Scarcity and Workload Management

(Originally published June 2014)

I began reading Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013) by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir anticipating a book about the psychology of living in poverty. Sendhil Mullainathan is an economist, while Eldar Shafir is a psychologist who specializes in cognitive science and decision making. Both authors have done outstanding work in behavioral economics. However, what makes Scarcity

such a fascinating book is that Mullainathan and Shafir discuss processes and predicaments associated with “having a (strong) subjective sense of having more needs than resources” that illuminate dieting, or being too busy, or loneliness, as well as having a lack of adequate financial resources. In particular, I found myself returning again and again to consideration of the effects of overwhelming workloads in public child welfare agencies on judgment and decision making, and on performance in casework positions more generally.

 

The authors describe the effects of scarcity of money, of time, of food and of companionship by reference to a few main principles:

 

  • Scarcity concentrates attention which leads to an increased focus that sometimes has positive benefits on the ability to complete tasks.

  • Scarcity leads to tunnel vision, i.e., a narrowing of attention, that makes it difficult to think about, much less concentrate on, anything outside the tunnel. Tunneling leads to neglect of important concerns that are not urgent. “Scarcity creates a powerful goal – dealing with pressing needs – that inhibits other goals and considerations,” the authors state.   

  • “Scarcity, in every form, creates a similar mindset … it affects what we notice, how we weigh our choices, how we deliberate, and ultimately what we decide and how we behave” and scarcity affects attention and judgment “at the level of milliseconds”, according to the authors.

  • Scarcity exacts a “bandwidth tax”, i.e., it reduces cognitive capacity, including what the authors describe as “fluid intelligence”, i.e., the ability to think and reason abstractly, and executive control of impulses. Put simply, scarcity makes us dumber and reduces self-control.

  • Scarcity devalues long term consequences of decisions in favor of meeting urgent needs.

 

In one of the most interesting chapters of the book, Mullainathan and Shafir discuss research studies of the bandwidth tax on fluid intelligence created by scarcity. Researchers have compared the same individuals’ performance on puzzles commonly used in IQ tests under conditions of scarcity (e.g., number of choices allowed to solve a puzzle or scenarios that strongly remind subjects of inadequate financial resources) and abundance. The estimated effect of artificially created scarcity on I.Q. in several of these experiments has been 9-14 IQ points for the same persons, that is the difference between average and below average or between average and above average intelligence on standard IQ tests. According to the authors, “The same person has fewer IQ points when she is preoccupied by scarcity than when she is not.”

 

Mullainathan and Shafir assert not only that the bandwidth tax on fluid intelligence is large, but also that scarcity has “substantial influence … on a full array of behaviors , even those like patience, tolerance, attention, and dedication that usually fall under the umbrella of “personality” and “talent”, because “so much of what we attribute to personality or talent is predicated on cognitive capacity and self-control.” In a child welfare context, this means that the sense of scarcity produced by overwhelming workloads will likely reduce both fluid intelligence, i.e., capacity for abstract reasoning, and interpersonal skills which are critical to effective social work. The bandwidth tax, in other words, may have large negative effects on caseworkers’ and supervisors’ conceptual ability and on their emotional intelligence as well. The bandwidth tax resulting from scarcity of time goes well beyond the inability to complete required tasks; it can have devastating effects on both judgment and on the exercise of social work skills.  

 

Workload Pressures in Child Welfare Agencies  

In many, perhaps most, state child welfare systems, almost all experienced practitioners have at some point worked in units overwhelmed by workload demands for periods of several months and sometimes years. This is not to say, however, that all state child welfare systems have equally serious workload problems (definitely not the case), or that workload demands in public child welfare agencies are always unreasonable. One of the benefits of the large reduction in foster care since 2000 has been that caseload size has been greatly reduced in many states and large cities, again with notable exceptions.

 

Nevertheless, workload pressures remain endemic in public child welfare systems, in part because legislators’ concern with their child welfare systems tends to be episodic, but also for other reasons:

 

Child welfare managers and key legislative committees may be genuinely uncertain regarding what reasonable workload standards might be. Most state systems have not conducted workload studies which could inform their staffing requests. In states that have conducted workload studies during the past decade, key legislators may view the recommendations regarding workload standards that came out of these studies as self- serving and untrustworthy.

 

In the absence of a workload study, managers may utilize workload standards developed by national organizations such as Child Welfare League of America or Council on Accreditation many years ago. These standards are dated given the additional demands of the federal and state governments on state and county child welfare systems during the past 15 years.

 1) Even when child welfare agencies make well informed requests to their legislatures for increases in critical positions, these requests often do not take account of turnover or vacancy rates. Offices that appear to have adequate positions to reduce workloads to reasonable levels may continue to experience overwhelming workload problems because of vacant positions, or because newly hired staff are involved in training programs for months. Child welfare systems that have annual turnover rates of 25-50% will have great difficulty in managing workload demands regardless of the number of new positions allocated to local offices.   

 

2) Child welfare systems (with few exceptions) steadily add to policy and procedural requirements on behalf of “best practices”, so that workload demands

which may be manageable at a point in time are gradually undermined by new requirements. Furthermore, public child welfare agencies have great difficulty in dispensing with old requirements as they add new ones, even when it’s apparent to practitioners that some required practices are nothing but busy work.  

