Feb. 1, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 10

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    Brodkin: Resources for caseworkers key to successful welfare reform

    Successful welfare reform may not depend on whether state or federal government has control, but on whether caseworkers at the street level have the resources to carry out policy decisions, according to Evelyn Brodkin, Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration.

    Brodkin, an expert in poverty policy and politics of the welfare state, recently completed a two-year study of the "state side of the welfare contract." She examined the implementation of welfare-to-work policies in offices serving neighborhoods with concentrated urban poverty. She found systemic problems in service quality and bureaucratic accountability as agency staff members struggled to meet quotas for participation.

    "I wanted to understand state agency responses to the welfare contract embodied in welfare policy, to see how state agencies provided programs and service support intended to enable recipients to meet an obligation to work," Brodkin said. "A policy can be many things, depending on what happens when it hits the ground.

    "It's not so much what the state says it will do, but what it is able to do. If the workers aren't able to provide things like access to jobs, access to education, drug programs or child support, then they won't be able to provide meaningful help. Moreover, the prospects for enforcing a meaningful welfare contract built around work are undermined when the quality of services is not measured -- only quantity is monitored."

    In "The State Side of the 'Welfare Contract': Discretion and Accountability in Policy Delivery," Brodkin describes her study of the Project Chance program in Chicago. Over a two-year period, Brodkin conducted an in-depth case study in selected Chicago offices of Project Chance, the Illinois program designed to help move recipients from welfare to work. She directly observed the routine processes of program operation, including caseworker interactions with clients, and she interviewed caseworkers, supervisors and managers. She also studied program operations at selected comparison sites in California.

    "Policy design is all well and good, but design is just an idea, and what agencies need is the capacity to do the job well," she said. "Right now, caseworkers don't have what they need to do the job well."

    For example, although many clients needed education or job training, limited spaces were available for those services. Caseworkers had broad discretion in interpreting policy requirements and client needs, even, at times, certifying people as "job ready" even if they clearly were not.

    Brodkin watched as one client, who had multiple physical problems, including two previous strokes, and who scored low on a literacy test, was termed job ready and assigned to look for work in a factory, as a cashier or "maybe in a bank." When Brodkin questioned the caseworker, he said, "All management wants to know is, 'How many assessments can you get?' You've got to talk [the clients] into something."

    "The point is not that my observations represent what goes on in every program on every day," Brodkin said. "The point is that all sorts of things can go on in state agencies -- and they do.

    "The real lesson to be learned is that creating state capacity to do an effective job of supporting welfare recipients through the transition from welfare to work is very complex and very difficult. It is made all the more difficult when states are operating with very limited resources and very little accountability.

    "If welfare reform is to be effective in improving the circumstances of the poor, we must know what it takes to make it work," she added. "A great deal has been made about the accomplishments claimed by a few smaller programs. But reform won't make much of a dent in the problem of urban poverty if it has positive effects in places like Sheboygan and Des Moines, but not in big cities like Chicago and Detroit."

    Brodkin said her research shows what state agencies need if they are going to succeed with new initiatives for welfare reform. The answer is either to allow programs to get more complex -- and then hire, train and equip a staff that can do the job -- or to limit state programs to providing simple cash benefits.

    "Given declining fiscal support for state welfare programs, one possibility is to radically rethink what welfare policy ought to be and to remove all services from welfare and reduce it to a simple income-transfer program, which states are actually good at."

    In the meantime, she said, policy-makers and agency leaders should look carefully at what they need to make any new welfare policies achieve their goals.

    "Essentially, it's wishful thinking to believe that reducing or eliminating federal control of state agencies is going to result in a better operating system," Brodkin said. "When Congress says let's turn it over to the states, they're simply washing their hands of it. The real question is how do we give caseworkers the skills and resources they need to carry out policy decisions well."

    -- Catherine Behan