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New book guides students in developing social work policy from strengths, not deficit, perspective

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

LAWRENCE — When debate was swirling around fate of undocumented youths, well-intentioned advocates often couched their appeals for policy relief in the claim that the young people had come to the country “through no fault of their own.” This argument presupposed someone was at fault, and immigrant youths rejected the framing, instead advancing a vision that centered on all they have to offer the nation and society.

The aptly named DREAM Act that emerged as the preferred policy proposal, and the youth-led advocacy movement that continues to advance it, represent a different way of thinking about policy development and engagement — one that emphasizes people’s rights to shape the policies that will, in turn, affect their futures. University of Kansas professors have written a new version of a text designed to help future social workers and teachers change the way they approach social policy to focusing on strengths instead of the older approach of focusing on a problem.

“Social Policy for Effective Practice: A Strengths Approach,” fifth edition was published this month. The book guides social workers’ policy practice to center on the strengths of those most affected by policy first instead of using a deficit approach. It was written by Rosemary Chapin, professor emeritus of social welfare, and Melinda Lewis, associate professor of the practice in social welfare and associate director of KU’s Center for Community Engagement and Collaboration.

The book arrives in conjunction with the 30th anniversary of the development of the Strengths Perspective in KU’s School of Social Welfare. The perspective was a new approach to social work that begins with a focus on people’s strengths, in the belief that those hold great promise for helping people overcome barriers and reach their goals. Where social work interventions — and social policy proposals — often elevate problems, the strengths perspective calls on practitioners to rethink their approach.

“The Strengths Perspective is a different way of looking at things. It focuses on peoples’ strengths as a different lens for helping them,” Lewis said. “This book looks at how the strengths perspective can be applied to social policy and how, then, to shift the focus to include clients’ experiences as part of public policy.”

“Social Policy” guides students through existing and rapidly changing areas of social policy. In addition to equipping students with a foundation of knowledge about what policy looks like today, the text helps students build skills to analyze existing laws, advocate for policy changes and contribute to strengths-based policy development. The text aims to help students consider how beginning from a strengths approach could lead to dramatically different policy outcomes. For example, the text contrasts Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF, or “welfare,” which has a primary goal of reducing welfare usage, with social insurance investments such as Social Security retirement, which instead aims to provide income security in later life.

“Nowhere in the goals of TANF is anything about ending child poverty or hunger or helping families be stronger, although those are the goals low-income families would have for the policy,” Lewis said. “The result is a much different policy than we would have if TANF had been made with the goals of helping families via their strengths.”

Instead of approaching policy with a mindset that people need to be "fixed," the book orients students to policy in areas such as health care, environmental justice, criminal justice, affordable housing, early childhood education, immigration, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and voting rights, all newly emphasized in the fifth edition. Over 12 chapters, the book also covers the historical context of strengths-based policy, economic and political contexts, policy development and analysis, civil rights, income- and asset-based social policies, health and mental health, policy for older adults and the future of the field.

The text also instructs students who won’t work directly in policy in understanding its role in their day-to-day work and effects on families and those they serve.

“Social work students can have a tendency to think of policy as ‘a hurdle I need to get over’ on the road to helping clients,” Lewis said. “But we believe social work skills are a perfect starting point for developing good social welfare policy, and the strengths perspective is a crucial foundation for effective engagement in this work.”

The text is accompanied by an interactive website that introduces students to realistic cases where their policy knowledge and skills can be put to work. Together, the tools help students learn to recognize their own strengths and how they can be applied to policy practice and other social work endeavors. Teaching from a strengths perspective is also new to many teachers, and the text includes new guidance for educators in taking a strengths-based approach in their classrooms. The book includes numerous examples and narratives of social workers, policymakers, individuals and organizations that have succeeded in changing and updating policy to include a strengths perspective.

The KU School of Social Welfare is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the widely-influential Strengths Perspective next month. The annual Social Work Day will bring scholars and experts from around the country together for an online event April 17 to celebrate the approach’s history, discuss its use in the field around the world today and how it can be made even more effective. Registration is required by April 10 and can be completed online. In addition to the conference, the school will also publish a new book, “Rooted in Strengths: Celebrating the Strengths Perspective in Social Work,” a collection of chapters by scholars, researchers and practitioners on how the perspective has influenced and changed their work. 

In the meantime, “Social Policy for Effective Practice” will continue to guide the next generation of policymakers and social workers using a strengths approach.

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