Part 2 — Policy: Irreverent and Irrelevant or not?
In today’s society, simply the word politics tends to make everyone’s hair stand up on end. It has been deemed a dirty word or forbidden territory at family gatherings and many social events. When I learned I was expected to take a policy class as a part of my education, my first reaction was dread as I did not initially pursue social work to engage in politics or policy, or so I thought. I soon learned that policy influences and impacts everything I do and all whom I interact and work alongside.
Policies are the foundation of any micro, mezzo, and macro social work setting. Matthew 7:24-27 states,
“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall” (Bible, NKJV).
This verse offers an analogy on the importance and value of having a solid foundation through pursuing wisdom, seeking, observing, challenging, and listening. Hence, policies must be analyzed through a lens of wisdom and curiosity to investigate and inquire into the causes and consequences of public policies to ensure their strong foundation (Segal, 2020).
Policy, much less policy analysis, can be a daunting thought to many. It can be intimidating to search for, interpret and analyze policies. However, we are impacted by public policy every day. Whether you are traveling, in school, or at work, you are experiencing social welfare policies in action. Just think about all of the policies implemented in the past two years because of COVID-19.
Policy, more specifically social welfare policy, refers to the well-being of society and is the collective response to social problems. Social welfare policy analysis informs and provides guidance and direction for many policymakers on a macro governmental scale (Segal, 2020). Even further, policy analysis provides a way for understanding how and why governments enact specific policies and their effects. As such, policy analysis provides researchers with a powerful tool to understand the use of research evidence in policymaking and generate a heightened understanding of the values, interests, and political contexts underpinning various policy decisions (Browne et al., 2018).
In social work, we work to address the grand challenges such as advancing long and productive lives, ensuring healthy development for youth, eradicating social isolation, and ending homelessness throughout our practice (Grand Challenges for Social Work, 2021). Grand challenges must be grand in scope, inspiring, meaningful, and compelling. Moreover, scientific evidence should suggest how a grand challenge can be solved. It is said that meaningful and measurable progress in addressing a challenge should be feasible within a decade, which can sound daunting but not impossible. Grand challenges should generate interdisciplinary or cross-sector collaboration in addition to creativity and innovation (Barth et al., 2014). A final motivation to promote national and local social policy development incorporates the social work perspective, supporting social work progress and social and economic justice through adherence and incorporation of the grand challenges (Barth et al., 2014).
Now that we have gained an understanding of what specifically social welfare policy is, as well as the importance of social welfare policy analysis, how does one analyze policy, you may be asking? There are multiple approaches to the analysis of policies that can differ depending upon the policy and its context. One general approach includes identifying the social issue or problem, understanding what the public reaction is to the issue, what policy or legislation was developed in response to the issue, how the policy was implemented, identification of the public expectations and perception, and assessment of the policy effects and intended impact. Finally, assessing if there were unintended outcomes, and if so, asking what could be done to remediate the unintended consequences (Segal, 2020).
One example of policy analysis in action was in 2014 when Tennessee passed SB1391, a fetal assault law allowing a woman to be prosecuted for using a narcotic while pregnant. The policy was created to reduce the prevalence of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a condition where newborn babies experience withdrawal and other effects from opioids and other drugs. As a result of this bill, women arrested and charged would face a penalty of up to fifteen years in prison and the loss of child custody. However, the bill allowed women enrolled and participating in a long-term addiction recovery program to be exempt from prosecution. July 1, 2016, the law ceased to be in effect due to effective policy analysis. Unfortunately, the law negatively affected prenatal care and had little to no impact on the prevalence of NAS diagnoses across the state. Hence negative consequences of the law identified included a decline in prenatal care, an increase of in-home births, an increase in out-of-state births, an increase in fetal mortality, and an increase in neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) admissions. While the law was enacted with the best intentions, it ultimately resulted in numerous unintended consequences.
Phew! Now, if this feels overwhelming, or you feel as though you are now cross-eyed after reading this, know you are not alone. So simply ask yourself this, what policies are affecting you on a daily basis? Have you ever stopped to wonder if these policies are beneficial or harmful? The policies that come to mind, how are they affecting you and others? Understandably so, it can be intimidating to ask ourselves these questions. However, suppose we begin to ask ourselves these questions on a micro level and utilize the approach listed above. In that case, we will naturally transfer these skills to a macro level and begin to secure firm, strong foundations so desperately needed.
So don’t be like me and think that policy has nothing to do with social work because it has everything to do with social work and social work practice.