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June 28, 2007


Schram to Explore a Punitive Welfare Policy
At Michigan's National Poverty Center


Many advocates of welfare reform consider Florida's business-oriented approach to distributing federal aid the model to emulate, but Visiting Professor of Social Work and Social Research's Sanford Schram wants policymakers to know about his research before they follow Florida's lead.

Schram, along with colleagues Richard Fording of the University of Kentucky and Joe Soss of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conducted a study of Florida's welfare-to-work program over the last three years. Their research, which includes both quantitative and qualitative components, suggests that the state's bottom-line attention to numerical performance measures tends to leave caseworkers unable to focus on clients' needs, create barriers to aid for those who need it most, and disproportionately punish members of racial minority groups.

The study also found that increased pressure to improve performance numbers consistently resulted in higher rates of sanctions against recipients, even though most caseworkers and their supervisors believe that high sanction rates harm the system's ability to move recipients from welfare to work. Further, under Florida 's highly decentralized scheme, the relationship of performance pressure to sanctioning rates – and the disparately high sanctioning of nonwhite participants – was measurably stronger in more conservative regions.

Schram will be preparing a book manuscript on the study for publication as a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan 's National Poverty Center next fall.

"National trends in poverty policy over the last several decades have emphasized decentralization, privatization, performance management and discipline in the form of sanctions against participants who don't fulfill work requirements," says Schram. "We chose to study Florida because it exemplifies all of these trends in their strongest form."

In addition to adopting some of the nation's strictest work requirements and time limits on aid, Florida also has one of the most decentralized and business-oriented systems for delivering Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) funds. Its TANF program is administered in conjunction with the federal Workforce Investment Act program. Control over both resides at the local level, with 24 Regional Workforce Boards that operate as public-private partnerships.

"Low-wage employers have very strong representation on these boards," Schram says, "and often it is employers, rather than aid recipients, who are seen as the clients. Case managers, called 'career counselors,' are not social workers – the program explicitly rejects a social-services model in favor of a business model."

According to Schram, the bottom line in Florida's welfare-to-work business is participation rate, the proportion of recipients working or participating in activities that are to lead to employment; there is enormous pressure at every level of management to increase the participation rate. Caseworkers have little opportunity to help clients but instead spend most of their time documenting aid recipients' compliance or lack of compliance with rules and entering the data into a statewide electronic tracking system that constantly updates statistics for each region and each caseworker, he says.

Each of the 24 regional workforce boards sets its own policy, Schram says, and their results are compared. "The theory is that competition will improve their performance. But the competition doesn't foster the sharing of information about best practices or innovative new strategies; instead, it tends to create secrecy and mistrust. Each region thinks other regions are finding ways to fudge the numbers."

One striking finding from the interview data, Schram says, is that many caseworkers are deeply ambivalent about imposing sanctions on noncompliant participants. Sanctions can be severe – "in all regions, a whole family can lose its food stamps for a whole month the first time a mother fails to show up at a dress-for-success class or some other workfare requirement."

According to Schram, many of the case managers are themselves former aid recipients. "They have a lot of empathy for program participants and understand the challenges they face in terms of child care, transportation, access to medical care and so on. They believe that they're hurting children with sanctions, and many of them are deeply religious people who feel terribly guilty about that. A number of the women we interviewed broke down and cried."

The study found that regional supervisors, too, tend to believe that sanctions are unlikely to have a positive impact on their success rates.

Nevertheless, quantitative data show that a reported dip in performance numbers in a given region is often followed by an increase in the rate of sanctions.

Schram and his partners theorize that one factor tying performance management to sanctions is the constant pressure case managers feel to improve their participation rates. Some find very creative ways to avoid sanctions, but they have few approved options. And they may face sanctions of their own – in some cases, their pay can be docked if they don't meet their quotas.

"Their discretion to be sympathetic to their clients is used at their peril," Schram notes.

Often, Schram says, they hope to improve clients' compliance by simply threatening sanctions, but once a notification of the intent to sanction has been filed, participants are held to an even-stricter standard, and sanctions become almost inevitable.

Moreover, the study's authors argue, sanctions imposed in the wake of negative performance reports tend to have the harshest effect on the most disadvantaged populations.

"When a region needs to boost its success rate, one option is to remove hard-to-serve people from its rolls by sanctioning them off welfare," Schram explains. "In this kind of situation, caseworkers tend to sanction those who face the greatest barriers to success in the work world – African Americans, Latinos and people who didn't finish high school."

In some cases, regional supervisors faced with performance pressure have implemented policy changes that made it more difficult for the neediest, hardest-to-serve populations to enroll in the TANF program.

"In an era of globalization, welfare reform represents a transformation of the market's relationship to the state," Schram says. "At a time when more states are considering following the approach adopted in Florida, we believe this study will contribute greatly to the public-policy debate about the use of sanctions in the new system of workfare. We are especially interested in contributing to that debate in a way that highlights the disparate consequences of this new system for different racial and ethnic groups."

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