‘The passionate pursuit of social justice’

The School of Social Policy & Practice addresses social inequities through research.

professor culhane teaching in classroom
Dennis Culhane has been at the School of Social Policy & Practice since 1995. An expert in the area of homelessness and assisted housing policy, Culhane has used integrated data to argue that homelessness can be more expensive to government than providing housing.

After majoring in psychology, John Gyourko spent 10 years exploring various social work roles in the foster care system before enrolling in the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2). Along the way, he developed relationships with the young people he served—and their families.

“As those connections grew, so did my recognition that we all have a personal stake in what happens to these folks who are involved in our child protection systems,” Gyourko says. These experiences also piqued his academic curiosity. “What happened to those folks depends, to some extent, on the policies we choose to implement at the 30,000-foot level. As I became more familiar with the dynamic connections between social work policy and practice, I realized that there were many questions I wanted to answer,” he says. How can policies better support the often-precarious transition from foster care to adulthood? What more can be done do to preserve family stability? “These questions are out there, the data is out there, but I just did not have the skills I needed to really address them,” Gyourko says.

To acquire these skills, Gyourko enrolled in the Ph.D. in Social Welfare program at SP2 and is now in his second year, working with Johanna Greeson and Sarah Wasch at the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research. He focuses on child maltreatment and child welfare, with particular interests in the experiences of older youth and those aging out of foster care. Gyourko was drawn to the Field Center in part because of the center’s work with community partners and stakeholders with lived experience. “Emphasizing the voices of young people and their families—this is a key component of our research, and it’s critically important in this moment of social reckoning as we identify the changes we need to make to our child protection systems,” This work plays a big role in larger societal questions, he says. 

The mission of the School of Social Policy & Practice is the passionate pursuit of social justice. Sara Bachman, dean of SP2

Founded in 1908 as a school of social work, SP2 has undergone its own transformation to address these larger societal questions. Former dean Rich Gelles decided that these questions would best be addressed by social work in collaboration with other social welfare professions and the school evolved to offer five degrees: the Master of Social Work program, the Master of Science (MS) in Social Policy program, the MS in Nonprofit Leadership program, the Ph.D. in Social Welfare program, and the Doctorate in Clinical Social Work program. 

Under the leadership of current dean Sara Bachman, the school is finding new ways to come together. In 2020, Bachman appointed Joretha Bourjolly as associate dean for inclusion. Under Bourjolly’s leadership, the entire school engages in the “One book, one SP2” initiative, a mandatory summer reading program where faculty, staff, and students gather and discuss the book in facilitated, small-group sessions. 

The school also started the Social Justice Scholars Program, admitting three students—one for each of SP2’s masters programs. The students were all recruited from minority-serving institutions and are offered full scholarships. “Our hope is that over the next several years, we will continue to increase this program so that we have a cohort of 12 social justice scholars every year,” says Bachman, who is focused on maximizing the financial aid that SP2 can offer its students. 

“As a person who went through almost all of my education on financial aid … I really understand the impact that financial aid can have on a person’s educational journey,” Bachman says. “If we want to be educating social change agents who are well-suited and connected to communities of every type, then we need to ensure that we make our Penn education financially realistic for our students.

“The mission of the School of Social Policy & Practice is the passionate pursuit of social justice,” adds Bachman. All of the school’s endeavors are “inevitably pointed at addressing social inequities and oppression,” including the four new faculty members hired this academic year. 

The established faculty at SP2 have been busy, addressing such issues as homelessness, substance use, the carceral system, data and quantification, guaranteed income and universal basic income, the foster care system, and how to maximize philanthropic impact—all issues that have come to the fore during the last year and a half through the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement

Integrated data

Dennis Culhane first came to Penn in 1990 in the psychiatry department in the Perelman School of Medicine, switching to SP2 in 1995. Through his work on homelessness, Culhane saw that state and local governments collect data on the usage of social programs through an array of agencies, but typically evaluators can access a single program at a time. He became interested in linking this data, connecting individuals across agencies and years in a longitudinal, multisystem analysis that evaluates the costs and benefits of different social programs, using the data to improve outcomes. 

sharon zanti
Sharon Zanti, a third year student in the Ph.D. in Social Welfare program, came to SP2 to work with Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy, a grant-funded organization Dennis Culhane co-founded with John Fantuzzo from Penn’s Graduate School of Education. 

Along with John Fantuzzo of the Graduate School of Education, Culhane co-founded the grant-funded organization Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy (AISP). AISP is the reason Sharon Zanti applied to SP2. Now in her third year in the Ph.D. in Social Welfare program, Zanti is interested in first understanding “how state and local human service agencies use data for decision making,” she says, along with “partnering with those agencies to answer social policy questions using integrated data sources.”

“One of the things that we focus on is having an ethical framework for how we use this work,” Culhane says, noting that the data was not collected with integration in mind. “You have to be very thoughtful about what you’re observing and there needs to be a community engagement process as well,” he says. “We see the heart of our ethical approach to make sure that the citizens understand how their information is being used, and making sure that it’s being used in an ethical way.”

