Qualitative Approaches to the Study of Poverty and Welfare Reform: Current Challenges

March 4–5, 2005, University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Rationale for the Conference

This invitation-only conference will bring together 8-10 scholars from around the country who are doing state-of-the-art qualitative research, practitioners in policy evaluation firms, and IRP's own substantial group of qualitative researchers. Participants will make short presentations in one of four areas in which qualitative researchers have made contributions and face challenges: the mapping of complicated family networks, the documentation of livelihood strategies, the dynamics of welfare provision, and analyses of neighborhoods and local organizations. The conference structure will highlight issues currently facing researchers in each area, inviting discussion of what works and what does not, the ways that the evolving process of welfare reform may require changes in methods, and how current theories of poverty shape the ways we design our projects and conceptualize our findings. Thus the conference will not focus on sharing the results of research, but on the research process itself. It will be a "working conference" in the sense that researchers can speak about the challenges they have faced in doing this kind of research and fieldwork, and how they have resolved them.

Current Qualitative Research

The past ten years have seen a tremendous increase in the use of qualitative research methods to answer public policy questions about poverty. Ethnographers from the disciplines of Sociology and Anthropology have long studied people living in poverty, and many of these studies have intentionally or inadvertently influenced policy debates (for example, the work of Oscar Lewis, Elliot Liebow, and Carol Stack). But recently, qualitative research methods have attained a new prominence in studies of poverty and welfare reform. Works like Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein's Making Ends Meet (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1997) showed the value of qualitative interviews for understanding the complex livelihood strategies of families receiving AFDC. Other works, such as Katherine Newman's No Shame in My Game (New York: Knopf, 1999) documented the complicated multigenerational family structures within which poor families share resources. Qualitative researchers have provided insights into how caseworkers interpret and enact welfare policy and into the dynamics of service provision. Still others clarify how poor families negotiate, and actively construct, many aspects of their neighborhood environments.

Qualitative researchers have used a wide range of data collection strategies, including, but not limited to short interviews, in-depth interviews, life history interviews, focus groups, ethnographic observation, shadowing, time diaries, and mapping. They have analyzed data for thematic content and cultural models, used techniques of narrative analysis, and conducted case-oriented comparative analysis. Through using these techniques, they have generated an understanding of poverty as it is experienced and of the complex web of ideas and practices that surround policies designed to eradicate it. Working in interdisciplinary teams, qualitative researchers spend a significant amount of time explaining their methodological strategies to those working within other research frameworks. There are few opportunities, however, for qualitative researchers engaged in the study of poverty to come together to discuss the challenges they face (and to share their best practices). The goal of this conference is to provide such an opportunity.

Main Areas of Interest

Many of the contributions that ethnographers have made to the study of poverty in the context of welfare reform have been in four areas: the mapping of complicated family networks, the documentation of livelihood strategies, the dynamics of welfare provision and analyses of neighborhoods and local organizations. The conference structure highlights challenges currently facing researchers in each of these four areas, inviting discussion of what works and what doesn't, the ways that the evolving process of welfare reform may require changes in our methods, and how current theories of poverty shape the ways we design our projects and conceptualize our findings.

1. Complicated families

Ethnographic research has contributed to an understanding that poor families, like other segments of the American population, have complicated family networks. It has shown that data collection structured by nuclear family norms can misconstrue or ignore important family ties, and has highlighted the important roles of grandparents, mothers' live-in partners, and noncustodial parents, among others. It has documented the ways that welfare reform has led to shifts in networks of support and care. Questions facing researchers in this area include: What are the best strategies for documenting the kin and nonkin relationships that structure flows of resources and care among poor families? What combinations of interview-based and observational methods have proven most useful? What challenges do we still face in mapping these family relationships? How can we determine whether an extended kinship system is serving to protect its economically vulnerable members?

2. Livelihood Strategies

One of the signal contributions of ethnographic research on welfare and poverty is the documentation of livelihood strategies. In Making Ends Meet, Edin and Lein showed that mothers often worked under the table to supplement inadequate AFDC payments. Other studies have shown that many welfare recipients have had significant labor market experience. Still others emphasize the complex combinations of public assistance, wages and informal work that make up the household income of poor families. Questions facing researchers studying livelihood strategies include: What are the best ways to gather income and expenditure data? Are there ways to gain reliable information about these issues that are less expensive and time-consuming than a multivisit household budget study? What types of income and expenses are most difficult to document? How has welfare reform changed the kinds of questions we should be asking? What types of analysis, beyond simple input-out calculations, can be used with this type of data?

3. Dynamics of Welfare Provision

As the philosophy behind welfare provision shifted to a welfare-to-work model in the late 1990s, so did the locations of service delivery and the types of services delivered. Ethnographers have documented the ways in which the new private service providers have interpreted federal and state law and regulations, and how caseworkers have enacted it. They have documented interactions between service providers and participants and contestation over the new rules. Questions facing researchers working in this area include: what are the special dilemmas around maintenance of confidentiality that face researchers who observe caseworker-client interactions? What combinations of observation and interviews work best in these contexts? How can the multiple perspectives of high-level administrators, caseworkers and clients be accounted for in analysis?

4. Neighborhoods and Organizations

Ethnographers researching the neighborhood context have done much to clarify the kinds of local organizations, networks and neighborhood structures that provide support and the kinds of environments that offer few resources. Given the great variation that exists in neighborhood contexts and the ways that poor families negotiate them, research on this topic faces important questions of sampling: how do sampling strategies influence the view of neighborhood dynamics that is developed? What are the best strategies for gaining entry into neighborhoods? What are the advantages and disadvantages of network-based sampling? How can the diverse experiences of residents best be documented and understood?

Conference Agenda

Friday, March 4

Panel 1. Complicated Families

Sherri Lawson Clark, Family Life Project, Penn State University; Waldo Johnson, School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago; Commentary: David Pate, IRP

Panel 2. Livelihood Strategies

Lisa Dodson, Sociology, Boston College; Margaret Nelson, Sociology, Middlebury College; Commentary: Katherine Magnuson, Social Work, UW, and IRP affiliate

Panel 3. Dynamics of Welfare Provision

Susan Gooden, Center for Public Administration and Policy, Virginia. Tech; Sandra Morgen, Anthropology and Women's Studies, University of Oregon; Commentary: Vickie Mayer, IRP

Panel 4. Neighborhoods and Local Organizations

Celeste Watkins, Institute for Policy Research/Sociology, Northwestern University; Jeff Maskovsky, Urban Studies, Queens College; Commentary, Joe Soss, Political Science, UW, and IRP affiliate

Saturday, March 5

Panel Discussion: Rethinking Our Approaches

Comments by Dorothy Roberts, Law, Northwestern; Alissa Gardenhire Crooks, MDRC; TBA

This session invites comments from three perspectives: a researcher from MDRC (a private, nonprofit, social welfare research organization), a researcher who has used both quantitative and qualitative methods in studying poverty and inequality, and a legal scholar involved in critical theorization of welfare. These speakers will respond to themes that have emerged in earlier sessions, but will also address broader questions such as compatibility and conflict between qualitative and quantitative poverty research, how theories of poverty, race, and gender shape our research design and practice, the politics of implementing qualitative research, and the ways that qualitative findings influence public discussions and decision-making.