More than 20 years have passed since the 1996 Welfare Reform and there is still more to learn about how the policy changes from the Reform affects the wellbeing of families long-term. Sociology PhD candidate KaLeigh White studies the ongoing effects of safety net programs on recipients’ wellbeing, health, and sense of autonomy.
“In my dissertation, I am looking at how families experience specific aspects of social safety net programs, specifically focusing on cash assistance” White explains. “I’m interested in how people experience the requirements they have to meet in order to receive and maintain benefits, as well as the sanctions and punishments they face if they do not meet those requirements.”
Since the mid-1990s, cash assistance programs have placed a range of eligibility requirements on recipients (e.g., work requirements). Some research has found these requirements and the practices used to enforce them (e.g., sanctions) are associated with declines in mental health, increases in material hardship, and reduced political and civic engagement.
“People experiencing sanctions were more likely to face material hardships and were less likely to be able to meet basic housing and food needs,” White says.
In fall of 2021, under the mentorship of Dr. Mary Noonan, White was one of six recipients of the Behavioral Interventions Scholars grant program from the Office of Planning, Research & Evaluation of the Administration for Children & Families of the US Department of Health and Human Services. The grant is a dissertation support grant for students who are applying a behavioral science lens to research relevant to social services programs and policies involving low-income families.
White defined and proposed the budget for her project needs and allocated funding for a one semester living stipend, conference travel, statistical software, and data access to the Fragile Families and Child Well Being Study. The Fragile Families study aids in her research, as the study provides rich self-report information on the health and life experiences of families over an extended period.
“The benefit of this data set is that you can follow the same families over time, as well as children from birth into early adulthood, which is very unique. Typically, we don’t have a lot of data on individual’s long-term experiences because it’s hard to track people for that long.”
Along with analyzing the long-term effects, White is interested in investigating how each state’s policy context matters to the experiences of the individual. Across the US, states have discretion in how they administer cash assistance programs and White is exploring if the macro context one lives in influences the individual’s experiences.
“I’m curious to see if the more strict or punitive states exacerbate the experiences of those who face sanctions or if the less punitive states potentially help protect families from experiencing harsher outcomes.”
White became interested in her research question after investigating the changes in the requirements of other public assistance programs, like food assistance and health insurance. The practice of placing requirements on the receipt of benefits is being increasingly expanded to these other public programs.
“In 2018, states began to add work requirements to Medicaid, or health insurance, for families who are low-income, which historically has been an entitlement-based program, meaning access was based on need,” White says.
White’s research is partially motivated by an interest in connecting policy with practice, or the everyday experiences of the people affected by the polices. This is especially important when trying to create positive outcomes for people facing material hardships. White’s research could inform how policymakers decide what changes to make to social safety net programs and how to do so in ways that are increasingly beneficial to families in need.
As governments continue to move in the direction of requiring more in order to access public assistance programs, White emphasizes the role of these experiences in potentially shaping one’s self-perception within society.
“It’s important to understand how people’s experiences with conditions and sanctions affect their well-being long-term, including people’s perceptions of themselves and how they perceive their role as a citizen, their relationship to government, and their sense of autonomy in their life and community.”