By using integrated data, Culhane was able to argue that homelessness can be more expensive to government than providing housing. “When people who are homeless get into housing, they don’t go to the hospital as often; they don’t have to stay as long if they are admitted; they don’t get arrested as frequently; they’re not sent to jail as often. And you can actually see that there’s a net-positive gain, especially for people with severe mental illness, are aged, or are frequent jail users,” he says. While housing people can be an expense intervention, it reduces some of the homeless population’s use of all these other systems, offsetting the cost of housing.

Several tents making up a homeless encampment on a Philadelphia sidewalk.
A homeless encampment in Philadelphia. (Image: Joe Piette)

Zanti, who majored in business, was doing performance analytics for the Colorado Department of Human Services when she became drawn to the idea of using integrated data. “Data is really essential to addressing social policy problems because it allows you to look across programs that are often siloed,” Zanti says. “But the people in [each individual program] are often touching many different service points in a system, and so you need to be able to look at them as whole people and not as one slice of data in one program.” 

She familiarized herself with Culhane’s work, and the two “developed a joint vision for how I could pursue this work,” Zanti says. “It’s definitely a niche field within social work.”

While there are growing concerns over the collation of data, “arguing that use of data is problematic does not stop the fact that data is integral to how we operate as a society and is only getting more and more important and ingrained,” Zanti says. “And so instead of throwing our hands up and saying we can’t deal with this, social work gives you this tool belt, this set of values to apply,” she says.

Data bias: ‘We don’t see it, but in fact, it’s there’

During the spring of 2020, AISP published a toolkit for centering racial equity throughout the data lifecycle. Since its release, more than 70 different organizations requested this toolkit, Culhane says, a reflection of the larger social and political movement around addressing systemic racism.

“The data can very much reflect bias,” Culhane says, noting that low-income people of color are disproportionately assigned to residential placement programs, “which are very expensive and remove kids from their families,” he says. “There’s a whole variety of purposes on how the data can be used to understand disparities by race and ethnicity.”

“We know inherently there is structural racism in the systems that we work with, in the data that’s out there,” Zanti says. “And our goal is to do something about it.”

Ezekiel Dixon-Román’s work examines structural racism, looking at how algorithms reaffirm theories of difference that are rooted in a white supremacist agenda. Complex forms of machine learning, including facial recognition, have been built on mathematical axioms that were developed for colonial reasons, he says, citing the example that facial recognition does not recognize darker skinned phenotypes as well as lighter skinned phenotypes. 

zeke dixon roman teaching in a classroom
Associate professor Ezekiel Dixon-Román’s work examines structural racism, specifically how algorithms reaffirm theories of difference that are rooted in a white supremacist agenda. (Pre-pandemic image)

“This is not just about representation in the training data; it’s actually in the very axiomatics of the algorithms themselves,” Dixon-Román says. “We don’t hear this, we don’t see the logic at play.”

“Part of what I’m going after is to examine how algorithms are engaging in logics, thinking and processes, and even acts, that are regenerating the socio-politically constituted difference in ways that they were long designed to do,” he says. “Why do we assume this is objective?”

What sorts of interventions might be possible, both for disrupting challenging current conditions, but also toward trying to shape alternative new possibilities and futures? Ezekiel Dixon-Román, associate professor at SP2

Dixon-Román focuses on the social, ethical, and political in relation to data science and artificial intelligence. “Social policy has always been important to society,” he says. For instance, the increase of automation has raised ethical questions around labor markets, Dixon-Román says, referencing Ioana Marinescu and Amy Baker’s work on guaranteed income and universal basic income (UBI). 

At SP2, “we have faculty and students that work on different areas of policy,” Dixon-Román says, who is also director of the Master of Science in Social Policy program. “It might include social welfare policy, child welfare policy. It might be education, it might be transportation, it might be economic policy or labor market policy, you name it. But much of the focus is first, a concern for social justice” and second, a focus on the effects of those policies, he says. 

Teaching students critical theory is important to evaluate social policy, he says, to think about “what sorts of interventions might be possible, both for disrupting challenging current conditions, but also toward trying to shape alternative new possibilities and social futures.”

Broadening the support system: Guaranteed income and universal basic income

“This was an exciting move for me, to move into a more interdisciplinary school,” says Ioana Marinescu, who came from the University of Chicago. A broader set of colleagues “gave me greater freedom, as well as an impetus to try to think about research questions that would move the needle towards social justice,” she says.

Marinescu researches how income support policies (like unemployment benefits and universal basic income) promote economic security, along with wage inequality and wage exploitation. With the temporary expansion of public benefits during the pandemic, Marinescu is excited about a potential shift towards economic security. “What I think is very likely to happen is that we’re going to have a broadening of the cash support system, not necessarily full-blown UBI, but more cash for people with fewer hoops that they have to jump through.”

