The Power of Paperwork

Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

Welfare officers may be too quick to use sanctions.

-Richard Mertens

Jessica, a 33-year-old mother of three living in Suffolk County, N.Y., had been on welfare for a year. During the day she worked at a local social service agency, satisfying the welfare system's "work-first" requirement, and at night she went to school to become a medical assistant. It made for a long day. And yet when she missed a routine appointment at the local labor department office to take a test at school, welfare officials showed little sympathy. They punished her by taking away part of her welfare payment.

Jessica's story is part of "Welfare and Work Sanctions: Examining Discretion on the Front Lines." The article examines how sanctions that take away all or part of an individual's welfare payment—widely thought to be effective in pushing recipients into self-sufficiency— may be too blunt of an instrument. The research suggests that welfare agencies may be hassling too much and helping too little, in some cases undermining the genuine efforts of women like Jessica to become self-sufficient and working against the goals of welfare reform.

"It's become more a clerical or paper-processing act. There's not an attempt to look at the entire person," says Vicki Lens, an associate professor of social work at Columbia University and the author of the article. Lens interviewed Jessica—a pseudonym— and other welfare recipients who had been sanctioned and studied decisions from sanction appeal hearings (she did not have access to welfare workers).

Lens found that officials often impose sanctions for merely technical violations, such as missed appointments or a lack of documentation. One woman was sanctioned after she missed a meeting because her young son had diarrhea and she failed to produce a doctor's note. Another was sanctioned several times because of conflicts that arose from a busy schedule that included a job as a hostess and classes at a local college to earn a degree in psychology.

"Yes, there are people who need the motivation," Lens says, citing as an example a woman she interviewed who cut back her work hours as a nurse's aide in order to preserve her welfare benefits. But welfare officials "apply wholesale a policy that isn't applicable to a large group of people," Lens argues, contending that the misuse of sanctions not only is counterproductive and unnecessarily punitive but also violates legal provisions that allow sanctions only for "good cause" and for "willful" violations of the rules. By interpreting "good cause" narrowly and ignoring the law on "willful" violations, she says, "the bureaucracy expands by administrative means welfare reform's harshest provisions."

Lens's study portrays a bureaucracy that seems more preoccupied with enforcing its procedures than with helping single mothers find work, a longstanding problem, she says, that welfare reform, for all its promise, has done little to change. Sanctions reflect an assumption in welfare policy that welfare recipients are trying to avoid work and that their problems are due entirely to personal flaws and not in part to circumstances like a poor labor market.

Lens does not consider these shortcomings inevitable. She contrasts the welfare bureaucracy with those that administer Medicare and Social Security. "You're treated more respectfully, like a citizen," she said. "In the welfare bureaucracy you're not really treated like a citizen. You're treated like a second class person."

Vicki Lens. 2008. "Welfare and Work Sanctions: Examining Discretion on the Front Lines." Social Service Review 82 (2): 197-222. 


Husband and Strife

Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

A shortage of good partners undermines policies that promote marriage for young mothers.

-Richard Mertens

Public policy increasingly promotes marriage as the answer to the growing number of children living in single parent families. The federal Healthy Marriage Initiative, for example, pays for training, advertising, and high school programs to encourage marriage.

But new research raises questions about whether marriage is really appropriate for many young single mothers. According to "Marriageability among the Partners of Young Mothers," most of the partners available to low-income women bring with them a variety of shortcomings, including high rates of substance abuse and incarceration.

"If your criteria for a husband are that he's not abusive, not involved in the criminal justice system, and has no history of involvement with illegal drugs, a lot of these men are not going to be very good partners," says Leonard Lopoo, an assistant professor of public administration at Syracuse University who is also the study's lead author.

In recent years researchers have learned a great deal about the young women who become single mothers. They have spent far less time trying to learn about the partners of these young mothers, in part because the men are simply harder to find. In their article, Lopoo and Marcia Carlson, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, try to fill this void, asserting that an understanding of these men is important in determining whether they may add to or subtract from the problems of young single mothers. Moreover, they point out, "The biological father is forever an important part of a child's life, even if absent."

The notion of "marriageability" dates to William Julius Wilson's 1987 book, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, which describes the declining number of educated and employable men available as marriage partners in poor urban areas. Lopoo and Carlson used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study to look at the economic, social, and behavioral characteristics of the partners of young single mothers, comparing these men to the partners of married women and of older single mothers.

The results of Lopoo and Carlson's study were less than encouraging. The age difference between young married women and their partners was not substantially greater than the age difference in other categories, as is commonly assumed. However, the partners of young single women were more likely to be unemployed and out of school. They were also more likely to be physically violent, to suffer from substance abuse, and to have been incarcerated.

Lopoo and Carlson found that about a third of the partners of young single mothers did not suffer from such problems and seemed to pass the marriageablity test. They suggest that marriage promotion efforts might target these men as suitable marriage partners.

The article also weighs in on the "marriage effect." This is the knotty question of whether marriage itself makes men more marriageable— whether marriage cultivates qualities that make men good fathers and husbands or simply selects for men who already possess those qualities. Most researchers think the truth lies somewhere in between: that marriage involves selection but also makes men better partners. But Lopoo and Carlson found little to support marriage effect. "We don't see a lot of evidence in our data," Lopoo says.

Leonard M. Lopoo and Marcia J. Carlson. 2008. "Marriageability among the Partners of Young Mothers." Social Service Review 82 (2): 253-71.


Help from Many Friends

How social interactions impact mental health

Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

-Richard Mertens

We know that the support of family and friends can improve mental health—and that conflicts with them can erode it. A new study, "Personality, Negative Interactions, and Mental Health," presents evidence for a more complicated understanding of the links between personality, social relationships, and mental health. "You have to take into account social relationships," says the article's author, Karen Lincoln, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern California. "It isn't just personality. Both matter."

For social workers in clinical practice, this is a question of more than academic interest. How they understand the dynamics of personality, social relationships, and mental health can guide them in the strategies to help clients, including whether to focus on changing an individual's thinking, tinkering with social interactions, or some combination of the two.

Lincoln uses two national data sets to show that social relationships are important even after considering the influence of personality. The data also show, she says, an asymmetry of influence. Negative interactions—conflicts, criticism, excessive demands— exert a much more powerful and lasting effect than positive interactions.

The study sheds light on different kinds of social support, suggesting, for example, that support from friends doesn't protect an individual from psychological distress, but that support from relatives does. Conversely, negative interactions with friends undermines mental health more than with relatives.

The two main personality traits that the study looks at are extroversion and neuroticism. Lincoln says that one surprise in her findings is that extroverts seem to have more negative social encounters than neurotics. "They tend to be happy, the life of the party. But they also tend to be overexposed," she says. "In some instances, people who are happy and talkative can put themselves at risk of higher exposure to negative interactions."

Lincoln's study suggests that social workers might help extroverts apply greater discrimination in their social interactions and that neurotics can benefit from social support—even though encouraging positive interactions is more difficult with neurotics.

An assessment of an individual's social network "is a crucial beginning for social workers interested in protecting and promoting health by mobilizing social support," Lincoln writes. Social workers also need to recognize that this network "can, at different times and under different conditions, be sources of both help and stress."

Karen D. Lincoln. 2008. "Personality, Negative Interactions, and Mental Health." Social Service Review 82 (2): 223-52.