Jessica Toft

Experience in the Field Compels Jessica Toft to Explore the Role of Citizenship in Helping the Disenfranchised Class

In the course of every year while growing up, I lived in three different settings: city, suburb and rural and small town. Although my parents lived close to each other in St. Louis, Mo., those few miles covered a broad range of socioeconomic and racial ethnic differences. In addition, my father (a professor) had a summer home near his rural Iowa hometown. Living in three different environments from an early age, made me consider differences and similarities between people, as well as discrimination and privilege among groups. At Grinnell College I received a B.A. in psychology and at the University of Iowa, a Master’s in Social Work. After advocating for children’s issues at the Minnesota Legislature and teaching as a professional academic at the University of Minnesota, I earned my doctorate in social work at the University of Minnesota in 2005. I received tenure with promotion in 2011, and when I am not working in the classroom or my office, you can find me playing in the faculty Noontime Basketball Association (NBA) in McCarthy gym.

As a policy advocate for children’s issues, I wondered why so few low-income parents were involved in advocating for issues related to poverty and child welfare. My doctoral studies led me to consider policy makers’ roles in constructing the citizenship identities of marginalized groups and how these influenced participation of low-income parents and resultant policies. My article on legislators’ depictions of low-income mothers in the 1996 welfare reform debate, “The Political Act of Public Talk: How Legislators Justified Welfare Reform,” in Social Service Review demonstrates how citizenship constructions can justify policies that marginalize citizenship. I found that parenting work, which had prompted the drafting of Aid to Dependent Children legislation in the Social Security Act, was ignored in the Congressional floor speeches and committee debates; no longer was it considered a legitimate means to claim citizenship rights. This neglect of parenting work under the new policy, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, allowed for the inclusion of time limits and work requirements to receive public assistance, regardless of the labor market, available child care and the importance of parenting work.

This research influenced my thinking about creating and perpetuating a disenfranchised class through legislators’ public talk. Membership in the national community (citizenship) requires the fulfillment of rights and obligations—yet, the question of how they are defined is key to the quality of that citizenship. In welfare reform, particular rights and obligations were connected in a quid pro quo fashion: paid-work engagement for economic benefits; however, when applied to more privileged groups, the connection is not so clear: For example, what are the obligations of middle and upper classes to gain mortgage interest tax deductions?

There is more than just a single citizenship obligation of paid work. T.H. Marshall (1950) theorized three domains of rights and obligations of citizenship that still are widely accepted: civil, political and social (Heater, 1999). While civil and political rights are well known, the idea of social rights, or providing for a “modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society” (Marshall, 1950, p. 78), is not.

The three obligations of citizenship are also not well known. Civil obligations include interpersonal and organizational obligations in which members respect one another’s civil rights, promote the general welfare by respecting laws and individual rights and assure resources for the legal system. Political obligations include obligations of voting and informed political participation, organizational cooperation with other political groups, following political laws and regulations (as well as including resources needed to run such a system), military service to protect from outside threats and protesting and even overthrowing governments that violate rights. Social obligations involve raising a loving family, using health care prudently, maintaining a safe and clean environment, taking advantage of opportunities (such as education), pursuing a career to the benefit of society and tolerating social diversity. Also, those who receive unemployment or public assistance should look for work if they are able and willing to accept employment in or out of their homes. Likewise, we should respond to other persons’ needs for economic-transfer payments; furthermore, the state should provide resources for social rights. This delineation of rights and obligations highlights that citizenship is much more multifaceted than the simple fulfillment of paid-work engagement.

In the fall of 2011, I presented this framework at the Council of Social Work Education annual conference in Atlanta and received positive feedback. I was invited to co-write a chapter on citizen-friendly child welfare administration for a textbook for an international social work audience, titled “Providing Citizen-Centered Administration for Child Welfare.” This chapter articulates this emerging intervention style that focuses not only on claiming the rights of citizenship but also fulfilling obligations. The presentation of citizenship duties fulfilled will, one can hope, position low-income persons as full citizens deserving of the full array of citizenship rights.

Additionally, my sabbatical in the spring of 2013 will focus on fleshing out this theory of citizenship by conducting archival research on the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House. I will look for ways in which rights and obligations of citizenship were embodied in a social intervention that was developed for African-Americans in Minneapolis during the Depression and into the Civil Rights Era. Looking to social work’s history may inform social work’s future practice. I am hopeful that a book outlining citizenship social work, with regards to theory, historical context and present-day social work will be an outcome of this research.

The ways we claim citizenship are not solely based on the obligations we fulfill, but the way others and we portray and construct these obligations. Historically, social work has been deeply involved in addressing needs and invoking the idea of “rights” to demand services; from Jane Addams to Charlotte Towle to Dorothy Height, social workers have engaged in rights-claiming focused on a wide range of issues including alleviation of hunger, poverty and discrimination. In this manner, social work has helped people gain voice and benefits; however, rights-claiming without highlighting the fulfillment of citizenship obligations becomes problematic in public debate and policy. For example, Linda Kerber (1998), a noted American welfare historian, argued that women’s exclusion from citizenship obligations (military duty, juries, certain paid work) limited their citizenship rights claims (benefits from the GI Bill, representative juries and economic equality).

I hope that infusing “citizenship” into social work will influence the profession by having us be intentional about presenting the already fulfilled obligations of people who need social services; furthermore, I hope this theory propels a conversation about the need for social workers, regardless of their focus of practice, to be involved in shaping how our clients are portrayed in the wider public, as this influences the nature of policies created regarding them.

As emerging theory, students do influence its development. I actively discuss these concepts in class and have students wrestle with them. My hope is that in the future, I will conduct interviews with low-income persons about their perceptions and embodiment of citizenship, as well as investigate the extent to which social work organizations assist clients towards this end.

Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, and one of the founding mothers of social work, was really the first to suggest that citizenship and democracy are at the core of working with disenfranchised groups. Her settlement-house model was based on incorporating immigrants into communities through organizing self help groups, recognizing cultural strengths, encouraging civic participation and advocating for social reform; however, with the emergence of the individual casework method (based on the medical model) and the related desire to professionalize, the settlement house model lost favor. Scholars argue that Addams’s lack of an articulation of a specific method spelled the demise of this citizen-based intervention. Perhaps this attempt to develop just such a theory goes some way to address this, placing the profession squarely where we were when we set out to help the poor. Addams says in her book, Democracy and Social Ethics, “To follow the path of social morality results perforce in the temper if not the practice of the democratic spirit, for it implies that diversified human experience and resultant sympathy which are the foundation and guarantee of Democracy.”

Jessica Toft is associate professor at the School of Social Work.

 From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.