Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Participant Observation Fieldwork

06/01/2002

Anthropologists and qualitative sociologists often combine interviews with a large "N" with direct observation of behavior in order to fill in gaps that may emerge using other data collection methods. Fieldwork of this kind frequently involves day-in, day-out contact with a subset of a larger survey population, often resident in the same neighborhood or partaking of a common institutional setting (e.g., a welfare office, a job training program). Informal conversation between researchers and informants or between members of a community (with researchers "on the side") can be illuminating. Direct observation of behavior is often helpful as a check on what respondents (survey or interview) report about their state of mind or the actions they routinely take, as a fieldworker may see it differently when in situ.

Participant observation data are recorded in the form of daily fieldnotes that must be entered into a database then coded, sorted, and analyzed for patterns of recurrent behavior or illustrative instances of a pattern that might have popped up in another form (e.g., in a quantitative analysis). This data collection strategy is particularly helpful when researchers are dealing with behavior that might be concealed, easily forgotten, hard to elicit, or simply skewed by the desires informants often have to paint their behavior in a better light.

For some years now, for example, I have been conducting a study of the impact of welfare reform on the working poor in New York City. This is a longitudinal interview study involving 100 families in three ethnic groups across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Three waves of interviews over a 6-year period provide a detailed sense of the difficulties these families have encountered securing childcare or finding work that dovetails with family responsibilities, even though these families were not the targets of reform per se (because they were already in the labor market prior to 1996). The two waves of interviews we have completed thus far indicate that although the availability of jobs has improved and wages are rising, problems remain for the working poor precisely because their wages do not push them above the poverty line. Improvements in their personal circumstances are, in many instances, offset by the extraordinary escalation in costs brought about by the same economic boom that is providing more employment opportunity. Rents are rising everywhere throughout the New York City area, dwarfing the gains these families have made, particularly for those who are not in rent-controlled or Section 8 housing. Family budgets are strained; relatives are doubling up; children are moving back and forth from New York to Puerto Rico because, as parents are preoccupied with work all day, some are having trouble supervising their children. These observations are clear enough in the interviews.

However, these data provide only a sketchy sense of how these dilemmas surface at the neighborhood level and how, in turn, that ecological context impacts the families in our study. Hence we developed a community study component of the project, a year's worth of intensive fieldwork in three New York neighborhoods--one primarily African American, one largely Dominican, and one with a large number of Puerto Ricans as well as other Latino immigrants from Mexico and Central America. For the past 7 months, we have been tagging along beside police officers, sitting in classrooms, visiting with congressmen and church leaders, talking with local employers, and devoting a lot of attention to 12 families drawn from our interview sample who live in these three communities.

Participant observation has been a valuable addition to what we know from the interview data. For example, we have been able to see for ourselves what the teen culture of the communities is like and the ways in which it is influencing the behavior of particular members of the households we study as the parents are occupied at work. We have witnessed the dilemmas of poor working mothers who cannot easily control their sons when they reach adolescence and we know how they adjust their work lives to try to provide more opportunity for surveillance. Having worked with these families over a long period of time--before and after their reentry into the labor force--we have learned that their capacity to steer their adolescents has declined sharply as the pressures for them to hold jobs increased.

For example, one family we have come to know quite well has a teenage son who is faring poorly in his middle school. When his mother was receiving public assistance, she was able to visit the school during the day to confer with his guidance counselors at length and to learn directly from them (as opposed to the filtered news from the son) that he was in danger of being held back a full year. Now that this mother is working full time, she is unable to exercise this level of involvement. Her family clearly benefits from her earnings: There is less tension over finances in the household and the departure of a paying boarder was less of a cataclysm than it might have been otherwise. However, the mother is worried about what will become of her teenage son in school and now depends on him for information on his progress. He is clearly at risk for dropping out altogether, which may impact his mother's employment stability and will surely influence his own trajectory into adulthood.

Our home-based and daycare based fieldwork also has helped us understand the dilemmas of poor working mothers who have been unable to afford or locate quality child care. The youngest children in some of these households are showing the effects of poor quality care, with some displaying seriously worrying behaviors that their mothers believe are the result of untrained or unconcerned childcare providers (including relatives pressed into service). When we compare these children to their older siblings, most of whom had more attention from their mothers when they were little, the differences are striking. This tells us there is a problem to be understood here, for the good fortune of mothers (most of whom report being happier because they are working) may be paralleled by the declining fortunes of their youngest children, an outcome many of Edin et al.'s (1999) interviewees worried about in advance. If suboptimal-quality childcare remains the lot of the working poor, we may come to understand welfare reform as a story with bifurcated outcomes within the same family: good news for Moms, bad news for kids.

