Statistical trends are necessary but not sufficient. To me, statistical trends alone are like a canary in a coal mine — they yield life or death information on the "health" of an environment, but don't always lead to improvement, causes and corrective actions.
Dennis Lieberman, Director of the Office of Welfare-to-Work
U.S. Department of Labor
|This research was supported by generous grants from the Foundation for Child Development, the Ford Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation Network on Socio-Economic Status and Health, and the MacArthur Foundation Network on Inequality and Economic Performance.
In the years to come, researchers and policy makers concerned with the consequences of welfare reform will dwell on studies drawn from administrative records that track the movement of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients from public assistance into the labor market and, perhaps, back again. Survey researchers with panel studies will be equally in demand as federal, state, and local officials charged with the responsibility of administering what is left of the welfare system come to grips with the dynamics of their caseloads. This is exactly as it should be, for the "poor support" of the future--whatever its shape may be--can only be fashioned if we can capture the big picture that emerges from the quantitative study of post-Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) dynamics when many of the nation's poor women have moved from welfare to work.
Yet as the early returns tell us, the story that emerges from these large-scale studies contains many puzzles. The rolls have dropped precipitously nationwide, but not everywhere (Katz and Carnavale, 1998). TANF recipients often are able to find jobs, but many have trouble keeping them and find themselves back on the rolls in a pattern not unfamiliar to students of the old welfare system. Millions of poor Americans have disappeared from the system altogether: they are not on TANF, but they are not employed. Where in the world are these people? Welfare reform has pushed many women into the low-wage labor market, but we are only starting to understand how this trend has impacted their standard of living or the well-being of their children. Are they better off in terms of material hardship than they were before? Are the benefits of immersion in the world of work for parents--ranging from the psychological satisfaction of joining the American mainstream to the mobility consequences of getting a foot in the door--translating into positive trajectories for their children? Or are kids paying the price for the lift their mothers have experienced because they have been left behind in substandard childcare? And can their mothers stick with the work world if they are worried about what is happening to their kids?
These kinds of questions cannot be resolved through reliance on administrative records. Survey data can help answer some of these questions but without the texture of in-depth or ethnographic data collection. States and localities do not systematically collect data on mothers' social, psychological, or familial well-being. They will not be able to determine what has become of those poor people who have not been able to enroll in the system. They have little sense of how households, as opposed to individuals, reach collective decisions that deputize some members to head into the labor market, others to stay home to watch the kids, and yet others to remain in school. Problems like domestic abuse or low levels of enrollment in children's health insurance programs cannot be easily understood via panel studies that ask respondents to rate their lives on a scale of 1 to 10. Though one might argue that welfare reform was oriented toward "work first" and was not an anti poverty program per se, understanding the nature of material hardship is an important goal for any public official who wants to get to the bottom of the poverty problem. Trawling along the bottom of the wage structure, we are likely to learn a thing or two about recidivism as the burdens of raising children collide with the limitations of the low-wage labor market for addressing the needs of poor families.
If administrative records and panel studies cannot tell us everything we might want to know about the impact of welfare reform, what are the complementary sources of information we might use? I argue in this chapter that qualitative research is an essential part of the tool kit and that, particularly when embedded in a survey-based study, it can illuminate some of the unintended consequences and paradoxes of this historic about-face in American social policy. From this vantage point, I argue that the "right soft stuff" can go a long way toward helping us to do the following:
- Understand subjective responses, belief systems, expectations, and the relationship between these aspects of world view and labor market behavior;
- Explore "client" understandings of rules, including the partial information they may have received regarding the intentions or execution of new policies;
- Uncover underlying factors that drive response patterns that are overlooked or cannot easily be measured through fixed-choice questionnaires;
- Explore in greater detail the unintended consequences of policy change; and
- Focus special attention on the dynamics shaping the behavior of households or communities that can only be approximated in most survey or administrative record studies that draw their data from individuals. This will be particularly significant in those domains where the interests of some individuals may conflict with others and hard choices have to be made.
The intrinsic value of qualitative research is in its capacity to dig deeper than any survey can go, to excavate the human terrain that lurks behind the numbers. Used properly, qualitative research can pry open that black box and tell us what lies inside. And at the end of the day, when the public and the politicians want to know whether this regime change has been successful, the capacity to illuminate its real consequences--good and bad--with stories that are more than anecdotes, but stand as representatives of patterns we know to be statistically significant, is a powerful means of communicating what the numbers can only suggest.