The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

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

Making Sense of Poverty in Child Welfare: A Grounded Theory Analysis of Public and Tribal Child Welfare Workers' Construction of Poverty & Its Causes

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 9:45 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 002B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Juliana M. Carlson, AM, Doctoral Candidate, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St Paul, MN
Background & Purpose:  While 46.2 million people live in poverty in the U.S., an increase of three million since 2009 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011) indicates poverty is growing social problem, individuals in the U.S. differ in their perceptions of its causes (Cozzarelli, Tagler, & Wilkinson, 2002). While scholars argue that studying the perceptions of the causes of poverty is warranted because individuals’ perceptions shape behavior toward poor people and actions related to poverty (Strier, 2008), in the area of child welfare, a specialized area of interest for social work, there is a dearth of child welfare workers’ perceptions of the causes of poverty research. This grounded theory study, informed by intersectional analysis, aimed to develop an understanding of public and tribal child welfare workers’ praxis in the context of poverty in child welfare, and in relation to how they construct poverty and perceive its causes.  

Methods: Semi-structured individual interviews were conducted with 30 public and tribal child welfare workers from 11 county and tribal entities in a U.S. midwestern state. Participants held a range of child welfare positions including child protection, family assessment, and Indian Child Welfare Act tribal representative. All interviews were recorded, transcribed verbatim and uploaded into the data management software ATLAS.ti. The resulting transcripts were then analyzed using grounded theory techniques (Corbin & Strauss, 2007) of open, axial and selective coding and creating memos. Constant comparison within and between cases was facilitated by the use of matrices (Miles & Huberman, 1994) to refine concepts emerging from the data.

Results:  The result of the grounded theory analysis was the identification of a model that depicts the core phenomenon of the study child welfare workers making sense of poverty and four emergent categories. The causal conditions category, who I am which was participants’ perspective of what impacted their thinking about poverty in the context of child welfare included the interconnected themes: race/ethnicity, class, and gender lens. In the intervening category, limitations abound, the themes of availability of resources, policy and system level, and barriers within families emerged and in the contextual category, what I think I can do, emerged the themes of child safety not poverty, and can’t address poverty. Within the strategies category, do what you can, which were actions participants identified that child welfare workers could take to address poverty, emerged the themes being a “resource broker”, having advocacy perspective, and using the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Conclusions & Implications:  This study illustrates a process of public and tribal child welfare workers making sense of poverty in child welfare that includes their construction of poverty, perceptions of its causes, and praxis. The findings draw attention to the policy implications of the limited antipoverty strategies available to public and tribal child welfare workers, and the research and education implications of how public and tribal child welfare workers’ social location and internal discourse relate to their making sense of poverty, two areas relevant to social work’s commitment to social change in systemic issues such as poverty and child welfare.