Economic Justice: Why Social Workers Should Pay Attention to Pensions

by Elizabeth Hann, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

Walking up to the Capitol steps in the morning just never gets old. It feels strange being at the Texas Capitol surrounded by lawyers, aides, clerks, lobbyists, and other important staff, but this just solidifies the need to have social workers as part of the legislative process. Our perspective is so necessary when it comes to creating policy. A lot of times people forget that the laws passed really do affect people; our entire lives are surrounded and shaped by public policy. This legislative session, there are many policy debates that social workers will be interested in, such as foster care, LGBTQ issues, immigration reform, and women’s health. However, I would like to focus here on another policy area that may seem less stimulating, but that has critical social welfare implications – pensions.

Issues of economic justice often seem left behind in social work. While we focus our practice on tending to abuse, exploitation, and other horrific realities – we sometimes forget about how the economic system and the oppression that comes along with it contribute to these challenges our clients face. Right now many cities in Texas, such as Dallas and Houston, are facing a crisis. Hard-working people are getting closer and closer to losing their pensions and retirement savings. Pension funds are hemorrhaging and are in need of intervention due to a variety of reasons, including bad pension fund investments, unrealistic assumed rate of returns on earnings in pension funds, and the mismanagement of pension funds. Texas workers who have paid into a pension system for their entire career with the promise of public pension benefits are about to lose it all. We have let this volcano simmer for years and it’s about to burst.

So why is this a social work issue? The preamble to the NASW Code of Ethics reminds us that the “primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable.” In Texas, public workers are vulnerable. If workers are unable to collect the benefits they have worked for throughout their careers and expected to receive upon retirement, many will be forced to live in poverty and may need to utilize social programs to survive. Some public employees are particularly hard hit by this, because, by law, 30% of employees of state and local governments do not pay into or earn Social Security. People who are not social work clients now may be very soon as they head into retirement with limited or no financial support.

There are many things that social workers do to help others and there are many problems that require our attention. We need to make sure that in our efforts to aid our clients and fix broken systems that we don’t leave anyone behind. You don’t need to be an economist or an accountant to see that there is a problem in Texas with the way we handle money. The Texas Retirement System has an unfunded accrued liability of $60 billion. Without proper reform now, our pensions will not be able to stay afloat and will cost the taxpayer billions of dollars. Many times, our spending priorities don’t make sense but we have to continue to fight for the vulnerable even if it means getting out of our comfort zone. I hope that I am able to continue to understand these struggles and am able to fight for economic justice here in the Texas Legislature this session.

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Means of Resistance

by Tiffany Williams, intern in the House Committee on County Affairs

Texas Muslim Capitol Day is an annual event in Austin where Muslim communities across the state gather to experience state government and engage in the political process. Many attendees are young students learning about civic advocacy. This year, Texas Muslim Capitol Day happened to fall on the week after President Trump released his executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and halting refugee settlements. Xenophobes were emboldened, and social workers were cringing. As frustrating as the current political climate is, it has given us opportunities to act in both mundane and monumental ways. I don’t think anything illustrates those opportunities better than Texas Muslim Capitol Day.

As a policy analyst at the legislature, it is my job to figure out how legislation will actually impact the lives of working Texas families. The travel ban is an example of a policy that collides with social work values that stand on inclusivity, social justice, and individual worth. I think the most exhilarating part of working at the Capitol during session is being able to act on the theories and tactics of community development that I learned about in the classroom. I have the opportunity to identify the strategies used by grassroots organizations and see what works and what doesn’t. I am faced with injustice, and yet I get to be a part of the fight for equality.

That’s why I was moved and motivated by the organizers who decided to stand up and protect the attendees at Texas Muslim Capitol Day. During the 2015,legislative session, there were roughly two dozen people who decided to show up to this event to disrupt the speakers and cause a distraction. This year, they were not going to let that happen. So with just uniform t-shirts and a bull horn, they mobilized a group of 1000 people to form a human perimeter around the attendees. The organizers were originally hoping to form one line around the entire event with no gaps—instead, we were three lines deep.

tiffany-statue-picI stood arm and arm with two women who had been involved in peaceful protests since the 1970’s. I come from a conservative, southern upbringing—women in my family don’t do this—so I was empowered by their stories, and wise words.  We all faced a statue of a soldier on a horse that read: “I always feel safe when the [Texas] Rangers are in front” by General Hardee. But today, we did not have badges or uniforms. We were very ordinary people who agreed that social justice was worth the fight. All of my anger, frustration, and heartbreak over the recent executive orders turned into tears of relief when the human perimeter erupted in applause in response to the Muslim men, women, and children entering the grounds. It was their faces: they were touched and I knew they felt safe.  As a Christian, it is my belief that all are inherently loved by their Creator, and as a social worker, that all people have dignity and worth. Everyone deserves to be seen and respected. Today I got to act on those beliefs.

