On placing heart before efficiency

For what links us are elemental experiences--emotions--forces that have no intrinsic language and must be imagined as art if they are to be contemplated at all.--Joyce Carol Oates

Last week I learned my term of the year. Efficiency engineer. Professor Celeste Watkins-Hayes taught me this phrase while giving a talk on her new book about welfare case workers. Her research shows that today's welfare bureaucrats frequently embody two competing professional identities: the social worker who attempts to respond in holistic ways to the clients before her, and the efficiency engineer who focuses on enforcing policy benchmarks, such as limiting families' access to resources when they break the rules. In Massachusetts, for example, individuals can only receive  cash assistance for 24 months of a 60-month period (see the Urban Institute for more on this state's welfare policies).

The efficiency engineer ensures that individuals get their butts out of the welfare system. Stat. And the system rewards those case workers who not only get clients off the state till accurately and quickly but also sanction those who are too incompetent to find non-existent jobs in our terrible economy and/or insufficiently entrepreneurial when it comes time to do something with the kids while they work.

The aspect of Watkins-Hayes's talk that really got my wheels spinning involved the complex ways that race plays out in case worker-client interactions. More and more case workers are people of color, and Watkins-Hayes argues that racialized politics imbue their professional identities. For example, one male African American case worker emphasized the ongoing racial discrimination in the labor market that he--like his clients--faces. As he said (and I paraphrase), "I don't care if I have an eight-piece suit on. I don't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting certain jobs or promotions."

Several of the case workers of color in Watkins-Hayes's research also sought to promote racial uplift via solidarity with the clients. They understood the structural barriers to landing and keeping a decent job. As one African American case worker and previous welfare recipient stated, "The old saying is pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but suppose you don't have any shoes?" When helping clients navigate the welfare system, then, these case workers sought to be more culturally responsive and empathetic than the strict efficiency engineer who asserted, "Policy is policy, regardless of whether you are black, white, green or whatever."

Although I immediately wanted to celebrate the more culturally competent bureaucrat, Watkins-Hayes slammed the brakes on this impulse. She pointed out that even those who deviated from the professional script so as to better meet the needs of their clients still engaged in morality policing. As vested members of the system who wanted to keep their jobs, these case workers often "helped" clients by demanding that they modify individual behaviors. "Hang around people you want to be like," one advised. "Why is your boo at home sleeping rather than pounding the pavement?" another admonished. Unfortunately, such prescriptions did not challenge the institutional rules that ultimately sustain poverty and racism in the U.S. (Having trouble believing that racism and poverty are structural problems? Check out the Poverty and Race Research Action Council's studies for evidence that will make your head spin, unless your head is wedged so willfully in the sand that major sensory pathways are thoroughly blocked.) What is more, and as Watkins-Hayes noted, cultural insiders who want to raise the status of their group in the larger society may actually engage in more rigorous and harsh policing of individual members' lives than outsiders.

Leaving her presentation fairly depressed about the multiple, subtle mechanisms that prevent us from acting up in the name of justice, I was thankful to attend Jay Winter Nightwolf's talk later that day. Called "Reality at Pine Ridge Reservation," the presentation included Nightwolf's stark narration of the extreme poverty that many Lakota people presently face. (The reservation has an unemployment rate of about 80%, and 49% of its inhabitants live below the federal poverty level.) However, he also brought a message of hope to the university-based folks in the audience.

Underscoring the inextricable connections between all members of the human family, Nightwolf asked us to accept the responsibility of being each other's keepers. This particular appeal immediately reminded me of an utterance by a new bureaucrat of color in Watkins-Hayes's study: "I am my sister's keeper." Watkins-Hayes emphasized that such keeping can serve as a kind of surveillance--you better shape up and not behave like a low-life who gives "our" people a bad name. In contrast, Nightwolf spoke of extending our hearts, not our intellects, to those we encounter. The most judgmental thing I heard out of his mouth that night was (and again I paraphrase), "Some people make it so difficult to love them, but we've got to keep trying because separation and division are what lead to war." No wonder my chest tightens and my stomach convulses when we academics adopt both social worker and efficiency engineer identities in our discussions about what constitutes "good education." Elemental experiences linking us. At least Oates, a professor at Princeton University since 1978, gets it.