What's Need Got to Do with It? Barriers to Use of Nonprofit Social Services

Article excerpt

In recent years, legislators have called upon private nonprofit and proprietary organizations to assume a larger role in provision of public benefits to poor persons. Little research, however, has examined poor people's willingness to use nonprofit agencies in lieu of public welfare. This analysis draws data from over 2 years of fieldwork and in-depth interviews with twenty poor women in Philadelphia. I demonstrate that decisions to use nonprofits are contingent upon stigma, information, practical predicaments (e.g., agency hours), and perceived need. I explore the implications of these impediments in a post-welfare reform landscape, while focusing on how decisions to use private services differ from those to use public welfare. One cannot assume that because people have needs they will use nonprofit services to meet them.


With passage of the 1996 welfare reform (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, P.L. 104-193, henceforth, PRWORA), the federal government no longer has responsibility for determining welfare eligibility, nor are welfare recipients "entitled" to such benefits by law. The responsibility for providing for America's needy families now rests mainly on the states; however, PRWORA also allows for private nonprofit and proprietary organizations to take on a larger role in the provision of public benefits to poor people by allowing them to act as subcontractors of the government (Katz, 2001). In addition, many policy makers assume that private, nonprofit social service organizations (NPs) will assist current and former welfare recipients reach self-sufficiency and make ends meet with their own private funds.

Encouraging local nonprofit and governmental agencies to provide aid to poor peoples is nothing new (Katz, 1989; 1996). Policy makers, however, are increasingly applying market models to social policy, often regarding private agencies as more efficient than public agencies, largely because of their ability to compete (Katz, 2001). A growing number of politicians believe that NPs should directly relieve the ills of poor women now and as time limits hit, replacing the government in this role. Questions remain, however, as to how poor persons think about receiving aid from NPs, what kind of services they use, when they will use them, and what factors inhibit their use. In the eyes of poor women, private delivery of services may not be favorable to public delivery.


Many politicians and scholars alike assume that if former and current welfare recipients need additional help to make ends meet or to improve their lives, they will be willing and able to access private, nonprofit social services. Researchers have tried to track participation in government (public) social service programs (see Coe, 1983; Bishop, Formby, and Zeager, 1992; Blank and Ruggles, 1996; Kim and Mergoupis, 1997; Gleason, Schochet, and Moffitt, 1998), but fewer individuals have examined participation in nongovernmental (private nonprofit) social service programs.

The existing research on NP use tends to study utilization within a larger examination of poor individuals' social support and survival strategies (Stack, 1974; Stagner and Richman, 1986; Snow and Anderson, 1993; Edin and Lein, 1997). Overall, researchers have found that use of NPs is rather limited, and poor individuals are likely to seek aid from family and friends over NPs. For example, Stagner and Richman (1986) extensively examined "help-seeking behavior" among poor, largely AFDCreliant, Chicago household heads in the early 1980s. Respondents identified the top three problems they faced during the past year and how they attempted to resolve these problems. Half (49%) of the respondents did not turn to a social service provider (i.e., churches, government social service programs, and private social service agencies) for any of their reported problems. Only 23% of the respondents had sought help from a private social service agency while 28% had used churches or government services but not private providers. …