Abstract: Equity Versus Equality: Discourses and Practices within Decentralized Welfare-to-Work Programs in California (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Equity Versus Equality: Discourses and Practices within Decentralized Welfare-to-Work Programs in California

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Paul Simpson, BA, Student, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Lucia Marina Lanfranconi, PhD, Professor, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences, Lucerne, Switzerland
Yu-Ling Chang, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Aditi Das, PhD, Fellow, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Background: While past research has emphasized racial disparities in WTW sanction rates, by focusing on state/county characteristics or frontline-worker’s biases, there is a dearth of research on the state and local level WTW discourses and practices that may reduce these disparities. This paper, therefore, aims to understand how equity and equality-based discourses and practices may shape racial disparities in the devolved TANF system. Using a framework from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to evaluate social equity, and drawing from critical race theory, we contextualize racial disparities within California’s WTW program state- and local-level embedded welfare discourses and practices.

Methods: Comparing the implementation of CalWORKs across both county sites (Bay and Central County), the mixed methods study triangulates data from three sources: (i) statistical analysis of CalWORKs administrative data at the state- and county-level; (ii) 52 CalWORKs policy documents at the state level and 27 at the county-level ; (iii) In-person interviews with state- (n=7) and county-administrators (n=10). The qualitative data was analyzed based on a critical discourse analysis using the qualitative data analysis program MaxQDA, by first coding all documents and interview transcripts, second organizing codes into pattern tables on the basis of the social equity framework defined by NAPA and third identifying equity and equality discourses.

Findings: Descriptive analysis of administrative data reveals racial disparities in WTW sanctions and exemptions at the state‐level and surprising contrasting racial disparity patterns across the two counties. Drawing on an equity framework, critical discourse analysis of policy documents and interviews at the state level reveals conflicting discourses and practices around equity and equality, leaving room for interpretation at local agencies. CDA of county‐level documents and interviews with county administrators showcases contrasting discourses and practices: while Bay-County, despite its more liberal political ideology, operates on an equality discourse that does not challenge existing disparities, while the Central-County, despite its more conservative ideology, operates on a more equity‐related discourse of providing better treatment towards some historically disadvantaged groups.

Conclusion and Implications: Our findings suggest that the local level interpretation of equity or equality influences the chances of diverse clients in accessing CalWORKs, getting legitimate exemptions from the work requirement, not getting sanctioned, and finally successfully maintaining employment. We conclude that in the absence of a clear equity framework at the state level, decentralization complicates the manner in which equity discourses and practices play out at the local level. We recommend, for any decentralized WTW program, introducing an equity framework that operates at a higher policy level and engages in a closer examination and monitoring of unequal program outcomes is warranted.