Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Conclusion: Forming Research Partnerships

06/01/2002

Given the complexities of this style of research, it probably would be most effective for state agencies to provide requests for payments to which local universities can respond as part of their public service and training activities (as Minnesota already has). Students are a good source of research labor and often are very interested in the problems of the poor. Sociologists, demographers, political scientists, and anthropologists all can be drafted to assist state officials in understanding how welfare reform is unfolding. With proper planning, long-term panel studies that embed qualitative samples inside a large-scale survey design can be conducted in ways that will yield valuable information to policy makers and administrators. Whether these embedded subsamples are representative of the whole survey universe or purposive samples designed to understand one particular category (e.g., welfare leavers, single mothers with young children), these projects can be of great value. Utilizing this kind of partnership has the advantage of independence from the enforcement agencies with whom TANF participants may be reluctant to cooperate. Because most states have a network of public universities distributed throughout the territory, one can use their location to generate appropriately diverse research populations--urban/suburban/rural, multiple ethnic groups, neighborhoods with different levels of poverty, and areas with higher and lower levels of unemployment, could be among those most important to represent.

Research units of state agencies can also invest in in-house capacities for qualitative research. Even when research resources are tight, making sure that ethnographers and interviewers are part of the team is an important management decision. This may appear to be a "frill," but it actually may save the day when survey results cannot explain the findings on recidivism or childcare. The presence of ethnographers and interviewers in federal agencies is commonplace now. For example, the Census Bureau maintains a staff of anthropologists and linguists who study household organization in order to frame better census questions. In past years, the Bureau has employed teams of ethnographers to conduct multicity studies of homeless populations to check underrepresentation in the census. As devolution progresses, it will be important to replicate this expertise at the state level in the field of welfare reform.

Whether research partnerships or in-house teams are chosen, the greatest success undoubtedly will be achieved when qualitative research is embedded inside quantitative studies that are either cross-sectional or longitudinal panel studies. The fusion of the two approaches provides greater confidence in the representative nature of qualitative samples, and the capacity to move back and forth between statistical analyses and patterns in life histories renders either approach the richer for its partner.

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