Policy at the Street Level

By Adam Doster

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


In a new book examining the “global workfare project,” SSA Associate Professor Evelyn Brodkin and her collaborators look beyond what welfare reform and workfare policies appear to do to investigate how they actually take shape on the ground.

Work and the Welfare State, which Brodkin co-edited, examines the spread of workfare-style policies in six countries. Referred to as activation in Europe, workfare generally requires unemployed individuals to participate in job searches and other work-oriented activities as a condition for receiving public benefits.

The idea for the book began with Brodkin’s research following the enactment of U.S. “welfare reform” in 1996. With support from the NSF, Ford Foundation and Open Society Institute, she studied implementation during a period in which she says the “most precipitous changes in welfare caseload were taking place.” She conducted organizational ethnographies in Chicago welfare offices and began to explore the international spread of workfare, engaging with her research network and building on her experiences as visiting professor in Australia, Denmark, France and Mexico.

In 2009, Brodkin brought European and U.S. scholars together for “Welfare States in Transition,” a symposium that was part of SSA’s Centennial celebration and cosponsored by the RESQ international research network. The discussion confirmed her sense that developments on the ground were at odds with prevailing views about workfare as a successful strategy for bringing the poor and unemployed into the labor market.

“The symposium conversation was so generative,” she recalls. “I felt we should dig deeper and develop our research into a book.” This fall Work and the Welfare State, co-edited with Gregory Marston, a professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, was published by Georgetown University Press. It examines workfare in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.

The book focuses on “street-level organizations” (SLOs), the public bureaucracies and private agencies that execute the day-to-day tasks of the welfare state, advancing a distinctive theoretical approach that links the micropolitics of SLOs to the macropolitics of the welfare state: “It’s a way of seeing big by looking small,” Brodkin explains.

The street-level perspective directs close attention to what organizations do in the name of reform. This is critical when policies are complex and depend on the discretionary practices of street-level organizations. Brodkin calls this the “missing middle—the opaque spaces between formal policy provisions and social outcomes in which the essential work of the welfare state and its policies takes place.”

In a chapter presenting findings from her Chicago research, Brodkin analyzes what happened as caseworkers worked to meet caseload quotas and other measured aspects of performance. “As an example, I tracked a star worker in one office,” she says, “and found that for one week, each individual he assessed was sent to the same welfare-to-work provider.” Given the diversity of clients, she says this standardized response seemed to contradict the agency’s emphasis on individualized assessments and services.

Further investigation revealed broad use of “under the radar” shortcuts favoring “speed over need.” She explains that these types of routine street-level adaptations develop when organizational resources are limited and performance metrics fail to recognize qualitative dimensions of casework practice. “To put it simply, under these conditions, it’s easiest for a caseworker to send everybody to a provider who gets the paperwork done quickly,” she says, “but caseworkers face an uphill battle trying to do the kind of time-consuming, difficult work that would respond to individual circumstances. What’s remarkable is how hard some caseworkers try to do this against all odds.”

Brodkin says that a major contribution of the book is that it “makes transparent patterns of informal practice that are otherwise difficult to identify and assess.” It demonstrates a clear pattern across countries: governance and management reforms are “intensifying workfare’s harsher practices and undermining practices that might support individuals trying to make it in the labor market.” Brodkin hopes that the book provides a new understanding of how workfare really works. American politicians often discuss reductions in welfare as if they were an unmitigated triumph. Brodkin disagrees. “What is called ‘successful workfare,’” she says, “is not necessarily what it appears to be.” — Adam Doster