The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

The Political Is Personal: Middle-Income Families in the U.S. and Canada in the Great Recession

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 10:30 AM
Executive Center 4 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Roberta Rehner Iversen, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Chenyi Ma, MSW, Doctoral student in Social Welfare, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Sigrid Luhr, BA, Research assistant, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

The Great Recession of 2008-09 continues to burden many middle-income families in the United States and Canada (Grant,2010), even though Canadian social policies are thought to better support families than US policies do (Brooks,2010). However, study of how recent recessions impact the family, especially middle-income families, is rare (Morgan, Cumberworth, Wimer,2011), and even fewer examine how such families perceive government responsibility (Soroka & Wlezien,2010) during hard financial times. Our research, informed by Weberian stratification theory and political philosophy about citizen relations with government, explored how middle-income families in the US and Canada experienced the economic downturn and how they perceived government support. Importantly, middle-income encompasses about one-third of Canadian families with children and about one-quarter of US families with children (Gauthier,2010b).


Nine researchers in this multi-site, mixed methods study used surveys and in-depth interviews in 2008-09 to explore the recession experiences and government perceptions of middle-income families in the US and Canada (Furstenberg & Gauthier, 2007).** Selected cities were similar in size and all families had a child between age 9 and 14. Initial surveys were conducted in two US cities (n=393) and four Canadian cities (n=692). From these 1085 respondents, we randomly selected approximately 20-30 families in each city for semi-structured interviews plus an additional survey. Like other scholars (Pressman,2007), we defined “middle income” as 75% to 125% of national median family income. Survey data were analyzed using SPSS. Interviews were audiotaped, transcribed and analyzed using Atlas.ti, which enabled comparisons within and across families. We report brief survey and interview findings.


Families’ recession experiences and perceptions of government responsibility in the two policy contexts were both similar and different. Nearly two-thirds of US families versus just over half of Canadian families reported some or great difficulty getting by financially during the recession. Even though half of both countries’ families worked full time, Canadian families worked part time at higher rates than US families and US families worked more than a 40-hour week at higher rates than Canadian families. Still, over half the families in both countries wished for more government support for childcare and children’s school expenses, although families differed by country in wanting vision and dental coverage (Canada) or paid maternity leave (US). Similarly, families in both countries rued that families they described as “like theirs” and “in the middle” don’t qualify for government support that lower-earning families get. Families also wished for somewhat different types of support by country; e.g. stay-at-home parents in Canada but not the US wished for compensation to support their sacrifice of staying home.


These and additional findings provide a more nuanced understanding of how middle-income families in the US and Canada experienced and perceived government policies during a period of severe economic challenge. The Canadian policy context is more supportive than that of the US in some ways, but surprisingly less in others. The fine-grained findings in this study are needed for evidence-based policy advocacy and change. **Research funded by the Russell Sage Foundation to the study PIs.