Maintaining Relationships: A Grounded Theory Analysis of Motivations to Apply for Public Assistance
Alexis Kuerbis, MSW, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Nicole Ellis, MA, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Aaron Hogue, PhD, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, and Jonathan Morgenstern, PhD, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Public opinion of welfare recipients is well documented. Individuals on welfare are often seen as lazy, irresponsible, and intentionally siphoning off valuable government resources (Jarett, 1996; Scott, London, & Edin, 2000). Few studies, however, have directly explored the motivations of welfare recipients' initial application for public assistance and their opinions of services received. METHOD: To explore these perspectives, semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted with 46 welfare recipients in New York City who were also identified as having a substance use disorder. Using purposive sampling, participants were recruited from a larger pool of subjects involved in a randomized study examining the efficacy of intensive case management. Participants were identified by pre-determined characteristics and then contacted by assessors associated with the quantitative study with whom subjects had prolonged contact. Participants were given $65 worth of vouchers for a variety of goods or for public transportation as incentive. Participants were asked a series of open-ended questions about the circumstances surrounding their initial application for public assistance and about their experiences transitioning from substance abuse treatment to full-time employment. All interviews were audio recorded and ranged from 35 minutes to 2 hours. Interviews were transcribed into an alternative format designed to facilitate the process of open and axial coding and were called summaries. Summaries were extremely detailed and primarily consisted of direct quotations. Five raters were involved in the coding process. Using the grounded theory method (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), a substantive theory regarding the motivations of welfare recipients with identified substance abuse problems to apply for public assistance was developed. FINDINGS: Welfare recipients appeared to be motivated to apply for welfare primarily out of a wish to maintain a relationship to and role within society. Applying for public assistance for most participants was clearly stated as a last resort. A majority of participants expressed hesitating to apply for benefits due to intense shame, embarrassment, and humiliation resulting from being a welfare recipient. Almost all expressed a sense of resignation at the point they each decided to apply for assistance. However, participants expressed that without such assistance they would be unable to sustain or obtain important roles within their personal lives, such as remaining a custodial parent, or within society, such as being a "productive citizen." In their efforts to avoid losing everything, many welfare recipients described losing a sense of self, no longer feeling valued by society. Through their stories, welfare recipients expressed that one of the primary protective factors against losing oneself and giving up on the system as a viable means of help was the presence of one key relationship, usually a professional who treated the participant with notable respect and caring. Such a relationship was paramount to many recipients' success in their journey through the welfare system. CONCLUSION: Findings presented here underscore the impact of stigma on oppressed populations and the increasing importance of establishing positive relationships and utilizing strengths-based approaches when serving this population, particularly considering their view of welfare as a last resort.