Punishment, Pathology or Possibility: Caseworker Discretion, Mental Illness, and Welfare Sanctions


Social Work

Date of Paper/Work


Degree Name

Master of Social Work (M.S.W.)

Type of Paper/Work

Clinical research paper


Micheal Chovanec


This study was designed to explore the ways that caseworkers in the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) make decisions in situations of client noncompliance. The research question was: what factors impact the decision-making of MFIP caseworkers around the question of noncompliance? Ten in-person interviews were conducted, recorded, coded and analyzed. Caseworkers identified that client noncompliance can be caused by mental illness or environmental factors in clients’ lives such as lack of community capital and transportation infrastructure or domestic violence. Caseworkers also identified that client noncompliance is frequently caused by factors internal to the MFIP bureaucracy, which clients have little influence on. Although some caseworkers indicated clients can be to blame for noncompliance, caseworkers also referred to numerous ways that the structure of the MFIP system itself contributes to client noncompliance. Recommendations include cross-training caseworkers with social workers and mental health providers, increasing service coordination and collaboration, and abolishing punitive financial sanctions in the MFIP program in order to establish incentive-based casework methods. Further research can be conducted on the ways that factors at the micro, meso and macro levels affect caseworker decision-making, and what changes can be made to improve services to clients and contribute to an overall reduction in family poverty.


welfare sanctions, discretion, street level bureaucracy, TANF, mental illness

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.