12 Grand Challenges for Social Work is Evolving into Something Very Special

Monday, February 13th, 2017 @ 8:52AM

As a newly-minted member of the Grand Challenges Executive Committee, one may suspect my assessment of this ambitious initiative may not be objective. However, I welcomed the opportunity to serve on the GCEC because of my growing appreciation of its potential. I will admit my initial thoughts about the 12 Grand Challenges were less than optimistic. As a policy wonk, I initially saw the initiative as too broad in scope and thought the components needed to be prioritized. Policymakers generally want to focus narrowly and seldom do complex and comprehensive policy changes succeed as did the Affordable Care Act which then became difficult to defend when it was attacked. The key word for policymakers is incremental. I have since learned the 12 Grand Challenges is not solely about policy change; it is about societal change.

USC School of Social Work Dean Marilyn Flynn says Grand Challenges is “a thousand flowers blooming.”

A project that began with discussions about harnessing the science of social work to address some of society’s most perplexing social problems, the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work is beginning to take shape and display the promise its progenitors had hope for. But don’t take my word. See for yourself by watching the archived webinar on Financial Capability and Asset Building (FCAB) presented January 30th as the first of a series on the 12 networks. As the inimitable Margaret Sherraden states in the opening, household finances have taken center stage because many vulnerable Americans are being left behind in our increasingly unequal economy. At the same, safety nets are being diminished. As many as 30 percent of U.S. households lack adequate financial services.

The webinar describes the structure of the FCAB network that consists of four working groups for research, policy, education, and practice. The working groups have between 15 and 35 members that include researchers, practitioners, academics, nonprofit leaders, government representatives, and public agency executives. Each working group has co-leaders and a liaison who is responsible for facilitating communication between network participants, workgroups and other networks. My particular interest is the Policy Work Group (surprise!) led by Mat Despard (University of Michigan), Clark Peters (University of Missouri), and David Rothwell (Oregon State University).

The Policy Work Group is focusing on three areas: 1) universal, progressive, life-long asset accumulation; 2) safe, affordable financial products; and 3) integration of financial capability and asset building in human service systems. The webinar details how work in each of these areas is being operationalized. One specific policy focus is child development accounts. The FCAB network sees this as an effective way to begin life-long asset accumulation. Much of the foundational knowledge for these accounts emanates from the research of Michael Sherraden, professor and director of the Center for Social Development at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. He has worked successfully on CDAs in Israel and in several U.S. states. We are in discussion about how to push for federal legislation to support this policy idea.

One beauty of the 12 Grand Challenges is that is brings together researchers, educators, practitioners and policymakers who often work independently, to combine their talents and skills on a common objective. Research is sometimes done haphazardly as agendas are often determined by the funder’s interests or researchers may pursue topics of their liking and not consider addressing some of the nation’s most pressing social problems. The 12 Grand Challenges have created 12 research incubators that attract like-minded scholars. Together they arrive at research questions that are more sharply defined and work in various methodologies that deepen our understanding of the problems at hand.

CRISP and other politically-focused social work organizations pick up the work at the 12 Grand Challenges’ water’s edge. There are enormous political hurdles that could impede the enactment and implementation of the most rigorous evidence-based policy. Even as the networks of the 12 Grand Challenges work to address financial insecurity and other social ills there are Trumpians looking to eviscerate Dodd-Frank and eliminate the Consumer Financial Control Board. The new HHS Secretary wants to block-grant Medicaid and turn Medicare into a voucher program.

The 12 Grand Challenges may not wind up being the panacea for the country’s social ills but it has galvanized a significant segment of social workers and relative disciplines with a focus I doubt we have witnessed previously in the profession. It holds great promise. University of Southern California Dean Marilyn Flynn, one of the organizers of the 12 Grand Challenges, describes the initiative as “a thousand flowers blooming.” Finding the funding to keep it going will be another challenge. Let’s hope it has the sustainability to continue evolving. Please take a look at the webinar and share with social workers you know.

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2 Comments to "12 Grand Challenges for Social Work is Evolving into Something Very Special" add comment
Charles R. Howard
February 13, 2017 at 11:49 am

Great article, as we go forward with the Maryland conference March 30 -31, 2017

Thanks Charles….

April 1, 2017 at 1:48 am

The Grand Challenges for Social Work represent a dynamic social agenda, focused on improving individual and family well-being, strengthening the social fabric, and helping create a more just society.

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