. With that end in mind, the major course “hooks” might be summed up this way, in the form of “Ten Tenets for Understanding the U.S. Policy Making System: A Primer for Social Work Students (and others)”:

  1. In essence, policy making is, ideally, nothing other than problem solving in the most public form. As problem solving is the core methodology of social work, we are most certainly “doing” social work when we engage in social welfare policy practice.
  2. In reality, however, many factors intrude on the ideal form of problem solving, factors which undercut 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 grounded in class, race, and gender disparities and injustices.
  4. These inequities – abetted by the hegemonic ideology of neoliberalism (celebrating “free markets” and demanding “small government” and deregulation) 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.
  5. The present U.S. political situation is one of interlocking crises – economic, political, and ecological.  Far from allowing a reasonable premise that society may steadily, incrementally progress toward increasing public good in a context of relative stability, instability and regression are the watchwords 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. The gap between “the world as it is” and “the world as it ought to be” is large, and widening.
  7. The situation is urgent, and at least in the short run, likely to worsen.  The momentum of the system a a whole moves in the wrong direction; power in the policy making system lies in the wrong hands.
  8. There is hope, to be sure; 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. 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 Alinsky’s insight that power is organized money and organized 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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