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Montana State House
29
Apr

The Social Worker-Shaped Void in State Legislation

By Jennifer Petersen
Contributor

Jennifer Petersen is a macro social worker based in NYC who is currently working for Montana’s House of Representatives.  She writes about life, justice and other awesome things at jennpeet.wordpress.com.  In her first article for The Political Social Work Jennifer talks about what social workers can bring to the table with regards to state legislation. 

Three months ago I packed my bags in New York City and headed to the Rocky Mountains—Helena, Montana, to be exact—for my first experience as full-time political professional (an opportunity I found through this blog, might I add).  I was curious to see state politics in action and to determine if and where a social worker’s place is in the legislative process.

My role as secretary for two of Montana’s House of Representatives’ committees has afforded me the opportunity to observe how legislation is passed (or killed), how values and ideas are narrated from both sides of the aisle, how procedural knowledge can provide strategic advantage and where social workers and their professional values, ethics and academic analysis can fill the voids in our democratic process.

Montana is one of four states whose legislature meets biennially  (every other year).  As in all capitol buildings across the nation, Montana legislators have introduced a number of bills whose enactment would directly affect the individuals, families, communities and systems with which social workers intervene on a daily basis.

House Bill 200, introduced in February by Representative Randall Pinocci, would require that all potential recipients of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) fill out a questionnaire determining their use of illegal drugs.  Refusal to fill out the questionnaire would result in a denial of benefits and a positive test would require the applicant participate in 30 days of drug rehabilitation.   The bill passed the House with a 55-45 vote.  You can watch the entire House floor debate here (House Bill 200 begins at minute 36).

As I watched the debate unfold, I wondered why the experts—social workers and those enrolled in the TANF program—were not at the table in this conversation.  If indeed this bill was introduced as a tool to help drug addicts, as the sponsor stated, where were the voices of professionals who work closely with addiction on a daily basis?  Where were the statistics correlating drug addiction with poverty?  Where were the social workers to testify on the validity and cultural competence of the questionnaire?  And where were the direct service workers and program managers to speak to the existing work being done toward addiction treatment and the financial costs associated with these measures?

Each year, many well-intentioned public officials and citizens put forth legislation and votes that seek to address the issues our profession has spent countless hours studying, researching and addressing through individual, group and community interventions.  Without the contribution of social workers and the clients they serve, well-intentioned legislators will continue to create ill-informed policy that may ultimately hurt the people we are working to serve and empower.

I encourage you to watch the floor debate and full committee hearing.  What are your observations?  What information can social workers contribute to this conversation?  What have been the effects of similar policies implemented in your state?

I would like to learn what interest you have with regards to community practice. I will use your responses to provide improved content on the Political Social Worker blog. Please take a minute to complete this anonymous survey http://goo.gl/forms/ueFkXWjc8M.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Petersen, Montana State House. Taken April 23, 2015.

Posted by Jennifer Petersen

Jennifer Petersen is a Social Worker based in New York City. Most recently she worked in an employment program for formerly- incarcerated individuals and spent the summer consulting young entrepreneurs in Rwanda. Jennifer is currently kicking off her career in political social work working for Montana’s House of Representatives, a job she found through this blog.

7 comments

  1. Jennifer, well writte . You nsje an excellent argument for why trained professional should have input when proposed legislation which dirdcglgv affects them be the people they serve are the ones who benefit or suffer the consequences of often well intentioned but I’ll advised legislation.

  2. I’m actually curious about the intentions — were they well-intentioned in presenting this type of legislation, or were they intending to create more hoops for impoverished citizens to jump through for aid? Maybe that’s the liberal in me talking, but this bill seems punitive to me.

    • Hi Toni,

      I will make sure to pass this on to Jen.

    • Hi Toni,
      Great question. In politics, as we know, stated intentions are often much different than implied intentions. With this particular piece of legislation I think the intention was, as you said, to create more hoops for impoverished individuals. If Rep. Pinocchi or other legislators were truly concerned about drug abuse, there are much more strategic and thoughtful ways to address that through policy. I used the term “well-intentioned” in my post to be careful not to demonize a particular party or individual. I do think there are well-intentioned legislators on both sides of the aisle (as can be seen in the floor debate) who don’t have close experience/understanding with the issues they want to address so just jump in support at the first thing that sounds good.

  3. Note that Dr. Joseph S. Gallegos, professor of social work emeritus at U-Portland and a member of the first cohort of CSWE’s Minority Fellowship Program, represents House District 30 in the Oregon State Legislature. http://www.cswe.org/58661.aspx

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  1. What do we need? Macro Practice Social Workers! When do we need them? NOW!: Why it is important to prepare MSW students for macro field practice – Clinical Supervision in Social Work Education and Practice

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