Abstract: Child Care Subsidies and Caseworker Discretion in the Post-Welfare Reform Era (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

13330 Child Care Subsidies and Caseworker Discretion in the Post-Welfare Reform Era

Thursday, January 14, 2010: 2:30 PM
Pacific Concourse L (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
Linda Houser, MSW , Bryn Mawr College, PhD Candidate, Bryn Mawr, PA
Sanford F. Schram , Bryn Mawr College, Visiting Professor, Bryn Mawr, PA
Background and Purpose: The 1996 legislative reform of welfare shifted provision away from cash assistance and toward work-related services (Allard, 2009). Central among these services are child care subsidies. In 2006, 19% of all state and federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars went toward child care, second only to spending on cash assistance at 35% (CLASP, 2007). Still, as Prottas (1979) and Lipsky (1980) remind us, policy effects can only be fully understood by examining how services are delivered to clients, in this case by TANF caseworkers.

Work requirements for TANF have made access to child care a priority for the single mothers who comprise the majority of recipients. Yet recent studies suggest that many of those eligible for such subsidies do not use them (Witte & Queralt, 2003). Among those who obtain subsidies, periods of use tend to be short (Meyers et al. 2002), and recent research suggests that many parents stop receiving subsidies for reasons other than becoming income ineligible (Grobe, Weber, & Davis, 2008).

To the extent that stability in child care arrangements is associated with stability in employment (Hofferth & Collins, 2000) and with favorable outcomes for child development (Loeb et al., 2004), further understanding of conditions associated with the presentation, use, and withdrawal of child care subsidies is needed. The purpose of this study is to describe the role in child care subsidy distribution played by welfare caseworkers, who have both direct client contact and the authority to award and withdraw vouchers.

Methods: As part of a larger mixed methods study of welfare reform in Florida, we conducted semi-structured field interviews with more than 50 welfare transition caseworkers in four purposively selected regions. Using a grounded theory approach, we interviewed until saturation and subsequently coded the data using NVIVO.

Results: Consistent with Lipsky's emphasis on worker decisions as concrete manifestations of policy intentions, we find that caseworkers' interpretations of the goals and priorities of TANF have substantial influence over decision-making regarding the use and withdrawal of child care subsidies. We also find that subsidies have taken on a potentially new degree of importance as both the real value and relative certainty of cash benefits have declined. Interview evidence suggests that caseworkers use benefits in a variety of ways, including to secure clients' attention and compliance by the threat of benefit withdrawals and to cushion the effects of transitioning from welfare receipt to paid employment.

Implications and Conclusions: There are numerous implications for both the teaching and the practice of social work. Understanding how child care subsidies are being used increasingly as tools for gaining client compliance is important for social workers seeking to keep abreast of how changes in the social welfare system affect their own involvement with clients. We provide a window into the critical context within which benefits are given or withheld. We also explore the importance both of the social work role as “policy in action” and of field research into worker discretion and its impact on clients.