As the House Committee on County Affairs Clerk, I do not get to attend every march or protest that exemplifies my values. I spend a lot of my time prepping the committee chair, Representative Garnet Coleman, on his hearings, writing press releases and short speeches, and tracking bills. These tasks are not glamorous or tear worthy but I do believe they make small contributions to social justice by pushing good policy. Activities like this are still good ways to live out our social work values. It’s not just monumental marches, but through everyday interactions and activities, that the world changes. We can enact change when we help an elected official push policy, but also through the way we talk to a cleaning attendant in the bathroom.tiffany-pic

I do not think in order to be an effective social worker or advocate in this political season you must have an office in the Capitol. I do think we need to be acting on what we are learning in the classroom by investing our social work skills in our communities. We can be holding our local businesses accountable to ethical practices, voting in local elections, or advocating for our clients’ needs. Many clients of ours are feeling like they do not belong, are not wanted, or are not worthy of love. We all have the opportunity to fight for social justice and act in our everyday lives. Let’s not wait until for the next promotion, protest, or position of power to begin working to make a difference.

 

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On the Need to Take Back Our Power

by Trang-Thu (Mimi) Duong interning in the office of Representative Gene Wu

Here, at the Capitol, I’m experiencing what the depths of power look like. Every day I walk into an elevator that takes me underground, two floors beneath the massive 308-foot pink dome that holds up the Texas Goddess of Liberty. The elevator opens up to a maze of hallways and arches. I walk out among the thousands of people running inside and underneath the Capitol that will keep the place running for the next 97 days. We only have 97 days (including weekends) before the end of the 85th Texas Legislative Session. The power to pull off that combined effort is an awesome thing to be in. Awesome in the sense of inspiring extreme admiration and awesome in the sense of invoking total and complete fear. I’ve never been this close to it before.

State Representatives and Senators (collectively called Members) think of an idea ideally brought up by people who live in their hometowns around Texas. They come up with these ideas in different ways, some as simple as the phone ringing and a constituent saying, “Hello?? We need to be doing better for those foster care kids!” Someone like the Member I work for, Representative Gene Wu of Southwest Houston, will then talk to experts like judges, attorneys, CPS case workers, child welfare advocates, etc. to flesh out what can and should be done to meet that concern. Rep. Wu, who is a practicing lawyer for CPS and youth in the juvenile justice system, works with his power-grinding staff and a group of lawyers called the Texas Legislative Council. On a daily basis, they work together to draft up bills that could become laws. They write the next RULES OF TEXAS. Our Texas! They get to decide how we learn in school, what air we breathe, who gets to live in our state, who goes to jail for what, what pipelines go where… and I’m sitting here watching them come up with rules on how we live.

I’m helping them, too. I’m pushing bills that address the root causes of social problems. This means that I’m a part of meetings with experts and professionals that discuss unintended consequences and who work to move these bills forward. I track our bills through the legislative process. And, really, I get to try to do better for our kids. To work as a health and human services policy analyst for a progressive and well-informed member, a Southeast Asian immigrant member who represents a district made up of people of color, immigrants, and refugees is humbling, especially because it’s the neighborhood I grew up in. It’s like watching someone you love open a present that you know they REALLY wanted; it’s heartbreaking and beautiful to be a part of the happiness that you contributed to. You know for a brief moment in time that someone’s life was better. And that’s an awesome feeling.

But then there’s the total and complete fear side of awe. The side that makes your skin jump away from your bones and leaves you feeling naked. The fear when you look around and realize a Member seems to have no idea what deporting real Texans will do for our state or has never met a transgender person. The fear when you look around and recognize the same personalities and egos you met in high school when you were a teenager. I see the awkward science club kids who meet at school on a Friday night, the loners, rich popular cliques, and teachers’ pets. I see the bullies. I see people who say what women choose to do with their bodies is wrong, that they know better. Because they think they’re awesome.

My Chief of Staff says that the Texas Legislative process is meant to kill more bills than to pass them into law, and that every day I’m not pushing my bills means that they are dying. So, I know that many of the bills that make me feel sad are dying too. However, maybe we can also get one step closer to doing better for our kids. Just maybe, if more science club kids were involved in this process, our lives could be safer. Social workers need to be here. Attorneys for children need to be here. People who believe Black Lives Matter need to be here, and immigrants who don’t believe in the Muslim ban do too. People who don’t think it’s weird to have equal rights for all people should be pushing bills. We all need to know the depths of awesome power these Members have over our lives. We need to know how to tap into that power, and we need to work together to make sure it doesn’t consume us. Because absolute power corrupts absolutely, and we need good representatives to make sure power stays among the people.
I may not be able to press a button and vote on the House or Senate floor saying, “yes, my will to become law,” but I had no idea how much power I have to make sure me, my family, my neighborhoods, and my friends who don’t have it as good as me get to live awesome, safe, and happy lives.

