The Graduate Forum

an interdisciplinary forum at New York University 

December, 2006
Presenter: Alexis Kuerbis

Public opinion of welfare recipients is well documented. Individuals on welfare are often seen as lazy, irresponsible, and intentionally siphoning off valuable government resources (Jarett, 1996; Scott, London, & Edin, 2000). Few studies, however, have directly explored the motivations of welfare recipients' initial application for public assistance, particularly that of substance abusers.

METHOD: To explore these perspectives, semi-structured, in-depth interviews were conducted with 43 substance dependent, welfare recipients in New York City. Using purposive sampling, participants were recruited from a pool of subjects involved in a randomized study examining the efficacy of intensive case management. Participants were identified by pre-determined characteristics and contacted by assessors with whom subjects had prolonged engagement. Participants were given $65 worth of vouchers for a variety of goods or transportation as incentive.

Participants were asked a series of open-ended questions about the circumstances surrounding their application for public assistance. All interviews were audio recorded and ranged from 35 minutes to 2 hours. Interviews were transcribed and imported into NVivo7 software for analysis. Using the grounded theory analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), a substantive theory regarding the motivations of welfare recipients with identified substance abuse problems to apply for public assistance was developed. Analyses were conducted in a theoretical framework that used internal colonialism, the segmented labor market, labeling theory, and symbolic interactionism.

FINDINGS: The emerging theory from the qualitative data analysis was that applying for welfare is an event that for some occurs primarily out of a need to maintain a sense or image of oneself within the context of society as a person who belongs or as a contributing member. Individuals spoke about their experiences and decisions about applying for welfare as occurring out of a desire to take their life in a new direction or maintain what little stability they had already achieve; as being influenced by friends, family, and professionals; and as a means to accept personal responsibility for themselves. For most participants, applying for public assistance was clearly stated as a last resort. A majority of participants expressed hesitating to apply for benefits due to intense shame, embarrassment, and humiliation resulting from being a welfare recipient. Almost all expressed a sense of resignation at the point they each decided to apply for assistance. However, participants expressed that without such assistance they would be unable to sustain or obtain important roles within their personal lives (i.e., remaining a custodial parent, contributing to the family, caring for an elderly parent) or within society (i.e., being a "productive citizen"). Individuals also expressed a strong set of values that reflect a prominent work ethic and a belief in personal responsibility reflected in the welfare reform act of 1996.

CONCLUSION: Findings presented here underscore the impact of stigma on oppressed populations and the increasing importance of establishing positive relationships and utilizing strengths-based approaches when serving this population, particularly considering their view of welfare as a last resort. The findings also provide a unique opportunity for engaging this hard to employ population, as it supports initiating a consumer perspective while attempting to serve this population and help them achieve self sufficiency.










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