Panel: Explorations of Caseworker Discretion in a Post-Welfare Reform Policy Context: Caseworkers Experiences, Client Evaluations, and Policy Implications
(Poverty and Income Policy)

Thursday, November 6, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Santa Ana (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Panel Organizers:  Carolyn Barnes, University of Michigan
Panel Chairs:  Carolyn Barnes, University of Michigan
Discussants:  Marci Ybarra, University of Chicago

From Work Support to Work Motivator: Child Care Subsidies and Caseworker Discretion in the Post-Welfare Reform Era
Linda Houser, Widener University, Sanford Schram, Hunter College, Joe Soss, University of Minnesota and Richard C. Fording, University of Alabama

They Are Underpaid and Understaffed: How Clients Conceptualize Child Care Subsidy Workers' Discretion in Front Line Work
Carolyn Barnes, University of Michigan and Julia Henly, University of Chicago

This panel assembles three papers aimed at understanding the role of caseworker discretion in determining client experiences with means-tested programs and policy outcomes for low-income populations. Each paper offers a unique perspective of caseworker discretion across a set of policies. At the macro-level, Houser and colleagues explore the broader policy implications of caseworker discretion in child-care subsidy use. In their study of Florida’s TANF policy implementation, the authors find that caseworker’s interpretation of TANF priorities influences decision-making and results in substantial variation in subsidy use. Evidence from surveys and qualitative interviews suggests that caseworkers decide whether clients can use child care subsidies and that this discretion is used as a tool for securing clients’ attention and compliance. On a more individual level, Selekman’s study of Wisconsin welfare caseworkers, examines how the work environment shapes caseworker’s discretion in sharing information about child support policies. Because child-support is considered an income support, misinformation about child support policies often affects the uptake of means-tested programs. Selekman examines a state effort designed to educate caseworkers on the child support policies and encourage collaboration between the child support system and welfare programs. Through her case study, Selekman demonstrates how work environments influence whether and how caseworkers convey this new information about child-support policies to clients. Finally Barnes and Henly’s paper on caseworker discretion investigates clients’ evaluations of caseworker discretion through an analysis of in-depth interviews with child care subsidy clients in New York and Illinois. From the lens of subsidy clients, Barnes and Henly explore how caseworker logics are constructed by clients in their efforts to explain worker interactions and behaviors that are frequently negatively valenced. They suggest that how clients conceptualize caseworker decisions has implications for client evaluations of the subsidy program. Taken together this panel offers a variety of insights on the effects of caseworker discretion on policy outcomes, the factors that shape caseworker decisions, and client’s perspectives of caseworker discretion in program experiences.
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