Past research: Professor Lens’ past research has focused on administrative justice in public welfare bureaucracies. The goal of this research is to promote social equity and insure government accountability in the distribution of government benefits by improving mechanisms for distributing benefits, resolving disputes and correcting errors. A recently published study supported by the Fahs-Beck Fund for Research and Experimentation, was the first empirical study of administrative fair hearings, which are quasi-judicial proceedings used by participants to challenge the denial or reduction of public welfare benefits. This ethnographic study of a suburban fair hearing unit identified two types of judges- moralist judges and reformer judges- and examined how these differing styles of judging had important consequences for how welfare disputes are processed. Two other published studies, consisting of interviews with 60 public assistance participants, examined what motivates or inhibits participants from appealing denials or reductions in public welfare benefits. These studies suggest that social networks play a key role, and that harsh, stigmatizing and impersonal front line interactions can trigger unnecessary appeals, while also causing others with bona-fide disputes to avoid the hearing system. Four other published studies examined bureaucratic practices, specifically in the imposition of work sanctions. Using fair hearing data, the first use of this data source to study front-line interactions within welfare bureaucracies, these studies found that welfare bureaucracies were implementing sanctions in ways that can lead to bureaucratic disentitlement or administrative exclusion. These findings suggest that improperly or poorly implemented sanctions can work at cross-purposes to welfare reform by increasing financial hardship and terminating participants’ connections to work activities and support services, making it more difficult to achieve self-sufficiency.
Present/future research: In a study supported by the National Science Foundation, Lens is conducting an ethnographic study of an urban fair hearing unit. This study will allow Lens to examine the core features and processes involved in administering hearings on a large scale, and variations in fair hearing units of different sizes and complexity. These studies, and future research, will explore the potential ripple effects of fair hearings, including the connection between individual redress and more systemic relief and between appellants’ filing of individual appeals and more explicit and collective forms of political engagement. Lens is also conducting a study with The Homelessness Outreach and Prevention Project (HOPP) of the Urban Justice Center, an organization that provides legal services to low income people. This project focuses on administrative barriers to benefit receipt in New York City, and the mechanisms used to resolve disputes before the fair hearing stage, and is based on secondary data analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data from HOPP’s data base of 9,000 cases.
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