The knowledge we have gained about the work lives of our main informants is complemented by the fieldwork we have done in the neighborhoods. We know, for example, that although opportunities for factory work are very limited in the city itself, that a whole private, off-the-books system of van pools carries Dominican workers out to New Jersey factories where they earn just above the minimum wage. Our observational data have shown that the van pools themselves have become a major source of information on job openings for low-skilled workers. The cost of this reverse commute is fairly onerous for low earners, however, amounting to more than 10 percent of take-home earnings for most users.

The perspectives of service providers, teachers, police officers, local politicians, and employers are equally valuable, for they are in a position to look beyond the immediate concerns of particular families to assess the consequences of welfare reform for neighborhoods and the institutions within them that must absorb the demands that policy change visits upon them. Service providers, particularly those in the child care and medical care fields, are concerned that they cannot respond adequately to the additional needs that have surfaced since time limits were imposed on federal cash assistance. Medical care personnel in poor neighborhoods continue to report that they have not been able to enroll enough children in Child Health Plus and that they are seeing a steady, and often overwhelming, demand in emergency rooms for treatment of conditions that should have been seen long before they reach this critical point.

Teachers and guidance counselors have noticed that they have a harder time getting parents to pay attention to children's school behavior or academic problems because they are not as available as they once were. The coincidence of welfare reform and the imposition of new state testing standards for children at all levels of the school system has ratcheted up the stakes in classrooms throughout New York City, leaving teachers and school principals even more concerned about bringing those with educational deficits up to speed. Without easy access to parents, this is proving a complex task. Ironically, however, this very demand has spurred the city to provide summer school classes, which have been an answer to many a working mother's prayers for childcare.

Police officers report steep declines in crime and much safer streets in the three neighborhoods we are studying. There is no evidence that this trend is related in any direct way to welfare reform, but it is instead part of a nationwide pattern that experts have yet to understand fully. In New York City, however, the move toward more aggressive policing in minority enclaves has met with mixed responses, as a number of notorious cases involving police violence have shown. On a day-to-day level, however, these pressures have surfaced in a higher level of street surveillance and some resentment of "police harassment" by youth in the families we study who report being told to "move on" when they are talking with friends on the corner. Young men, in particular, feel somewhat less welcome in their own neighborhoods than they once did.

For adults, particularly women and elderly men, these changes have been a blessing. They can pass without as much fear, walk to and from the subway without worrying about being harassed by drug dealers. Some report that the drug trade has moved indoors and off the streets, which makes them feel more vulnerable than before. But, on the whole, they approve of the changes or at least are willing to tolerate the increase in police aggression because it means fewer worries accompanying their ordinary movements.

It remains to be seen whether neighborhood safety will improve to the point where one of the chief worries of women moving off welfare and into work--that their children will not be safe if left unsupervised or will get into trouble in the absence of their mothers--will be assuaged (Edin and Lein, 1997, 1999; Newman, 1999; Anderson, 1999). This reservation has played a key role in the past in keeping mothers out of the labor market. Until now, crime rates seemed responsive mainly to levels of community social capital (Sampson, 1997) that could, in turn, be boosted through the deliberate efforts of stay-at-home mothers and elders. The absence of mothers from neighborhood streets as they head into the workplace renders this strategy less effective. In any case, if crime continues to decline, we may see that a key purpose of welfare reform (to get mothers into jobs) will be furthered by policy changes that had nothing to do with it (through policies such as increased community policing [Winship, in press] or the drive to lower crime rates).

Participant observation in TANF offices and in welfare-to-work programs is an important part of the picture as well. Rank's (1995) study is one of the few that attempted to get inside the culture of the old cash assistance system, and it was very valuable for understanding the perspective of welfare clients as they were processed by caseworkers. We shall have to await a new generation of organizational studies based on similar fieldwork methods in order to understand how the new goals of TANF offices--especially job placement--are being absorbed into a bureaucracy that was designed for entirely different purposes (Ellwood, 1988).

Qualitative research on welfare-to-work programs can tell us a great deal about the job retention problem as well. Watkins (1999) offers a compelling account of the disjuncture that plagues some programs that try to build self-esteem as a means of retaining participants, only to discover that graduates consequently expect much more from the labor market than they actually find. High job turnover rates follow as the frustration of discovering that an "I am somebody" campaign runs headlong into the low-wage labor market where the message may be something closer to "You are not important."

These examples are intended to illustrate the value of contextual information generated through the use of long-term fieldwork. Among other things, this approach provides something close to continuous monitoring of a small sample of families or participants in organizations. Rather than let weeks or years go by between short-term contacts, fieldwork permits ongoing contact and the capacity to check what informants say about their state of mind, their survival strategies, their relations with others, and their neighborhood or institutional conditions against what fieldworkers can observe for themselves and/or learn from "experts" situated in the community.

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