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Sarah Halpern-Meekin on “Social Poverty”

  • Sarah Halpern-Meekin
  • April 2020
  • PC84-2020

Sarah Halpern-Meekin
Sarah Halpern-Meekin

This episode features Professor Sarah Halpern-Meekin, who discusses work from her 2019 book, Social Poverty. Halpern-Meekin is a sociologist at UW–Madison’s School of Human Ecology and La Follette School of Public Affairs.

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Chancellor: Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. For this episode, we hear from Professor Sarah Halpern-Meekin. She’s a sociologist at UW–Madison’s School of Human Ecology and La Follette School of Public Affairs and I talked to her last fall about her 2019 book, Social Poverty. So, first things first, I asked her what she means by social poverty?

Halpern-Meekin: I define social poverty as lacking close, dependable friends or family members who you can turn to in times of emotional need and who you feel you can safely disclose your vulnerabilities to and know that they’ll be met sort of with warmth and openness and not shared and not have your trust betrayed and those sorts of things. So when you lack those things, you are, I say, in social poverty. That might mean you feel lonely, you feel socially isolated. And you don’t have people to whom you can reach out to resolve those feelings of loneliness.

Chancellor: In a lot of the more traditional ways that we measure poverty, we talk about money and the things that it can buy, and so I asked Halpern-Meekin how she thinks about social poverty in relation to economic measures of poverty.

Halpern-Meekin: So financial poverty is really important and I spend all of the rest of my work looking at financial poverty. So it’s not that I don’t think that that is a key part of people’s lives, but rather I saw in this project that there was this other element, this other large element of people’s lives that we often ignore when we just focus on dollars and cents. And that is the social relationships and the relational resources they have in their lives to meet their social and emotional needs. Because this financial poverty lens really focuses us on people’s sort of core physical needs. Part of being human is needing food and need shelter and needing clothing and needing clean water and those sorts of things. And at its most basic, when we focus on financial poverty, we focus on people’s inability to meet those basic physical needs. But because humans are social creatures, we also have these basic socioemotional needs. And we often in poverty studies ignore the fact that there is this other set of needs and that people are motivated to meet this other set of needs and they will sometimes make financial sacrifices even when money is really tight, to meet these social-emotional needs and so I think to have a comprehensive picture of how resources, not just financial resources, but all resources that people need, motivate people’s actions and decisions. We really need to understand not just the financial but the social and relational side of resources as well.

Chancellor: So, to learn more about this, Halpern-Meekin talked to several young couples to learn more about how they thought about their social and economic lives. One of these couples was Ashley and Mark.

Halpern-Meekin: Ashley is 20 and Mark is 21. They’re a couple who lives in Oklahoma City. And they had been friends for a while in high school. They had been part of the same social circle and eventually, the timing was right and their relationship turned romantic and pretty quickly they moved in together after about a month of being together and just a few months later Ashley got pregnant. And they’re both very excited that they’re going to have a baby together. But they’ve also had some stresses in their lives. One is that that group of friends from high school who they had originally met through, they were not getting along so well. And so they have really distanced themselves from that group of friends. There’s a lot of drama and so it’s really just the two of them keeping to themselves. Things are a little challenging for them financially. Ashley is not working during most of her pregnancy and Mark was working. He works overnight shifts at KFC. Doesn’t pay great but he has some income, about a thousand dollars a month and on that it’s really hard for them to live on their own so they had early in their relationship lived with Mark’s mom and his younger brothers. And that had been a really difficult situation. Lots of arguments. And so they moved out and moved in with Ashley’s mom. And that’s been ok, but not an ideal circumstance for anyone. But they really feel committed to each other and to making their relationship work and making it work for their baby. And Ashley told me of Mark, “I don’t think of him as a fiancé, I think of him as a best friend. If I didn’t have him I’d be the loneliest person on Earth right now.”

Chancellor: And Professor Halpern-Meekin says that this was really striking to her—the importance of Mark to Ashley, and how much she depends on him. And because things are so tenuous for this couple in other areas of their life, they decided to take part in a relationship education program.

Halpern-Meekin: And so I tried to understand why they had chosen to do this and Mark told me it was because they wanted more stability. And so I thought—I knew how much they were trying to get by on a month from Mark’s income and so I said “you mean, financial stability?” And he dismissed that. He’s like, “no. we’re not going to be financially stable for a while. Kids are really expensive. He said they just want their relationship to be stable so that they can get along with one another—he put it, “without ripping each other’s heads off.” So they want family stability. And that was really striking too, that both Ashley and Mark were expressing this desire for having their relationship be something that was really secure and stable and dependable.

