Effective social policy is built on the cornerstone of careful problem definition. This basic tenet has led to meticulous examination of social problems from the perspective of various stakeholders and has generated spirited debates about the objective existence of social problems (Chambers, 1993; Miller & Holstein, 1993). However, this problem-centered approach to policy formulation with its intense focus on problem definition and assessment has not been coupled with similar attention to assessment of the strengths of the people and environment that the policy targets.
Methods of social policy analysis and formulation, not unlike methods of social work intervention at the direct interpersonal level, have typically been problem focused and pathology oriented. Social policies are viewed as societal responses to social problems (Chambers, 1986, 1993; Jansson, 1990). Thus, for example, policies and programs under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) are analyzed as responses to the problem of poverty. But as the problem is defined, the labeling process and a societal predisposition to create a social construction of reality to fit the needs of the people in power may transform people into problems. For example, families who have systematically been denied access to employment, education, and health care become "the underclass." "Poverty" may be conceptualized as a pathological condition for which a cure must be found or as an enemy on whom war must be declared. When policies are examined, they are evaluated for their effectiveness in correcting deficits or problems. The strengths perspective requires a reconceptualization of both problems and policies.
The strengths perspective posits that the strengths and resources of people and their environments, rather than their problems and pathologies, should be the central focus of the helping process in social work (Saleebey, 1992). Unlike other models that focus on identification and eradication of deficits or problems, the strengths perspective focuses on the proposition that helping can proceed effectively from identification, use, and enhancement of strengths and resources in the person and environment (Sullivan, 1992).
The strengths perspective is rooted in the belief that people can continue to grow and change and should have equal access to resources. The usefulness of the strengths perspective in helping craft effective strategies for direct practice as well as social work research is being actively explored by social work academicians and practitioners (Saleebey, 1992; Weick, 1987; Weick, Rapp, Sullivan, & Kisthardt, 1989). The strengths perspective can also be useful in reformulating the problem-focused, pathology-centered approaches to policy development in social services.
The importance of building on client strengths is a recurring philosophical and theoretical construct in social work literature (Cowger, 1992). Richmond (1922) promoted this philosophy in her text on social casework. Perlman's (1957) casework model and Schwartz's (1971) interactional approach emphasized client capacity. More recently, the life model of social work practice developed by Germain and Gitterman (1980) and Weick's (1986) health model focus on the strengths of human beings. However, despite the time-honored emphasis on strengths in social work literature, as Cowger pointed out, "there is very little empirical evidence indicating the extent to which practitioners make use of strengths in their practice" (p. 140).
This article makes the argument that integration of the strengths perspective into the social policy-making process can provide policy practitioners with new tools for conceptualizing social needs or problems, a more inclusive approach to policy formulation, and an expanded array of empowering policy options. The intent of this article is to promote debate about the applicability of the strengths perspective to social policy formulation, as well as to discuss ways to identify and use strengths present in people and their environment to inform social policy-making.
Careful definition and explication of the problem a social policy is designed to address create a base of knowledge that can be used to assess the appropriateness of current social policy and to construct new policies and programs. Furthermore, definition and explication of a social problem are basic to the process by which claimants develop consensus that their needs deserve special attention. This transformation of a social condition to a social problem is critical in garnering public support for intervention.
Unfortunately, the problem definitions underlying many current social policies and programs emphasize individual pathologies and deficits and ignore structural barriers. Thus, mandatory work programs are supported by voters who "know" that welfare mothers are unwilling to work and must be forced to do so. Structural barriers such as lack of jobs, poor educational preparation, and inadequate day care receive much less emphasis. Current news articles provide numerous examples of punitive policy proposals aimed at people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, pregnant teenagers seeking abortions, and truant children. These proposals all build on problem definitions that essentially blame the victim (Ryan, 1971).
Because the social work profession is rooted in a value base that insists that …