Panel Paper: From Work Support to Work Motivator: Child Care Subsidies and Caseworker Discretion in the Post-Welfare Reform Era

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 8:30 AM
Santa Ana (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Linda Houser, Widener University, Sanford Schram, Hunter College, Joe Soss, University of Minnesota and Richard C. Fording, University of Alabama
Work requirements for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program have made access to child care a priority for the single mothers who compose the majority of recipients. Consequently, in 2009, 17 percent of all state and federal TANF dollars went toward child care, almost twice that spent on other “work-related activities and supports” (Pavetti 2011). Still, policy effects can be fully understood only by examining how services are delivered to clients, in this case by TANF caseworkers. As part of a larger mixed-methods study of welfare reform in Florida, we conducted surveys of caseworkers across the state of Florida, as well as semistructured field interviews with more than 50 welfare transition caseworkers in four purposively selected regions. We received 143 surveys (for a response rate of roughly fifty percent) and conducted field interviews both individually and in small groups.

      Consistent with Lipsky’s emphasis on worker decisions as concrete manifestations of policy intentions, we find that caseworkers’ interpretations of the priorities of TANF have substantial influence over decision making regarding the use and withdrawal of child care subsidies. Survey evidence suggests that there is substantial variation between caseworkers in their views of child care problems as “good cause” for violations of work expectations and that these views are related to decisions about applying sanctions for noncompliance with welfare-to-work contracts. Interview evidence suggests that caseworkers control whether clients receive subsidies for child care and that their ability to turn subsidies “on or off” is widely viewed, and often used, as a tool for securing clients’ attention and compliance. Subsidies are also used, however, to cushion the effects of transitioning from welfare receipt to paid employment.

Our research uncovers important ways that caseworkers perceive and use care-related benefits as tools in the pursuit of both client and policy goals. In a heavily devolved workforce system characterized by rigorous enforcement of compliance at multiple levels, caseworkers’ efforts to interpret and apply policy priorities pertaining to the use and withdrawal of child care subsidies work at times to the disadvantage of clients. Overall, we uncovered greater variation in policy interpretation and application at the level of the caseworker than at the regional level. Interestingly, however, it is this very process of regional devolution that allows for the entrée of a variety of organizations, as well as a variety of individual actors, into the TANF implementation arena. Our findings suggest a need both for greater policy oversight and for enhanced training and professional development opportunities for caseworkers. On a broader scale, there may be grounds for questioning the narrow focus on workforce participation as the primary, if not the only, goal of TANF.

     Results from the survey have not been presented at a conference or published. Results from the interview portion of this research were presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Work and Social Research and will be published in May 2014 in Women, Politics, and Policy.