Chancellor: And the relationship education program that Ashley and Mark were taking part in was based in Oklahoma City and called the Family Expectations program—and that’s how Halpern-Meekin connected with the couple.

Halpern-Meekin: In the year that I was doing my research, they had served 1500 people in the Oklahoma City area. And the program has been running for quite a while now, for well over a decade so they’ve reached a lot of people in the city there. It’s a relationship education program. And what that means is it’s not telling people they should get married or they should do this, it’s talking about how to have healthy interactions and a healthy and trusting relationship. And so the way that it does that is in a workshop setting. Couples meet together once a week either during the week or on the weekends with a group of other couples and three educators. And this goes on for about six to eight weeks and they learn lessons about how to deal with conflict for example, how do you phrase things in ways that aren’t damaging but that do share how things are going for you so that you can work out issues in your relationship. So they learn about those kinds of things, about what’s healthy and unhealthy in relationships and they also learn about parenting because it draws in people who are either expecting a child or have recently had a child. And the program is free. And it offers, in addition to that workshop, it offers some assistance if couples need extra referrals to other resources or things like that, it’ll help point people in the direction where they can find other assistance.

Chancellor: But the rollout to Family Expectations—and a lot of similar programs around the country had been controversial—and I asked Halpern-Meekin to help us understand the history behind this program.

Halpern-Meekin: So the origins of these programs actually lie in the welfare reform act that passed in the mid-1990s. And part of that push was, as the legislation said, “to promote the formation and maintenance of two-parent families” which a lot of people reacted strongly and negatively to, the idea that our welfare policy that’s supposed to be serving people at a time of financial need is now orchestrating their romantic lives. In the 1990s when this passed, nothing really happened around it so it’s just kind of something people objected to theoretically at that point in time or supported theoretically at that point in time. It wasn’t until the change in administration and George W. Bush came into office that there was more of a push behind making some policy actually—realize the intentions of that part of the legislation. And so there was government funding from the federal government put toward these relationship education programs, among some other endeavors, and these were things that hadn’t existed really for low income couples before. So, for a long time there have been relationship education programs that are marketed to middle, upper income couples who can go to a marriage retreat or a marriage workshop that they pay for, or they could choose to go to counseling and pay for private counseling. Those are not things that are financially accessible to lower income couples. And so this was the first time this kind of resource had been made available to lower income couples. And the intention was that the programs that existed would be adapted to speak to the needs of this group of people.

Chancellor: And Halpern-Meekin says that some people were really concerned about just how these programs would go about trying to promote relationship stability.

Halpern-Meekin: Would this push women who were in a vulnerable position to stay with abusive men, for example? So there were some real concerns about what these programs would do, what kind of messages they would send. And, the rhetoric around them was pretty heated, right? Was this fixing this major problem, this retreat from marriage in America? Or was this forcing people to be in unhealthy relationships? And so that was kind of the theoretical public controversy that went on. At the same time, these programs actually started running and were evaluated. So there were two large evaluations that were funded by the federal government that were randomized control trials, so our gold star evaluations—and one was done of programs that were serving unmarried couples and one was done of programs that were serving married couples. And the evaluation of the Building Strong Families programs, the ones serving unmarried couples, basically found the program didn’t have an impact. There were variations between sites, but overall, the program didn’t have an impact, didn’t make people’s relationships much better, didn’t make them much more stable between the treatment and control groups. The Strengthening Healthy Marriages evaluation, which was of programs serving married couples, found slightly more positive results, so it found that there were small but significant improvements in a variety of metrics of couples relationship quality. But when they followed up with couples two and half years later, they found that those in the treatment group were no more likely to be together than those in the control group. And so the conclusions, right, on top of the initial theoretical criticism, there was now this evidence indicating that these were not a super effective way of supporting couples’ relationships.

Chancellor: But here’s the thing—a lot of the critiques and the evaluation findings about these programs didn’t really seem to line up with what Halpern-Meekin was hearing from the program participants themselves.

Halpern-Meekin: So, I knew about the criticism before I started studying these. I had seen those newspaper articles. I had read the randomized control trials. Things did not look good for these programs. But they were still in existence and I wanted to understand more about them. So I actually went to Oklahoma and I met with couples who had signed up for these programs and I followed them for a year during the time that they were enrolled in the program, whether or not they actually participated I still interviewed them. And by and large, couples were extremely enthusiastic about these programs. Which, given everything I had heard before going in was really surprising. You know when people are talking about how this is horrible and manipulative, you don’t sort of expect to go in and have people talking about how great it is and how they’ve never felt so supported and they wish this organization was running all social service programs. Those are the sorts of things I was hearing. And so that contrast, that puzzle, was really interesting to me and I wanted to pick that apart here in this project.

