Q&A: Prof. Evelyn Brodkin discusses research on work and welfare policies across the globe

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from a Q&A conducted by the University of Chicago Urban Network. To read the rest of the interview, click here.

While working on the steering committee of an international research network, Evelyn Brodkin, School of Social Service Administration professor and Urban Network research affiliate, began to see patterns in the changing boundaries between work and the welfare state across the globe. This led her to bring the research group to Chicago in 2009 to discuss the international parallels in the workfare movement, and has now resulted in the book Work and the Welfare State.  

In a series of essays from scholars of organizations, politics and policy, Work and the Welfare State approaches the changes in welfare policy from the street level to shed new light onto old debates and to examine what these changes have meant for the poor, unemployed and marginalized.


Work and welfare policies are not necessarily “urban,” but have long been major aspects of urban research and policy, as well as the urban political narrative. For urbanists, understanding the impacts of workfare policies are essential to understanding the political, economic, and social fabric of our cities.

Brodkin recently discussed the themes of the book in a conversation with the Urban Network. She will join an in-depth conversation beginning at 6 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.

The Urban Network: What is workfare, and how is it related to welfare?

Evelyn Brodkin: Workfare and labor market activation are the labels for policies that seek to promote work in the labor market. In recent decades, countries around the world have adopted workfare-style policies, although they vary in the extent to which they require some sort of “work-for-welfare” deal as a condition for receiving cash aid. In practice, these policies also vary widely in whether and to what extent they actually help get people prepare for work and enable them to make it a labor market where they may be channeled into unstable and low-paid jobs.

U.S.-style workfare has a long and politically fraught history. In 1997, it became the centerpiece of so-called welfare reform, which limited cash aid to five years (over a lifetime) and made aid conditional on compliance with specified work requirements. Although U.S.-style workfare has influenced international policy developments, most Western European countries (and Australia) have emphasized human capital-building and limited (or foresworn) harsh work-for-you-welfare prescriptions. None place hard time limits on welfare receipt. Yet, both U.S. and European workfare initiatives are based on the same essential idea—getting the unemployed into the labor market and reducing reliance on cash assistance.

On their face, these types of policies may seem quite reasonable. Why not support work? But, in practice, it's far less clear whether they “support” work or simply push people into the labor market on inauspicious terms. Surely, since the Great Recession—in the U.S. and globally—it should be obvious that work is not always available and the types of work available to those less-skilled may hold little promise for economic security or family well-being. In my book, we consider these issues as well as the larger political enterprise that workfare represents. In effect, we see workfare-style policies as politically fraught because they reshape the boundaries between the state and the market, limiting protections against market hazards (and bad luck) and placing the most disadvantaged and marginalized at the mercy of labor market forces that intensify their vulnerability. In this book, we go beyond policy-on-the page to examine policy-in-practice, that is, how workfare-style policies actually take shape on the ground and what they means for the experiences of those subject to them.

UN: Much of your book is trying to understand what comes between the policy itself—workfare—and the outcomes for individuals. Why is that important?

EB: Conventional policy analysis tends to focus on formal policy features—what policy “says” it will do—and then assesses outcomes thought to relate to those features. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but I use it to highlight the fact that policy analysis tends to look at what policymakers claim to do and what they want to result. But they do little to illuminate what I've called “the missing middle,” the organizational practices through which policy ideas are converted into day-to-day practice. As scholars of complex organizations and policy implementation, we are acutely aware that policy-as-produced may be quite different from policy-on-the-page. The challenge is to make visible the hidden organizational processes through which this conversion takes place and to show not only what happens on the ground, but analyze factors that systematically shape how this occurs.

This book brings a unique perspective to policy and management research by focusing on the street-level organizations (SLOs) that convert policy to practice. We build our analyses on a theoretical framework that recognizes SLOs as, effectively, forming the operational center of the welfare state. They can make workfare policies more enabling, more helpful, and more beneficial or more disciplinary, more restrictive, and more punitive. Understanding how they operate and why is absolutely pivotal to assessing the global workfare project.

For example, there is a widespread belief in the U.S. that welfare reform (and its workfare requirements) has been successful. Our research provides an opportunity to take another look at that and challenge this view. We make visible the hidden, informal practices that SLOs develop to implement workfare and how they shortchange those who come to these programs for help, ultimately providing little opportunity for those at the margins to make it in the labor market and harsh penalties (loss of benefits) even if they can't. That’s not a fair deal for the people who deserve a real shot.