We need a “new civics” for social workers

Nearly three decades of experience teaching social welfare policy at BSW, MSW, and DSW levels suggests that the vast majority of social work students operate with a deeply flawed understanding of how the U.S. political/policy making system actually operates.  A superficial and idealized model of policy making in turn misdirects student thinking about policy change and hobbles effective policy advocacy action.

In this post, I would like simply to identify, ever so briefly in bullet point style, several of the most pernicious misunderstandings, turning then to list the principal themes of a “ new civics” commensurate with the profession’s commitment to fundamental change in the interest of social and economic justice.

Among the interrelated misconceptions:

  1. The U.S. political/policy making process, despite some evident imperfections, is fundamentally rational.
  2. The overarching goal of the policy making process is problem-solving for the nation’s general welfare.
  3. U.S. political culture is inherently democratic, pluralistic and open, permitting advocates relatively easy access to policy makers and the mechanisms of policy making.
  4. Politics and economics are distinct realms of system functioning, with politics “governing” economics. 
  5. Though occasionally subject to unequal pressure (notably by well-funded lobbyists), policy makers are on the whole disinterested public servants committed to serving their constituents fairly and equally.
  6. Inequality – both political and economic – is incidental to overall system operation.
  7. Electoral politics is the primary, and most important, form of political activity.
  8. Incrementalism, i.e. gradual reform and improvement in social welfare policy, is the surest path to achieving social and economic justice.
  9. The courts, and especially the U.S. Supreme Court, are the unbiased protectors of citizen rights and interests under law.

Thematic highlights of a “new civics” for social workers must include, I would contend:

  1. Structural and systemic biases of U.S. history and political evolution.
  2. The centrality of race, gender, and class in the formation and implementation of policy.
  3. The interpenetration of economic and political power, and the “corporate capture” of the U.S. policy making apparatus.
  4. The role of ideology in limiting the shape and scope of policy.
  5. The limits of incrementalism in achieving structural change.
  6. The disfiguring impact of U.S. militarism on budget priorities and social welfare policy.
  7. Effective advocacy as a form of long-term class struggle.

I will endeavor to explore each of these conceptual “bullet points” in future posts.

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