Chancellor: So let’s go back to this question about social poverty and what it might mean in the lives of a couple like Ashley and Mark.

Halpern-Meekin: When I talk about this social poverty, I think we can really hear echoes of that in what Mark and Ashley said. Ashley talks about how she if she didn’t have Mark, she would be the loneliest person on Earth right now, right? She’s telling us, if she didn’t have this relationship, I’d be in social poverty, and when I ask Mark what he’s looking to get out of this relationship education program and he says “stability,” and he dismisses the idea that this would be financial stability. He clarifies that he means family stability. He wants a more secure resource, but the more secure resource he wants is not just money, but relationships, this relationship with Ashley and this family that he wants to provide for their child. And so I think that really underlines the importance of these social resources to people and reminds us that just because people are struggling financially doesn’t mean they stop caring about these social resources. That people can care about and be motivated by both of these kinds of resources simultaneously.

Chancellor: To help us understand this better, I asked Professor Halpern-Meekin to talk about some of the factors that might make someone vulnerable to social poverty.

Halpern-Meekin: There are several things that existing research tells us heightens people’s likelihood of experiencing loneliness or social isolation. One of those key factors that’s really important with the population I’m studying of young adult parents is age. A lot of existing research on loneliness and social isolation focus those phenomena among older adults. We know that older adults may be particularly vulnerable to these things because they might be in poor health, they might have more trouble getting out of the house to socialize, they might have had close relatives, friends and family pass away. So there’s been a lot of focus on them, but the research in the field also indicates that young adulthood is the time when the likelihood of experiencing loneliness or social isolation is actually at its highest. And so we see this peak in young adulthood and then it declines through the rest of adulthood and rises again in older age. And so age is one of these things that’s putting the folks I talked to at higher risk of experiencing social poverty.

Chancellor: And Halpern-Meekin says that, for many of the couples she was interviewing, they were just going through so many transitions in their lives all at the same time.

Halpern-Meekin: And so first, because of their age, they’re going through this transition to adulthood. So in our culture, the transition to adulthood is supposed to be this carefree time, right? You can go out and party with your friends, you don’t have to take anything too seriously, you’re supposed to figure out who you are, what you want to be when you grow up, all of that kind of stuff. And doing that is incompatible with these other two roles that the people I spoke to are trying to take on at the same time and that’s being a serious, committed romantic partner and being a parent. Because both of those involve putting somebody else’s needs either on par or above your own needs. And that conflicts with what our culture says young adulthood is supposed to be all about, where you’re supposed to be focused on yourself and what you want to do. So, they’re trying to do all of this at the same time. They’re trying to figure out whether and how to complete an education to get a job that can turn into a career, to pay their bills, to live independently. And then they’re also trying to figure out how to have these relationships. How to be committed to this person. How to have healthy communication. How to get along. What you expect of one another. What is it ok to do in an argument and what is it not ok to do? So there’s a lot of turmoil around figuring all of that out. And these relationships are often not very old at the time this third transition occurs, which is adding parenthood to the mix. So they’re trying to figure out how to be parents and be parents together and be parents while they’re still resolving the challenges of young adulthood. And that’s a lot of roles to juggle. And those roles are often in conflict with one another or offer the opportunity for them to experience what we call role overload. There’s just too much that are making demands of them all at the same time for them to possibly fulfill the demands in each of those areas. And when that happens, when all of that is going on, it makes it a lot harder to trust one another because you’re being pulled in so many directions all at once, it’s hard to anticipate your partner’s wants and needs and it’s hard to respond in a sensitive and kind way. And those things can sort of erode the relationship and eat away at its foundation and the trust and the ability to rely on one another and be vulnerable with one another.

Chancellor: And Halpern-Meekin says that to understand how sometimes these competing pressures and roles can wear away at a relationship, we can look at the example of another couple she talked to—Talecia and Darryl, and of course these are pseudonyms that Halpern-Meekin is using to honor what they shared.