“I’ve long been interested in issues around social justice,” Marinescu says. While she found that there are “a number of different ways of going about trying to improve society,” material constraints are still important, she says. “We should worry about people’s ability to afford necessities and more.” For most people, cash is derived from labor. Nevertheless, “employers are often able to underpay workers relative to how much the worker contributes to the employer’s bottom line,” she says. Marinescu began concentrating on the idea that work is central to an individual’s ability to provide for their needs, and began thinking about policies to support equitable economic stability.

Marinescu and her graduate student Hyeri Choi are working on a three-year project funded by the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation, studying involuntary part-time workers. This is an economic problem, and the two wanted to see if employer power played into the issue, Choi says. 

As the first installment, Marinescu and Choi surveyed the job satisfaction of grocery store workers during the pandemic. “We found is that first, anxiety was the number one thing that was sapping their job satisfaction,” Marinescu says. “That’s during COVID, so really, they were feeling it.” The other key determinant in job satisfaction was control over their schedule, she says.  

Choi is finishing a dissertation on the relationship between parental employment stability and child well-being. People often look at employment and unemployment with a dichotomous perspective, but “we should look with a longitudinal perspective,” she says, looking at caregivers’ duration and stability of employment over time. “Experiences affect the parent’s stress and emotions, and ultimately the child’s well-being,” she says. 

“I was always interested in family and work issues and that’s why I chose the social work path,” Choi says. “I realized that every family has different resources and different backgrounds, and kids might be impacted by that.” 

Foster care: Making the system more compassionate 

Johanna Greeson was fresh out of her social work master’s program when “my eyes got opened in a way that I don’t think I’ve experienced since,” she says. As a social worker in Florida, she started working for a private foster care agency. “One of the things that I was struck by is that my colleagues who were doing the case management were at a loss to how to serve older youth,” Greeson says. “Older youth need different services than young children.”

“The idea that a young person could be pushed out into the world at age 18, disconnected from family, from community, from a system to support them, was just daunting to me.”

Greeson now specializes in older youth aging out of the foster care system, which now goes up to age 23 in most states. As the managing faculty director at the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, & Research, she works closely with Sarah Wasch, program manager at the Center. 

children in foster care playing on the floor
At SP2’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, & Research, the team promotes new ideas and research with an emphasis on lived experience, says program manager Sarah Wasch. “There’s universal agreement that the system as it currently operates is not working. And so, where do we go from here?”

“Foster care work is hard,” says Wasch. “The system is clunky and messy and not collaborative.” People go into this work with a passion for children and families, she says. 

“There are 400,000 children in America who are in foster care right now,” Wasch says. “A quarter [of a] million children enter this system each year … and millions of children each year are subject to abuse and neglect investigations.” Given this magnitude, she says they’re proud that SP2 offers child welfare courses. “Child welfare is intricately related to the field of social work.”

At the Field Center, the team promotes new ideas and research with an emphasis on lived experience, Wasch says. “There’s universal agreement that the system as it currently operates is not working. And so, where do we go from here?”

“The moment of social reckoning we find ourselves in is long overdue,” Gyourko agrees. While the foster care system is experiencing pushback as a whole, “I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to completely eliminate the need for foster care. We’re always going to need a system that looks out for the best interests of the child. 

“How do we remake that system so that it functions more efficiently and engages more compassionately with the people it serves? These are the core questions,” Gyourko says.

“We want to leverage our collective expertise and, building off emerging research in the field, advocate for policies that will promote success for individuals,” Wasch said. 

Since March 2020, the Field Center has launched two studies under Greeson’s leadership. The first study, in spring 2020, looked at the impact of COVID-19 on older youth in or aged out of foster care. The second, which wrapped up at the end of this summer, examines the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of older youth in and aged out of foster care. “

Our research [helps] inform the development of new programs and improved policies,” Wasch says. Both studies incorporate the thoughts and opinions of foster care youth and aim to provide critical information to agencies and organizations in the field. “We want to ensure that we are hearing from the very population for which we are hoping to affect outcomes,” Wasch says.

“Thinking about the foster care systems and the child protection mechanisms we currently have in place in the United States, is there a need for systemic reform? Is there room for improvement? Absolutely,” Gyourko says. “Research should play a key role as we move forward with those efforts.”

SP2 as a whole continues to look for more ways to partner with community initiatives. “We have this incredible opportunity to draw on all of that energy, that enthusiasm for the mission to move forward as social change agents where we are going to be further developing our work in Philadelphia,” Bachman says. 

Between the abolition movement to the momentum behind guaranteed income, it’s a good time to be doing this work. Over the last year and a half, people have become more aware of social programs, realizing that food and housing insecurity impacts a wide swath of Americans, Zanti says. “It’s created a conversation where people can think concretely about like, ‘Oh, that’s what you study.’ And that’s why it’s important, because we’re going through a pandemic right now, and you need data to understand how it’s impacting people and what to do about it.”

dennis culhane teaching in a classroom
Homepage image: “The mission of the School of Social Policy & Practice is the passionate pursuit of social justice,” says Dean Sara Bachman. Indeed, in their work, the established faculty at SP2 address the issues of homelessness, substance use, the carceral system, data and quantification, guaranteed income and universal basic income, the foster care system, and how to maximize philanthropic impact.