The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Reconceptualizing Participation (and Nonparticipation) in Public Anti-Poverty Programs

Thursday, January 16, 2014: 3:00 PM
Marriott Riverwalk, Riverview, Lower Parking Level, Elevator Level P1 (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Kerri Leyda Nicoll, MSW, MDiv, Doctoral Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background/Purpose: A significant amount of research attempts to explain why many poor families do not receive public benefits for which they are eligible. Participation rates in programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) range from nearly 90% to only 40% of eligible households. My paper sheds new light on this phenomenon by exploring how common methods of measuring participation compare with the real life experiences of poor families. Based on in-depth interviews with 75 individuals whose households are eligible for a variety of public anti-poverty programs, I argue that the dichotomous, point-in-time, and program-specific measures of participation employed by most research are inadequate for capturing the complexity of these families’ decisions and that a more accurate conception of participation is necessary for both research and practice. 

Methods: Initial recruitment was conducted through Head Start programs in four distinct communities, with additional respondents recruited by referral. The total sample (n=75) was predominantly female, approximately equal in the number of white and black respondents (with 10% representing other races/ethnicities), and ranged in household income from under $250 to just over $3,000 per month. All had children under age 18. I conducted two interviews with each respondent using an active interview approach, grounded in a constructionist ontology and interpretive epistemology. The interviews were designed specifically for this study, and topics included experiences with public programs; perceptions of government, “welfare,” and poverty; and household demographics. Interviews were analyzed using a hermeneutic perspective, taking into account both the text of the interview and its broader context. Multiple rounds of coding were conducted.

Results: None of the 75 individuals interviewed was participating in all of the programs for which her/his household was eligible at the time of the interview, and every one had participated in at least one program at some point in her/his life. Classifying them as “participants” or “nonparticipants” using a dichotomous, point-in-time, program-specific measure ignores this reality. My analysis demonstrates that eligible households act strategically, making different participation decisions about different programs and at different points in time. These strategic decisions are made for a variety of reasons, including previous experiences with programs, particular life situations (i.e. pregnancy, job loss, educational pursuits), and perceptions of societal stigma associated with public anti-poverty programs.

Implications: If social workers are to fulfill their ethical commitment “to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice” (NASW Code of Ethics), it is critical that they understand how those living in or near poverty think about their own situations. This includes paying attention not only to whether a household is participating in a particular public anti-poverty program at a single point in time but also to how this household makes participation decisions across programs and over time. Conceptualizing participation (and nonparticipation) in a way that accounts for this complexity has the potential to bridge macro and micro areas of social work, enabling social workers to design and implement more effective anti-poverty policies.