Several days ago, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert put out a press release heralding Department of Workforce Services Executive Director Kristen Cox's appointment to run his revamped budget office.
Herbert's press release heaps praise upon Cox's head. "Kristen's paradigm of constant improvement stands out. She has demonstrated impressive leadership and vision at the helm of one of Utah's largest agencies, shouldering record caseloads while fostering employment and looking for ways to grow jobs. That is exactly the approach I want as we work with agency heads to streamline operations and ramp up performance management."
When political consultant, former Herbert campaign manager and candidate for at-large seat on Salt Lake County Council Joseph Demma went to DWS last year to head up communications, some saw that as a sign Cox had been tapped as a possible new running mate for Herbert, something the latter's office quickly rejected.
Nevertheless, there is a pattern of sorts to Cox's move up the political chain. Her predecessor, Tani Pack Downing, was plucked from DWS by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to be his general counsel, and Packard's right-hand man, John Nixon, went on to become director of the governor's Planning & Budget Office, which Cox is now set to reshape.
It's fair to say that Cox has had a significant impact on how welfare is distributed and to whom in Utah. But at what cost?
Stories in City Weekly and The Salt Lake Tribune highlighted plummeting morale and a culture of fear, leading to one legislator seeking an audit of DWS. There was also a genuine distress among some who had chosen social work as their career out of a desire to help the most needy in society, only to find that under Cox, numerous sources have told City Weekly, the agency was doing its best to get rid of clients, rather than assist them.
Cox's mantra, quoted by Herbert in the press release, as "Those who can work, do work," ironically captured the right-wing skepticism of her administration, those same sources argue. That skepticism boiled down to an attitude among some in the highest offices of DWS that welfare recipients needed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop asking for handouts.
Several shakeups saw experienced staff demoted to frontline positions, many of whom subsequently left rather than continue to be humiliated, say several ex-staffers.
Utah has long been known as a state that loves to denounce federal power even as it happily shimmies up to the federal trough, but some argue that recent controversies such as "the list," where several DWS employees sent to the media the names of undocumented welfare recipients, and drug testing some welfare clients, reflect a culture put in place by Cox of suspicion of those who came to DWS for financial assistance.
Cox's interim replacement will be her No. 2, Jon Pierpont. What all this will mean for those lining up in DWS' offices in the months ahead to fill out forms, ask questions, seek help and financial aid remains to be seen.