Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

16372 Does Network Burden Equal Access? Social Support Among Disadvantaged Mothers

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 4:30 PM
Independence D (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Melissa Radey, PhD, Associate Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Background and Purpose: Informal social support is important to the survival of impoverished mothers and their children, particularly in the era of time-limited cash welfare (Edin & Lein, 1997). Compared to their disadvantaged counterparts, mothers who perceive access to basic necessities (e.g., childcare, emotional support, transportation) report higher levels of material well-being (Henly, Danziger, & Offer, 2005), employment, and earnings (Harknett, 2006) and experience better physical and mental health (Turner & Turner, 1999). Mothers, however, do not have equal access to supports. Black, Hispanic, and immigrant mothers, for example, perceive less support than native-born Whites (Turney & Kao, 2009). The level of support burden versus access within disadvantaged networks is less clear. While Stack's (1974) ethnography documents the widespread give and take among Black, low-income networks, more recent work indicates that strong networks may no longer be present (Roschelle, 1996). Using a recent sample of disadvantaged mothers, this study addresses support burden and access by (1) examining how network demands relate to perceived support, and (2) considering whether the relationship differs by race, ethnicity, and nativity.

Methods: This study used the Welfare, Children, and Families: A Three City Study (Cherlin et al., 2003), a longitudinal study of approximately 2,400 predominantly low-income, unmarried mothers of children ages 0 to 4 or 10 to 14. To provide insight into the lives of low-income families post-welfare reform, the stratified, random sampling design targeted Black, Hispanic, and White households living in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of 20% or more. This study uses baseline data collected through in-home interviews in 1999. We constructed an 8-point perceived support scale and a 4-point burden scale based on whether mothers reported access to or excess burden in each of the following areas: emotional support, favors, childcare, and loans. Linear regression models measured (1) how burden relates to available support net of demographic, socioeconomic, and neighborhood covariates, and (2) if (and how) the relationship changes depending upon race, ethnicity, and nativity.

Findings: Descriptive findings showed the vulnerability of low-income mothers: only 22% perceived they had enough people to provide emotional support, favors, childcare, and money in an emergency. Support burden was inversely related to support access such that those with full demands averaged 1.2 points lower access than those experiencing no burdens (5.42 versus 4.12). Linear regression models indicated that the strength and significance of the relationship persisted net of demographic, socioeconomic, and neighborhood covariates. Although the inverse relationship characterized mothers generally, a significant interaction between nativity status and burden illustrated that, for immigrant mothers, higher burden levels were related to higher support levels.

Implications: The negative relationship between support burden and access suggests that informal support networks cannot substitute for social welfare assistance. Instead, networks may compound mothers' vulnerabilities by increasing their responsibilities while providing little safety net. Immigrant networks, however, may operate differently such that support provision may translate into access when needed. We discuss support access and burden inequalities in light of welfare reform and present implications for social work practice, policy, and research.

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