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The New Welfare Bureaucrats

Entanglements of Race, Class, and Policy Reform

As the recession worsens, more and more Americans must turn to welfare to make ends meet. Once inside the agency, the newly jobless will face a bureaucracy that has undergone massive change since the advent of welfare reform in 1996. A behind-the-scenes look at bureaucracy’s human face, The New Welfare Bureaucrats is a compelling study of welfare officers and how they navigate the increasingly tangled political and emotional terrain of their jobs.

Celeste Watkins-Hayes here reveals how welfare reform engendered a shift in focus for caseworkers from simply providing monetary aid to the much more complex process of helping recipients find work. Now both more intimately involved in their clients’ lives and wielding greater power over their well-being, welfare officers’ racial, class, and professional identities have become increasingly important factors in their work. Based on the author’s extensive fieldwork in two very different communities in the northeast, The New Welfare Bureaucrats is a boon to anyone looking to understand the impact of the institutional and policy changes wrought by welfare reform as well as the subtle social dynamics that shape the way welfare is meted out at the individual level.


The New Welfare Bureaucrats is an insightful study of the interplay between the formal rules of the welfare bureaucracies and the discretionary power and practices of welfare caseworkers. Celeste Watkins-Hayes brilliantly documents the emerging culture of the welfare workplace and its effect on human service delivery. This timely book is a must read for citizens, domestic policy analysts, and scholars concerned about strategies to address the plight of the truly disadvantaged.”

William Julius Wilson, Harvard University

"Watkins-Hayes is a major new talent whose work will draw attention from several different disciplines. Her perspective is distinctive, her writing is engaging, and her research breaks new ground in an important and well-tilled area. In marvelous detail, she shows how social identities are crucial to the operation of casework relationships, mediating and shaping the caseworkers’ efforts, while also illuminating their effect on organizational variation and welfare discourse in general."—Joe Soss, University of Minnesota

Joe Soss, University of Minnesota

"Through participant observation, interviews, and archival research, Watkins-Hayes insightfully illustrates the complex ways in which social locations influence the professional identities of welfare caseworkers and how these identities, situated in an organizational, institutional, social, political, and economic context, shape caseworker discretion in service delivery to welfare clients. . . . Overall, the book is well written and engaging. Valuable reading for graduate students, academics, and policy makers interested in creating organizational change."


Table of Contents


Introduction: Do Street-Level Bureaucracies Matter in a Post-Welfare Era?

1. Situated Bureaucrats: Locating Identity in Catch-All Bureaucracies

2. Not Everyone Has the Same Bag of Tricks: Identity Discord, Discretionary Toolkits, and Policymaking in a Changing Institution

3. Reinventing the Street-Level Welfare Bureaucrat? The Reformation of Professional Identities in Postreform Welfare Offices

4. Am I My Sister’s Keeper? Race, Class, Gender, and Community in Staunton

5. Race, Place, and Politics: Negotiating Community and Diversity in Fishertown

6. Conclusion: The Crisis of Identity in Catch-All Bureaucracies

Appendix A.Professional Identities in the Making: A History of the Profession of Welfare Casework

Appendix B. Demographic Data

Appendix C. Methodology


Works Cited


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