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Reflecting on Meaningful Work

by Tyler Anderson, intern in the Texas Legislative Group

We did it y’all! It’s been over a month since our first day in the Capitol, and to say it flew by would be an understatement. This past month has been a whirlwind of topical briefings, networking events, advocacy opportunities, bill analysis trainings, and endless happy hours spent trying to recall people’s names from the last happy hour I met them at (I’m getting better at this). We’ve had the opportunity to learn about some of the issue areas we’ll likely be working on including public education, public school finance, reproductive justice, immigration, and so many more. Having the opportunity to be briefed by people who are well known experts in their respective fields has been incredible. We’re going to be the most prepared group of staffers in the lege! I’m so excited for our new committee assignments and to start really honing in on what I’ll be focusing on this session.

Over the past month, I’ve been reflecting on one thing that I want to dissect a bit here: the concept of “meaningful work.” From the first day I found out exactly what I would be doing this session as a policy analyst in the Legislative Study Group (LSG), I’ve been processing what it would mean to make my time and work meaningful. What is meaningful work? How do you do meaningful work in a highly politicized environment? While I don’t have all the answers to these questions, I’ve definitely gotten some insight over the past month.

First, something that has been reiterated by Ana Ramon, our supervisor and the Executive Director of the LSG, is to “focus on the process and not the outcome.” Sometimes in a political environment, the outcome is almost predetermined; meaning, there can be so much support behind an issue that no matter how well you advocate against or analyze the bill, it’s still going to pass. This is why it’s important to focus on the process and to intervene where you can to make an impact. Focusing on marginal gains that will add up to a significant impact is critical in a politicized environment where change can be slow and tedious.

I feel so lucky to be working for the LSG, a caucus whose mission is “working on behalf of Texas families,” something I wholeheartedly believe in. Not only do the LSG’s values line up with my own, but they align perfectly with professional social work values as well.  At a time when I feel that many of our political leaders aren’t necessarily governing with social work values like dignity and worth of the person in mind, it’s humbling to have an influence, however small it may be, as I’m advocating for working Texas families.

Another thing that highlights the importance and meaning of the work we’re doing in the LSG is the respect and interest that legislators, lobbyists, and staffers have in our reports. The LSG has a reputation for producing accurate, useful, reliable bill analyses that can be used to formulate talking points or policy briefs. The legacy and importance of the LSG has been communicated to us by our supervisors, but it is also demonstrated through the multiple field-experts, former legislators, and lobbyists who volunteer their time to brief us and offer to support us throughout the session.

As our country is transitioning into a new presidential administration, many people, including myself, are experiencing feelings of helplessness and confusion about what we can do to actually make a meaningful difference. The more I work on my bill analysis skills in preparation for my role as a policy analyst, the more I’m realizing that all of us in the LSG have been presented with a rare opportunity to have actual influence on policy makers, and in turn on the lives of the millions of Texans that these potential policies can affect. This realization has brought a newfound sense of meaning and urgency to the work we’re doing, and I am excited to hit the ground running and start doing it.

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Social Workers Swimming Along

by Katherine Kirages, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

It has officially been a little over a month that my UH Graduate College of Social Work classmates and I have been living in Austin, attending countless trainings and meetings and exploring the Texas Legislature. Sometimes it feels slightly surreal to come to work every day in this building and be able to not only witness, but have a part in contributing to, what is likely one of the most politically charged moments in our recent history. As national news coverage floods our social media feeds, and our smartphones notify us of every emerging headline from our favorite news apps, it’s somehow still unavoidable at times to feel as if we’re living in a bubble here in the legislature.

As this is our first session working at the Capitol, information is of no short supply. We’ve spent the last four weeks preparing for what is expected to be one non-stop learning experience. Most everyone we meet at networking events is excited for us to begin our work, and has some sage advice for how to balance committee meetings and writing bill analyses. The reputation of working for Rep. Garnet Coleman in the Legislative Study Group supersedes any preconceptions I had about working at the Legislature, and it is that reputation that inspires me to fully immerse myself in the legislative process in order to do my job effectively. It also certainly helps that Executive Director Ana Ramon and consultant Phillip Martin, a former executive director of the LSG, facilitate incredibly informative and interesting speakers to meet with our group.

