Processing private lives in public: An institutional ethnography of front-line welfare intake staff post welfare reform

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Marjorie DeVault


Processing, Institutional ethnography, Welfare intake staff, Welfare-to-work

Subject Categories

Family, Life Course, and Society | Gender and Sexuality | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


In 1996, the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) entitlement program with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This legislation emphasized caseload reduction via work-first policies and the restructuring of intake apparatus. This research is a study of the day-to-day workplace practices of front-line welfare intake staff in East City, New York in the years following this reform.

Using an Institutional Ethnographic approach (Smith 1987), and drawing on focused observation and interviews, I describe how staff, in multiple sites of intake processing, coordinate their work practices to satisfy the performance requirements of the reformed welfare system. The analysis traces the efforts of intake staff to orient applicants to the new demands of welfare. As my data reveals, processing applicants involves the heavy use of texts as a technology for scrutinizing and evaluating applicants according to ideological standards that are rooted in the visibilities that accounting mechanisms construct for aspects of applicants' private lives. I show that, pursuant to this scrutiny, staff members take an active interest in the remediation of applicants toward conformity with processing ideals. Situating staff at a contested site in which they manage private lives and public action, I then explore some of the less visible emotion work that both staff and applicants must do as they participate in the processes of welfare intake. Finally, I consider implications of these findings for current debates about the neutrality of front-line practitioners and the mechanics by which social welfare policy is implicated in social relations of class, race, and gender. This study contributes to considerations of structure and agency as they relate to implementation success, as well as emerging interest in the use of textual technologies and performance measures within policy implementation.


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