Panel Paper: They Are Underpaid and Understaffed: How Clients Conceptualize Child Care Subsidy Workers' Discretion in Front Line Work

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 9:10 AM
Santa Ana (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Carolyn Barnes, University of Michigan and Julia Henly, University of Chicago

     Research on public policy implementation demonstrates the importance of front-line workers in public bureaucracies (Lipsky, 1980).  Street level bureaucrats have considerable impact on the lives of public welfare clients, making critical decisions about how public benefits and services are distributed to individuals (Lipsky, 1980; Brodkin, 1997).  Since welfare reform, caseworker discretion research has focused on the enforcement of stringent welfare-to-work requirements and sanctioning practices (Hays, 2003; Brodkin, 1997). This line of research identifies the factors that influence caseworker discretion, highlighting the role of resources, work environments, and competing or ambiguous policy goals as key influences in determining how caseworkers make decisions (Sandfort, 2000; Hays, 2003;Watkins-Hayes, 2009;).This line of research is useful in understanding discretion from the vantage point of a front-line worker and gives valuable insight on the challenges of policy implementation. However, the client’s perspective is under-researched.  Of the few studies that address this perspective, it has been found that clients describe application experiences as demeaning, caseworkers as callous, and new policy rules as complex and difficult to manage (Soss, 2000,; Hays, 2003, Deparle, 2004). Yet, this literature falls short of deepening our understanding of how clients conceptualize caseworker discretion in their interactions with clients.

     The aim of the current paper is to develop such a conceptualization in the context of the child-care subsidy program. How do client’s view caseworker decisions? What factors do they believe shape caseworker behavior toward them? How do clients use their understanding of caseworker discretion in developing assessments of program experiences? We address these research questions through an analysis of 85 [JH1] in-depth interviews with subsidy clients in New York and Illinois, collected as part of the Child Care Research Partnership Study. Interviews assess clients’ proposed rationales behind caseworkers’ behavior toward clients. Using a modified grounded theory approach (Charmaz, 2006), we describe client rationales and explore how clients’ understandings of caseworker discretion informs evaluations of personal subsidy experiences.

     Preliminary analyses suggest that although there is variance across participants, negative experiences with eligibility and redetermination processes are the norm.  Nevertheless, despite almost universal complaints about inefficient and cumbersome processes, the valence of clients’ descriptions of caseworkers is varied and importantly, clients’ proposed rationales for caseworker behavior are heterogeneous as well. A subgroup of clients report being sympathetic to the challenges faced by caseworkers in implementing the subsidy program. These sympathetic clients do sometimes describe negative caseworker interactions and behaviors but attribute them to factors such as constrained program resources, limited caseworker power, and overwork. Some participants seem to interpret the availability of subsidies as a privilege “any help is better than none, so I hate to complain about it” rather than an earned right, and excuse poor treatment by caseworkers as expected and in some case even as deserved given the client’s position of aid recipient. We will discuss our findings in the context of the broader street level bureaucracy literature with the goal of contributing a client voice to our understanding of caseworker discretion.