Street Level Theory and Social Policy: Workers' Practice of Stereotyping Clients in Refugee Resettlement
Federal refugee resettlement policy is implemented at the street-level by local non-profit agencies contracted to deliver social services to newly arrived refugees. Increasingly, performance measures associated with these contracts stress employment outcomes and the pursuit of “economic self-sufficiency” for refugees. Although many resettlement studies look at economic outcomes, research to date has not provided much insight into the process by which these outcomes are achieved. This paper addresses a significant gap in refugee policy research by analyzing the routine practices of employment caseworkers in a refugee resettlement agency. Central research questions asked are: what service delivery patterns have employment caseworkers developed, what organizational factors affect these patterns of practice, and how do these routine practices affect the employment opportunities of refugee clients?
Data for this paper comes from original organizational ethnographic data collected in a larger study that uses a street-level approach to understanding how resettlement policy, writ large, is implemented. Research was conducted over a one-year period at two urban resettlement agencies operating comprehensive services. Research methods included over 100 interviews, a year of observation, and archival review of relevant documents and contracts. Seventy-three subjects, including key informants, agency management, and staff were included in the study. Data was coded using a theoretically based thematic matrix, and analyzed with the guide of street-level theory.
This paper looks at street-level theory’s prediction that workers will engage in patterns of practice during service delivery that will make their own jobs easier to manage, and that these practice patterns are influenced by workplace conditions. Specifically, this paper addresses the practice of stereotyping and explains the role that this practice plays in helping caseworkers contend with the context of their own jobs. For example, employment caseworkers routinely categorized their clients as “employable” or not, based on subtle queues they got from clients. This categorization allowed the worker to take shortcuts in their work, making assumptions about what clients would be willing to do based on the category they had assigned this client to. The stereotyping shortcut was promoted by performance measures that assessed how quickly the caseworkers found jobs for clients, and by processes of formal and informal interagency comparison that raised rapid employment to a premium, over the match of client skills to job-type, pay rate, or any other measure. Finally, this study identifies a pattern in the types of job opportunities that result from the routines of caseworker practice at this resettlement agency; clients secured employment in exclusively low-wage jobs, most often in the meatpacking, housekeeping, and manufacturing industries. The findings from this study are in line with predictions of street-level theory: in the case of refugee resettlement at this agency, employment related policy is responsive to organizational conditions that promote shortcuts, such as stereotyping, to achieve specific outcomes. These findings may have implications for program managers and policy practitioners who design performance measures. Considering and measuring the quality, and client-centered focus, of service delivery could result in a different experience for refugee clients.