While we’re waiting for committee assignments (Note: House committee assignments were just made on February 9. Students have not yet been assigned committee responsibilities), we have had opportunities to practice writing bill analyses, do research, and compile information and state statistics about a range of socioeconomic issues. This information will be used to see where Texas ranks nationwide for our report, “Texas on the Brink”. We are also beginning to write position papers on current legislation that reflect the LSG’s perspective on what is best for Texas families. Although I’m looking forward to diving into committee hearing upon committee hearing, the practice we’re doing now is a valuable opportunity to reinforce our purpose here, and I appreciate the chance to get our proverbial feet wet.

Utilizing social work skills in this political arena has proven to be straightforward thus far; for the most part we’ve interacted with agencies and individuals that tend to share social work’s core values of service and social justice. As evidenced by recent Senate floor hearings and the current political climate of our nation, maintaining a perspective rooted in social work values and ethics can not only prove to strengthen the intent behind our work here at the Texas Legislature, but also to reinforce the crucial role the social work profession plays in policymaking and advocacy. It is with that conviction that even on the much-anticipated sleepless nights, the invaluable experience gained will far outweigh any momentary exhaustion, and can even serve as evidence to advance the involvement of social workers within local and state government.

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Valuing the Process – Testimony on SB4

Editor’s Note: This post and the post below both focus on Texas’ SB4, which received preliminary approval, with additional amendments, from the Texas State Senate on the evening of February 7, after these posts were completed. After final approval by the Senate, the bill proceeds to the Texas House of Representatives for further debate.

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by Tyler Anderson, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group

On Thursday, February 2nd, the Senate Committee on State Affairs heard testimony on SB 4, a bill designated as emergency legislation this session by Governor Greg Abbott. This bill would essentially penalize sanctuary cities and university campuses that refuse to comply with Federal immigration detainers and would give localities the ability to act as an enforcing arm of the Federal immigration system. “Sanctuary city” has been a buzzword at the Texas Capitol this session. Governor Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and many other prominent conservative legislators have spoken out against this practice used by cities and university campuses that they say defies federal law and allows criminals to reside in our state. Legislation that penalizes sanctuary cities is controversial for many reasons, primarily because of the fear and mistrust it could create within immigrant and refugee communities and possible increases in racial profiling that could result. I’m not going to spend much more time discussing SB 4 itself; instead, I am going to focus on my experience sitting in on the hearing.

When I got to work last Thursday at 8:00 am, the Capitol rotunda was already filled with people who had traveled to the Capitol to testify on SB 4. Immigrant rights advocates, immigration attorneys, human rights advocates, faith leaders, educators, students, and more were slated to testify against the bill. In total, over 500 individuals registered to testify, with only 3 individuals testifying in favor of the bill. After working and listening to the live stream all day, I finally made it to the Senate Gallery to watch the testimony live around 6:30 pm; at this time, people who had registered at 8:30 that morning were just getting to testify, a sign that it would be a long night of testimony to come.

I was able to stay for a couple of hours and listen to moving testimony that caused visceral emotional reactions in me. I was able to hear testimony from an 11-year-old girl, a Holocaust survivor’s wife, a social worker, and a woman in her 70s who all expressed similar feelings of fear and uncertainty surrounding the passage of SB4. The most poignant testimony I heard came from a girl who felt so strongly opposed to SB 4 that she resigned from her job as a Senate Page so that she could register to publicly testify. She spoke about her dad being detained, the multiple jobs she works to pay her way through school, and the inhumane and unjust treatment she and her family have suffered at the hands of a broken immigration system. After she concluded her testimony, multiple Senators (including the author of SB 4) hugged her and thanked her for speaking. It was a rare, hopeful, and conciliatory moment amidst the emotionally charged, and at times, palpably tense testimony.

During the testimony and throughout the day, there was a general consensus that SB 4 was definitely going to be voted out of committee, and it ultimately was. The ideological makeup of the committee members (7 Republicans, 2 Democrats) and Governor Abbott’s focus on naming sanctuary city policies as an emergency item in his State of the State address made the outcome of the hearing feel predetermined. Multiple people’s testimony included statements like “we know you’re just listening to us as a formality” or “we know your vote has already been cast.” Watching the hearing perfectly illuminated the idea of finding value in the process and not focusing solely on the outcome. While it was well known that SB4 was likely to progress, hundreds of people still understood the importance of making their voices heard in a show of solidarity with immigrant communities.

It was absolutely moving to be in the Senate Chambers and feel the energy buzzing late into the night, despite knowing the likely outcome of the vote. I am so humbled to have witnessed so many individuals coming together to defend vulnerable communities in Texas; it was the perfect illustration of what “meaningful work” can be and the opportunities I will have to do meaningful work this session.

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