Over the past decade, politicians and the press alike have claimed that welfare reform works. Despite these claims, many researchers question the success of welfare reform. Since 1996, and until the recent recession, many welfare participants in the United States have found some type of employment after leaving welfare. It is not clear how much of this increase in employment is attributable to welfare services or if the employment is stable. Further, welfare participants across the United States have difficulty finding full-time, full-year employment. The jobs available to participants are low-skill, low-wage jobs that offer little to no upward mobility. The most consistent finding concerning the effects of welfare reform on employment is that the number of families classified as working poor has increased dramatically. Despite these challenges, welfare agencies argue they help program participants reach self-sufficiency.
A great deal of research has explored welfare agency caseworkers, especially how they use discretion. Paperwork in county welfare bureaucracies, however, is often taken-for-granted by caseworkers and researchers studying welfare. In this case study of a county welfare program in rural North Carolina, the author focus on how caseworkers use paperwork through document analysis, interviews, and observation data. The findings illustrate caseworkers spend far more time on paperwork than they actu- ally spend assisting program participants find employment. Finally, the author shows how caseworkers use paperwork to feel effective in a job that offers little to help clients move from welfare to work.
Completing paperwork was a way for caseworkers to achieve standard measures of effectiveness and to feel successful in their jobs. Additionally, caseworkers and managers argued the paperwork was important to show you were doing your job correctly (cover yourself) and it is important because it holds caseworkers accountable to treating program participants fairly.
On the one hand, these workers are expected to help clients, but on the other, they are expected to police the behavior of those they serve. Being somewhat wedged between serving their bureau- cracies and clients creates a dilemma, one that is often solved by focusing on rule-mindedness. In many ways, caseworkers avoid this dilemma through focusing the majority of their time on completing paperwork.
Finally, the caseworkers’ focus on paperwork shows their buy-in to welfare ideology or to the “common sense” of welfare. The majority of the paperwork is meant to show the program participant is either complying with parenting guidelines (i.e., vaccinations, school attendance) or work-related participation requirements (i.e., job search and working somewhere under the Work Experience program). The main reason program participants are sanctioned in Smithgrove County is for failure to complete paperwork or document good cause for missing a work or welfare office related appointment. Caseworkers also use paperwork to prove they are following the rules of a punitive welfare ideology that encourages caseworkers to constantly surveil program participants in the event they are engaged in fraud- ulent activities. None of the documentation actually helps program participants find work.
Paperwork in welfare bureaucracies might never go away and, to some degree, a paper trail is helpful to the program participant in the event that a caseworker does make an error and the participant needs to file a grievance. However, Ridzi (2009) argues that welfare providers could use the massive amounts of paperwork to provide a service to clients instead of using it only for surveillance. Researchers and administrators could track what works and does not work to better inform policy change. This would require minimal structural change to our current system and could uncover best practices or mecha- nisms for helping clients find good jobs. Creating mechanisms for helping clients find good jobs would not only enhance the well-being of clients, it would likely greatly improve the well-being and job satisfaction of caseworkers.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at (click on the image to get the pdf)