Panel Paper: The Case Worker As a Source of Program Information: Understanding the Importance of the Work Environment

Thursday, November 6, 2014 : 8:50 AM
Santa Ana (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Rebekah K. Selekman, Mathematica Policy Research
Child support is an important source of income for families who participate in cash welfare programs. Despite the importance of child support income to low-income families, researchers have found a lack of communication and understanding between child support and welfare agencies, and have noted that welfare workers spend little time providing child support information to their clients. Literature from behavioral economics indicates that if clients have incomplete information about program policies, they will be limited in their ability to make rational decisions regarding program participation.                      

Research on street-level bureaucrats indicates that front-line workers are often operating in constrained work environments, which limit their ability to provide complete information to their clients. Together, this research indicates that if the work environment of the welfare workers constrains their ability to convey the new child support policies to their clients, then, in turn, welfare clients will not make informed decisions about program participation and policy changes will have limited impacts. The need to ensure that welfare recipients receive accurate information regarding the interactions of child support and welfare was recently motivated by recent changes in the child support pass-through rules to former and current welfare recipients in Wisconsin.                                                                                                                                     This paper reports findings from one part of a larger effort to evaluate these recent changes to Wisconsin child support and welfare policies. Evaluation efforts of this project included observations of the welfare application process to identify information that was conveyed to clients from caseworkers. Observational data was collected from three welfare agencies in Wisconsin, where over sixty-eight caseworker client interactions were observed. In addition to caseworker-client interactions, this study draws on a content analysis of related case management documents and informal conversations with workers. This data is used to describe (1) conditions of caseworkers’ jobs and (2) “coping mechanisms” caseworkers used in exchanges with clients.   

This study considers the results of these observations as a way to understand how the context of the caseworker can be used to inform future policy innovation and implementation. It specifically aims to understand how the work environment of caseworkers influences the program information provided to applicants. The findings support many of the work conditions outlined in the literature that characterize the work environment of welfare workers and also finds that caseworkers provided limited information about child support to protectively manage the limited time they had to discuss all required information and fulfill the extensive performance standards on which they were measured. Additionally, caseworkers modified their conceptions of their job and their clients to justify the lack of information dissemination. This paper offers a discussion of how to understand and use the caseworker context for policy change.

Full Paper: