Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Qualitative Data

06/01/2002

Qualitative data increasingly have been used in welfare program evaluations and studies. Although there is a fairly long history of the use of process analysis in formal evaluations, there is less history in using direct observation of study respondents or even using focus groups. Yet in attempting to learn how current or former welfare recipients are faring, qualitative data can provide information that neither survey nor administrative data offer.

The paper by Newman discusses the use of qualitative data for investigating welfare and low-income populations. Newman notes that qualitative data can assist in helping to understand the subjective points of view of families in these populations, provide information on how recipients understand the rules of the welfare system, uncover unexpected factors that are driving families situations, explore any unintended consequences of a policy change, and focus attention on the dynamic and constantly changing character of most families in the low-income population. The author reviews a range of methods, from open-ended questions in survey questionnaires to focus groups to detailed participant observation in the field, in each case listing the advantages and disadvantages of the method. Newman then discusses the use of qualitative data in several recent welfare reform projects to illustrate how the methods can be used. The author concludes with a recommendation that additional expertise in qualitative data be brought into state governments and that the use of these methods increase.

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