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Empowerment-Oriented Approach for Public Assistance Programs

Core Issues

You are a social worker for Shatterproof County Department of Social Services in the Public Assistance Division. Shatterproof is a huge urban county populated primarily by people of color. Following the demise of TANF your agency is struggling to adapt to new policies, regulations, and requirements concerning the distribution of clients’ needed resources. You and your colleagues are working to adjust and conform to new expectations. However, that is not the immediate focus of your concern. In working for the county these past three years, you have become increasingly disturbed about the way many workers treat clients, most of whom are women of color. You feel that workers are pressured to process clients through the problem-solving process as quickly as possible and that too little emphasis is placed on client empowerment. Empowerment is the “process of increasing personal, interpersonal, or political power so that individuals can take action to improve their life situations” (Gutierrez, 1995, p. 205). You feel strongly that if workers assumed an empowerment-oriented approach, more clients would be able to gain control of the solutions to their own problems. Such an approach might involve teaching workers how to focus on empowerment approaches and techniques, including “accepting the client’s definition of the problem,” “identifying and building upon existing strengths,” engaging in a realistic assessment of the client’s power in her personal situation, “teaching specific skills” (such as “skills for community or organizational change; life skills,” such as parenting, job seeking, and self-defense; and interpersonal skills, such as assertiveness, social competency, and self-advocacy”), and “mobilizing resources and advocating for clients” (Gutierrez, 1995, pp. 208-10). So, you begin to wonder what you might be able to do about this situation. Clients ought to be allowed more input into the definition and solution of their problems, but workers are not as receptive to clients as they should be. Adopting an empowerment approach could greatly help in successfully implementing the new public assistance programs. Of course, this is not the agency’s only problem. Workers are overly burdened with paperwork, and computers and programs are already outdated. Nevertheless, in your mind empowerment remains the dominant issue. You think social workers, supervisors, and administrators should be educated about empowerment issues and trained to implement empowerment approaches in practice. Emphasis should be placed on both empowerment values and skills. How can you increase awareness and implementation of a philosophy of empowerment in your huge agency? Upper-level administrators seem to inhabit some unreachable plane. There are only so many hours in your workday. What are your options? Can you start small by trying to reach workers in your own unit? (There are seven of you who report to one supervisor.) Can you initiate training for yourself and the other six workers in your unit? Will the unit and the agency accept an empowerment approach? What factors will help you and what will hinder you? What will training the unit staff cost? The agency may have some funding available to provide in-service training for workers, because it does require every worker to complete continuing education units (CEUs) on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, you have a flier announcing an empowerment training seminar led by an expert in the field. You also know of a social work professor in the local university who might be able to do some training or to refer you to someone who can. What would that cost? Is there any possibility of getting volunteers to do the training on a limited basis? Are there other potential barriers to training besides cost? Certainly, the agency’s CEU requirements are in your favor. Although the agency is in some turmoil due to new programs and requirements, it seems there has always been some degree of hubbub. That’s really nothing new. Training a single unit is a relatively small task. Ideally, you’d like to include the entire agency, but that’s something to think about in the future. You can think of no one outside the agency who would actively oppose your plan. Do you think you can “pull off” such a project, even though training programs aren’t in your job description? What personal characteristics will work to your advantage in the process? For example, are you capable, responsible, and/or assertive? Do you have exceptionally strong communication or negotiation skills? On the other hand, what weaknesses do you have that might act against a successful change process? For example, is it difficult for you to ask for things? Do you consider yourself shy or lacking in confidence? The bottom line is that you really want other workers to work with clients more effectively by adopting an empowerment approach. Your goal, then, is to figure out how to provide training to help them do just that. You’ve discussed the idea with colleagues who seemed mildly positive about it. You don’t think they’d be willing to take on primary responsibilities for the project, but it would be worthwhile speaking with some of them further. Your colleague and friend Ortrude has some difficulties organizing and following through on details, but she usually speaks up for anything she believes in. Maybe you can win her support. There is also Virgilia, a hard-working, responsible worker who usually keeps her opinions to herself. You don’t feel you know her very well, but she might be in favor of your idea. On the downside, there’s your colleague and non-friend Bentley who typically “pooh-poohs” any innovative idea. The agency’s voluntary In-service Training Committee suggests and plans training for various agency units, so you will have to approach its members, and they might be supportive—even though their funding is limited and fluctuating. Since you don’t personally know any committee members, you have no natural “in.” As to people in the community, you’ve already established that at least one expert is available (though you don’t know what her fee would be) and that the professor at the university is another possibility. What about your own position and how initiating such a project might affect you both professionally and personally? Your supervisor Astral is a “laid-back” type who generally gets her work done in a leisurely fashion. (Actually, you think she’s kind of “spacey.”) She is not someone to depend upon for high-powered consultations or for strong support for this initiative. On the other hand, if you’re willing to do the work yourself, she will probably approve the project and send it up for higher level authorization. All agency in-service training must be approved by the agency’s Assistant Director, Harvey. You think Harvey, a scrooge-like accountant at heart, is more likely to approve such a plan if it isn’t extremely costly. 2. Answer the following questions with respect to this case example. Exercise 5.4 (1): Step 1: Identify Problems to Address Sub step 1.1: Evaluate the potential for macro level intervention. Discuss the seriousness of the identified problem situation in the case example above. In your own words, describe what you see as the core issue(s). Sub step 1.2: Define and prioritize the problems you’ve identified in the case example. Sub step 1.3: Translate problems into needs. Sub step 1.4: Determine which need or needs you will address if you are in this worker’s situation. Exercise 5.4 (2): Step 2: Review Your Macro and Personal Reality Sub step 2.1: Evaluate the organizational and other macro variables potentially working for or against you in the macro change process as portrayed in the above case example. Fill out Figure 5.3, then explain the reasons for your responses below. To what extent are you in danger No danger Some danger Moderate danger 1, losing your job 2, decreasing your potential for upward mobility Seriously straining Work relationship Explain the reasons for your responses. Sub step 2.2: Assess your personal reality—that is, the strengths and weaknesses that may act for or against a successful change effort. Exercise 5.1 may help you with this question. Exercise 5.4 (3): Step 3: Establish Primary Goals List the goals you would pursue if you were in the position described above. Exercise 5.4 (4): Step 4: Identify Relevant People of Influence In the following figure, list individuals and groups both inside and outside of the agency. Potential Action system Name Very good Mildly good Mildly bad Very bad Individual in the organization Groups in the organizations Individual in the community Group in the community Others Give a brief explanation of your choices. Exercise 5.4 (5): Step 5: Assess Potential Financial Costs and Potential Benefits to Clients and Agency Use the case example in your response. Exercise 5.4 (6): Step 6: Review Professional and Personal Risk Could you lose your job, decrease your potential for upward mobility, and/or seriously strain your work relationships? Exercise 5.4 (7): Step 7: Evaluate the Potential Success of a Macro Change Process Sub step 7.1: Review (and summarize) the prior PREPARE process and weigh the pros and cons of proceeding with the macro change process. PROS Client need (see Step 1): Positive organizational and other macro variables (see Step 2): Your own strengths (see Step 2): Potential support (see Step 4): Financial benefits (see Step 5): CONS Negative organizational and other macro variables (see Step 2): Your own weaknesses (see Step 2): Potential resistance (see Step 4): Financial costs (see Step 5): Your risks (see Step 6): Sub step 7.2: Identify possible macro approaches to use in the case example and determine how you would proceed (that is, continue the macro change process, postpone it, or drop the whole idea).

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