GSSWSR Researchers Look at Race and Welfare Reform

Posted June 9th, 2009 at 3:36 pm.

GSSWSR's Sandy Schram

GSSWSR's Sandy Schram

Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research’s Sanford Schram, GSSWSR doctoral student Linda Houser and colleagues from the University of Minnesota and University of Kentucky have co-authored the feature article for the June issue of American Sociological Review.

Titled Deciding to Discipline: Race, Choice, and Punishment at the Frontlines of Welfare Reform, the article investigates racial disparities in the penalties (or sanctions) applied to individuals who fail to comply with welfare program rules.

As part of their research, Schram and his colleagues set up a Web-based survey of Florida Welfare Transition case managers. Respondents were presented with realistic rule-violation vignettes in which the facts stayed the same but details were changed to lead the case mangers to believe the client was of a certain race or ethnic background. For instance, in one case the name of the client was changed from Emily O’Brien to Lakisha Williams. Case managers were then asked whether they would impose a sanction in response to each scenario.

GSSWSR Ph.D. candidate Linda Houser

GSSWSR Ph.D. candidate Linda Houser

“Welfare reform has given case managers a variety of new powers and responsibilities,” says Schram. “To understand how race matters for punishment in the new world of welfare, one must theorize and investigate their decision making.”

The researchers found evidence that race does play a significant role in whether the case workers they studied decided to punish welfare recipients and that African Americans with a previous welfare violation were punished at a much higher percentage than whites of the same background.

“Under cover of a policy that is officially race-neutral, welfare systems operate in ways that reflect racial classifications, reproduce racial inequities, and call out for attention from both scholars and reformers,” wrote the researchers.

Schram and fellow researchers Joe Soss, University of Minnesota, and Richard C. Fording, University of Kentucky, are co-authors of Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, due out in 2010.

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