Halpern-Meekin: So Talecia and Darryl, are very much in love. They really want to be together. When I first met them, they were living together the very first interview I did with them, they actually sat in this big oversized armchair together, sort of squeezed in together. They really like each other and want to make their relationship last. A year later when I interviewed them for the last time, they weren’t living together anymore, they had since had their baby and things were challenging for them. And at that point I was interviewing each of them separately and the accounts they gave for why they weren’t living together were different. So, Darryl told me that they weren’t living together because he really felt like he needed to stand on his own two feet before he could be in that family. He said they weren’t broken up, but they couldn’t live together. He had been working a job on a buildings and grounds crew but it was seasonal and when that job ended, he was able to get a job through a temp agency at a factory. After he was late at the factory he got fired and he hasn’t been able to find anything since he has an old felony conviction on his record for more than decade ago, he’s not gotten in trouble with the law since but that felony still follows him around. He hasn’t been able to get a stable decently-paid job since basically. And it really is difficult for him. He feels like he’s failing his family because he can’t work and provide the way that he thinks he’s supposed to, both for Talecia and their daughter. And when I talked to Talecia, she said we’re not living together because we were fighting so much, so often, so loudly early in the morning and late at night that the neighbors called the landlord and Darryl wasn’t on the lease, just Talecia was, and so Darryl got kicked out. And she says that she feels they shouldn’t live together until she gets herself right. So she’s not blaming him and he’s not blaming her, she says she doesn’t trust him the way that she should. She feels insecure herself about what she has to offer and about her weight and so she often accuses Darryl of cheating on her because she has a hard time believing that he would be faithful to her because she doesn’t appreciate herself. And so she says she needs to work on that before they can live together.

Chancellor: Halpern-Meekin says that in talking to Talecia and Darryl, she heard that they really wanted to be together, but they ran into challenges in terms of what they expected of themselves and what they were able to offer one another as partners.

Halpern-Meekin: And a big issue revolves around Darryl’s inability to work and the thing that’s really important to understand in their story is that Talecia’s been employed this whole time. And they’re able to live, they’re able to get by on what she brings in. She doesn’t have great earnings, but their cost of living is low enough that they can get by on what she brings in. But, Darryl’s sense of appropriate gender roles doesn’t allow him to say, ok, so I’ll be a stay at home dad and you go to work and that’s fine. He feels really uncomfortable, he feels like he’s failing as Talecia goes off to work and he’s not able to. In his ideal world, he says that not only would he be working, but she wouldn’t be. She would stay at home and he would be earning so much that they could afford to do that. And Talecia says that she doesn’t mind working. She’s happy to work, she’s happy to have Darryl work and her stay home. She’s fine with any set up. But she says that she’s seen Darryl’s insecurities grow especially after their baby was born, so it was bad enough when he had times where he wasn’t working and it was just the two of them. But after their baby was born and he’s a dad, when he doesn’t work and he can’t be a provider the way that he wants to be, she says she can see how devastating that is for him. And she says that with that, what ends up happening is that any little issue they have sort of blows up. Because they’re both feeling so insecure in so many ways that there’s this ready reserve of discomfort and anger that’s just kind of bubbling under the surface, waiting to come out. And when they have a disagreement over how to wash the dishes or, when to go do laundry, it ends up coming out because there’s all this stuff waiting. She says it’s eating away at them. So we can see that there’s this couple who love each other, who want to be together, who wants to make this work and there are these factors, including some of their own beliefs about themselves that end up eroding the foundation for this relationship and that make their ability to resolve some of the smaller issues that they fact that much harder because these small issues turn into large issues because there are these underlying insecurities there.

Chancellor: I asked Professor Halpern Meekin, given all that she learned in talking to these couples and thinking about how social connections and relationships matter, how we can translate that to thinking about relationship education programs and similar efforts.

Halpern-Meekin: I don’t make a lot of specific recommendations about curricula or things like that, my focus is really, how can we move forward in this policy area? And it’s been an area of a lot values-based conflict and I would ideally like to see us move a little bit away from that and recognize that sort of across the partisan aisles there are some areas of agreement. Generally, we can agree that helping couples have the relationships that they want in ways that support their children is good. Whether you’re conservative or progressive, that’s something that we think is good, for people to have the relationships that they want and be able to care for their children in the ways that they want. And so I would love to see these programs move out of this space where we’re arguing over who should participate and who shouldn’t and agree that having couples together in a healthy way that they desire to support their children is good and how can we set up programs to do that? And so that means program developers and the people who run them being prepared to serve a variety of families and to do so as they’re already doing in ways that are respectful and kind. And, I think it means helping to attend to the variety of needs people bring in. So, I saw in each couple that I talked to the complexity of the life that they were trying to form and the complexity of needs that they had. And those needs were economic, they were social obviously as we’ve talked about, and they also often involved issues that went beyond those. And those could be health needs and that could be both mental and physical health needs. And so, building in components to these programs that speak to those needs more broadly, is one area to look into. Some programs have started to do this, particularly in building in a little more attention to assisting families who have economic need get connection with programs that can help to deal with some training or connections with employers so they can make sure that they’re employed and have an income. And then lastly, and this connects to what I was just talking about, is helping address areas in which men might be struggling financially, like we talked about with Darryl. When that income isn’t coming in, even if there’s enough income in the family, struggling to feel like you are contributing to your family can be corrosive. And that’s not to say we shouldn’t encourage men to embrace caretaking roles, but also recognize that they’ve been taught for so long that fulfilling a provider role is really important. And for men who are marginalized from the labor force for a variety of reasons that can then end up marginalizing them from their family roles. And so these considerations of how people fill their family roles and how people access financial possibilities go hand in hand.

