'Smart, Dedicated Caseworkers' Under The Ryan Plan? Doubtful
July 28, 2014

Jamelle Bouie doesn't think the poor need the "life coaches" who'd oversee their access to social services under the Paul Ryan poverty plan. I agree with Bouie that what the poor need instead is access to more jobs that pay a living wage.

But Bouie's reform-conservative Slate colleague, Reihan Salam, likes the Ryan plan. He writes:

The theory behind having smart, dedicated caseworkers working on behalf of people who are down on their luck is that spending a bit more time and money now could help save time and money later.

Byond the obvious problem with this -- when in recent years have elected Republicans ever agreed to spend more money now on any program in order to spend less money later? -- there's the question of those "smart, dedicated caseworkers." I agree with New York magazine's Annie Lowrey: requiring the poor to sit down with these caseworkers and work out specific benchmarks before they can receive aid is (to use her word) paternalistic. In practice, though, it would be cut-rate paternalism, because we'd never bother to ensure that we had "smart, dedicated" paternalists as caseworkers.

As Lowrey notes, under the Ryan plan, these caseworkers would be employed by several different types of organizations:

Ryan proposes asking poor families to work with a single "provider" -- a government agency or approved nonprofit or for-profit group -- to build and enact a life plan, in exchange for cash assistance.

So some of these caseworkers will work for the government, others for nonprofits, still others for profit-making corporations. How's that going to work out?

Well, we can imagine what's going to happen in government programs: states aren't going to provide enough money to hire the number of caseworkers they'll need, because that's what always happens with the budgeting of government social service agencies. Each caseworker will have a huge caseload. Oh, and in and all but the bluest parts of the country, it'll be determined that they can't possibly be union workers with collective bargaining rights, so we won't pay enough to hire and retain caseworkers who are truly qualified and experienced.

Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones has looked at Jason DeParle's book about a welfare-to-work program in Milwaukee that fell far short of its goal; she tells us this:

DeParle describes caseworkers in the Wisconsin welfare-to-work agencies as utterly overwhelmed, with caseloads double what they should have been because no one wanted to invest the money to hire the number of qualified people it would take to do the job right.

That' what we're going to get at the public-sector level.

At the for-profit companies, do you think there's going to be any more effort to pay well enough to retain good caseworkers? You'd be a fool to expect that -- everything's going to bottom-line oriented. I wouldn't be surprised if we end up with some caseworker jobs outsourced to overseas call centers, with scripted admonitions coming from life coaches who've never even been to America.

There might be some hope in the nonprofit sector -- maybe some underpaid but tireless inner-city champions of the poor, or some empathetic nuns -- but I imagine this is just going be a jobs program for fringy fundy opportunists, especially the kinds of people who devise charter school curricula in right-leaning states. We're going to get a lot of caseworkers demanding attendance at extremely conservative and doctrinally bizarre churches in return for signoffs on aid, as we've seen in recent years with faith-baed rehabilitation programs in prisons. Republican governors will defend those religious-right nonprofits to the death.

So it doesn't matter whether the Ryan plan could work the way it's being described, because it would never be implemented that way.

(Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.)


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