Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Implementing Welfare-to-Work: Program Managers' Identities and Service Delivery in North Carolina

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Implementing Welfare-to-Work: Program Managers' Identities and Service Delivery in North Carolina

Article excerpt

Using telephone interviews, we examine the professional identities of welfare-to-work managers in North Carolina counties and explore how their identities correlate with county characteristics and the structuring of services. We find social work and efficiency engineer approaches to be distinct and influential with the street-level bureaucrat often conflicted, caught between helping and policing clients. In our study, conflicted managers often do daily casework on top of their managerial responsibilities. Although social work identities were the most common, efficiency engineer and conflicted identities were associated with more punitive and eligibility-focused routines. Overall, program managers' identities correspond to how services are structured for clients within the constraints of the federal welfare-to-work program.

The administration of welfare policy in the United States occurs largely at the local level. In county offices, program managers make decisions about how to direct the welfare-to-work program within the constraints of federal and state guidelines. The ways in which these program managers define their jobs could be related to welfare-to-work practices and organization culture, including the services offered to clients and how those services are delivered. Research has found that moral conceptions of the poor, and of welfare clients, factor directly into both policymaking and service implementation (Handler and Hasenfeld 2007 ; Hasenfeld 2000). We examine the degree to which welfare-to-work program managers see their jobs as regulating clients as opposed to helping them, and how these different worker identities are related to service implementation in the program.

While perceptions of cash assistance welfare clients have been negative for some time, the 1980s marked a strong shift. In that decade, the Reagan administration brought a market philosophy of deregulation and decentralization to the federal government coupled with a media campaign emphasizing "welfare queens." The so-called "welfare queen" is a raced, gendered, and classed welfare recipient considered undeserving (Katz 2001). The trend of decentralization continued into the 1990s as many states took part in "welfare experiments" (Rogers-Dillon 2004; Rogers-Dillon and Skrentny 1999). The negative perception towards clients underlying these experiments was apparent. State program experiments focused on "ending dependency" of clients by punitive means. Eventually, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 was passed, which marked the change from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). In North Carolina, the TANF program's funding is used to support the "Work First" program discussed in this paper.

Our purpose in this research includes advancing what we know about current welfare service implementation at the county level in light of the national transition in attitudes towards clients and "dependence." We hope to shed light on the ways in which definitions of welfare workers' jobs are related to service implementation. We examine how program managers discuss office policy by combining qualitative analysis with cross-tabulation percentages. In this paper, we use primary data from telephone interviews with welfare-to-work program managers in each of North Carolina's 100 counties, while also drawing upon publicly available data. Our results show that the program managers' different approaches to their jobs are related to the implementation of services for the poor, and further, that organizational structuring is related to how program managers view their work.


In an analysis of street-level bureaucracy, Lipsky (1980) finds policy goals are often ambiguous because they represent layers of congressional, state, county, and agency decisions. This layering produces unclear and even contradictory goals that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. …

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