Chancellor: And Halpern-Meekin says that she sees some important broader lessons here when it comes to how we structure programs that aim to serve the needs of low-income families.

Halpern-Meekin: I think the fundamental takeaway for me is the importance of developing programs and policies in ways that promote dignity and human connection. And so that can mean that not just that we go out and do relationship education programs everywhere, we certainly can have those as long as they’re high quality and fulfilling people’s needs, but that we think about all of the programs that we run and that we look to serve people with as not just about engaging in this instrumental exchange, right? We’re going to provide you this information, or we’re going to provide you with this resource that’s food or that’s shelter, but how can we do those things in a way that is respectful and dignified and allows opportunities for relationships to develop because one of the things the couples in Family Expectations really valued and kept them coming back was the way that they were treated by staff. They were treated in a way that they found really welcoming and really warm and really non-judgmental. They felt that they had people in their corner through their participation in this program. And that was really important to them. And so when we think about how do we set up programs to meet the needs of low-income families, we often focus on how do we set up this program to address their financial need and we ignore how the social environment in which we deliver those services or we deliver that help drastically shapes the experience people have with that program and how that help feels and how it’s perceived and whether it makes people feel dignified and socially included or whether it makes them feel stigmatized and socially excluded.

Chancellor: Professor Halpern Meekin says that, to make this more concrete, there are a number a of examples where efforts that programs have made to pay attention to social and relationship factors have paid off.

Halpern-Meekin: Victor Chen did a really interesting study comparing the experiences of laid off autoworkers in Michigan and across the border in Canada. So these two plants were closed. It was really devastating, lots of workers laid off. And the way that the response, the policy response occurred in both places is that there was a tension to how do we provide dollars for retraining, how do we provide unemployment assistance. But in Canada there were also these Action Centers that were put into place. And they were staffed with people who had been laid off from the factories. And this meant that these Action Centers provided this place where people could come together and have this experience of talking to somebody else who had gone through this same event that could share in this fellowship and community of not feeling so alone as you’re going through this difficult circumstance. And that was also, Chen finds, a really important part of the support that centers provided. And so it’s not that the information and financial resources are unimportant, but we can design programs and policies in ways that speak to beyond just those financial resources people need to recognize the social and relational resources that people really need. And we can be purposeful in designing programs so that they help to meet those needs. So we can set up child care centers that have opportunities for staff and parents to interact informally, more often so that their relationships there—so that there’s this community who’s connected to serve the needs of those children. And Mario Small has done some work that indicates that that can be really useful and parents can feel closer to child care staff and can get connected to other social resources through those relationships and can feel supported in their parenting through those relationships. So we also see this in the New Hope project that went on in Milwaukee where parents were getting all sorts of assistance around employment and getting income supplements and the researchers found that children were better off later on. And they speculate that in part this wasn’t just because of the financial resources they were getting but they note that parents often had really nice relationships with the people who were running the program. And they felt supported by this program’s staff and they had these ongoing relationships. And they think that that might have helped parents to be in a better place themselves so that they could enact the kind of parenting that they wanted to do, to be sensitive and responsive caregivers. So, thinking about ways that we cannot just deliver the goods, but deliver the relationships to go along with those goods I think is key.

Chancellor: Thanks to Sarah Halpern-Meekin for taking the time to share her research with us. Again, that book is called Social Poverty: Low-Income Parents and the Struggle for Family and Community Ties. That’s published by NYU Press. This podcast was supported as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation but its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that Office, any other agency of the Federal government, or the Institute for Research on Poverty. To catch new episodes of the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast, you can subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, or Google Play Podcasts. You can also find all of our past episodes on the Institute for Research on Poverty website. Our theme music for this episode is “Staring Straight” by Maarten De Boer. Thanks for listening. 


Children, Economic Support, Employment, Family & Partnering, Family Structure, Financial Security, Health, Inequality & Mobility, Inequality & Mobility General, Low-Wage Work, Mental Health & Substance Abuse, Transition to Adulthood, Unemployment/Nonemployment