Utilized discretion: a vignette study of social assistance assessments in Sweden

Swedish social assistance (SA) is administered with substantial discretion among both municipalities and social workers. Although such discretionary power has its merits, it also comes with potential disadvantages. Previous studies show considerable variation in assessments of SA eligibility, not only between municipalities but also between social workers within the same organisation. Further, the differences seem to have increased over time and apply irrespective of the method used for measurement. The present paper analyses eligibility assessments of eight so-called vignettes, collected among just over 1,000 social workers in 19 Swedish municipalities, including Sweden’s three major cities. The assessments are analysed by means of multilevel logistic and linear regression analysis, focusing on the influence that basic social worker characteristics, professional factors and individual attitudes exert over (a) propensity to grant SA in separate vignettes and (b) general tendency to grant applications. The results show that social workers’ caseload and attitudes towards clients and SA in general affect the outcomes of assessments the most. Along with the fact that significant parts of the variations remain unexplained, one main conclusion is that Swedish SA administration seem to be somewhat disengaged from formal rules and regulations.