 

3) Public child welfare systems have invested in quality assurance systems that measure the extent to which every investigation, or every out- of- home care case includes standard assessments and/or investigative activities, for example collateral calls. It used to be possible to manage workload demands in CPS units by quickly closing investigations which, upon initial contact with children and family members, appeared to be unnecessary. State child welfare systems have steadily reduced caseworkers’ or supervisors’ discretion to short circuit investigations/ assessments in response to high profile child fatality cases, or other cases in which practitioners exercised poor judgment.

 

For these reasons (and others), reductions in workload demands which occur in the aftermath of political crises resulting from high profile child deaths and other perceived failures of child protection are usually temporary. In addition, when state child welfare

systems experience steady increases in CPS reports and/or in entries into foster care, unmanageable workload pressures are likely to follow. Child welfare caseworkers and supervisors in these circumstances may initially respond to extreme workload pressures with extraordinary dedication and sacrifice; however, gradually, the psychology of scarcity will become increasingly evident in practitioners’ attitudes and behavior.

Child Protection under extreme workload pressures

 

I have been a CPS caseworker, CPS unit supervisor, building manager of an urban child welfare office, a regional administrator, and have done trainings of child welfare staff for many years.  In my experience, CPS caseworkers confronted by extreme and chronic workload pressures use a common set of strategies consistent with the responses to scarcity outlined by Mullainathan and Shafir:

 

  • CPS investigators will narrow their concerns, i.e., tunnel, to immediate and apparent threats to child safety. Impending danger, or cumulative harm to children (regardless of severity) will receive limited, if any, attention. The significance of emotional maltreatment of children will be minimized.

  • CPS investigators will apply simplified rules in decision making which may appear to external experts to be highly questionable. For example, the identification of visible injury to children (or the lack thereof) may be taken as conclusive evidence of presence or absence of physical abuse. Caseworkers’ impressions of parents, and of child safety, during initial home visits will be given great weight in decision making, even when case records contain voluminous information regarding families’ CPS histories.

  • CPS investigators, and caseworkers in family support units or foster care units, will be more concerned with completing required processes and procedures than in thinking through the rationale for actions. Reflection on child protection issues will be greeted with barely disguised impatience and irritation. In training sessions, inexperienced staff will say things like “just tell us what to do.”

  • CPS investigators may appear desensitized to apparent risks and safety threats that do not reach a threshold for concluding that children are in immediate danger.

  • CPS investigators will be highly resistant to reconsidering their initial safety and risk assessments even when new information which suggests that children are in danger becomes available.

 

Creating Slack in Child Welfare Systems 

 

Working over a period of months or years under scarcity conditions is likely to have damaging effects on the assessment and social work skills of well trained and well supervised staff; and poorly trained and inadequately supervised inexperienced staff will find child protection work a next to impossible and painful experience. Many of these new staff will leave CPS in the first year or two of employment, thereby compounding units’ workload problems.

 

To dramatically improve the quality of child protection, and other child welfare functions, caseworkers and supervisors need to have more than just enough time to meet policy and procedural requirements in a thoughtful way. They also need the experience of what Mullainathan and Shafir refer to as “slack”, a condition of abundance in which staff have the time to think, reflect, engage in new learning and take initiative.

 

For years, I have recommended that CPS caseworkers, and other child welfare caseworkers, be periodically given sabbaticals from case assignment, e.g., a week, a few weeks or a month per year and then 3 months every 4 years. However, sabbaticals from case assignment will mean nothing if other unit members are then given additional new case assignments to compensate for the staff member on sabbatical. The recognition of policy makers that a steady, relentless assignment of new cases takes an emotional and cognitive toll on the “bandwidth” of caseworkers, and that these staff need occasional opportunities to refresh their minds and replenish their energy, would be a humane first step in creating a sense of abundance in draining and difficult casework jobs.

 

Other changes in the management of child welfare agencies are also required. In particular, the management philosophy that state offices, or a Headquarters office, should prescribe highly detailed policies and procedures for all job functions should be abandoned. This approach to child welfare management is intended to standardize child welfare practice to the maximum extent possible under the banner of “consistency”, but the effect has been to reduce or even eliminate initiative at the office, unit and caseworker levels. This is a management philosophy that continues to have articulate champions, but it has had disastrous consequences on organizational cultures in child welfare offices.

 

Child welfare agencies need to be staffed in a manner that takes account of turnover and vacancy rates. Every large child welfare agency should be given the resources to develop a “bullpen” that can step in and support units which have multiple vacancies.

 

Finally, child welfare caseworkers and supervisors can work on creating a sense of abundance for themselves in the midst of time pressures. Developing a sense of abundance in the midst of scarcity is an underlying idea of every great spiritual tradition. The same principle can be applied to child welfare without reference to religion or self-help systems. The possibilities for new learning in child welfare work are unlimited.  The experience of scarcity can intensify reflection rather than eliminate it, but only with conscious effort.  Any thoughtful approach to workload management under practically any set of conditions can be implemented with integrity and with a high degree of caseworker/supervisor awareness and unit awareness. Cohesive units that operate as high functioning teams can make overwhelming workload demands bearable, and achieve great things for children and families that may not show up in performance measures, but are real nonetheless.          

 

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