Academic journal article Human Organization

"Rational" and Ecocultural Circumstances of Program Take-Up among Low-Income Working Parents

Academic journal article Human Organization

"Rational" and Ecocultural Circumstances of Program Take-Up among Low-Income Working Parents

Article excerpt

New Hope (NH) is a random-assignment, antipoverty program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that offers child care subsidies, wage subsidies, health insurance, and, if needed, a temporary community service job to participants working 30 or more hours per week. Despite the relative generosity of the program and supportive caseworkers, take-up was far from universal, and participants rarely used all services. Ethnographic analysis of a random sample of experimental participants found that NH's economically based offer was theoretically too narrow to motivate all participants. Four categories of personal and family circumstances were associated with take-up: 1) the constrained-by-information group (participants' understandings about the program differed from what NH in fact offered); 2) the disruptive-life group (significant personal troubles and instability); 3) the pro-con group (used often explicit cost-benefit calculations); and 4) the daily-routine group (used particular benefits but only if they helped sustain their family daily routine). Analysis of take-up of other services by the control group showed similar patterns, suggesting that these take-up patterns are not specific to NH. We conclude that use of welfare-to-work interventions reflects ecocultural conditions and personal goals and values, as well as a more conventional cost-benefit approach. Economic rational choice as well as local, situated rationality models are needed to fully account for benefit use.

Key words: rational choice, ecocultural theory, welfare reform, program take-up, working poor, Wisconsin

I couldn't wait for that day. I just wanted to know, yes or no? When? And how much? ... I could almost cry when I found out... I was acting like a little kid. I was so excited when I got in. I was going to be a participant and it wasn't going to cost me nothing. If anything it was going to give me money to just do what I was already doing.

Conchita, age 41, single mother of two

Conchita is talking about her reaction when she found out she was an experimental participant in New Hope, a randomized-design, work-based intervention program conducted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. New Hope (NH) sought to reduce poverty and promote employment by offering experimental participants a package of benefits in return for a demonstrated work effort. If experimental participants worked 30 hours or more a week, they could receive a wage and child care subsidy, access to health insurance, and a community service job.

The program was effective. Evaluations of NH found significant program impacts on earnings, employment, and children's academic behavior. It also lowered some measures of material hardship and reduced stress and worries for parents (Bos et al. 1999; Huston et al. 2001). But the use of NH benefits was relatively low and therefore diluted program impacts. Although NH offered a "package" of benefits, use of benefits was far from universal, and participants who took up at least some benefits rarely took up all of them. Why was take-up of this relatively generous offer not greater?

We examine the issue of take-up and offer an explanation for the mismatch between positive program intent and partial program use. Data come from the New Hope Ethnographic Study (NHES), a longitudinal study of 46 randomly selected New Hope families. We describe four patterns that reflect the common responses to the NH experiment and find that a work-based offer such as NH is likely to appeal to only a select group of participants. Additional analyses using the control families' responses to other social services confirms this conclusion.

New Hope, like many current welfare reform programs, was implicitly predicated on rational choice theory. This theory stipulates that people are motivated by calculations of abstract utility in a cost-benefit framework, informed by exogenous tastes and preferences. However, we show that embedded ecocultural circumstances of family and community life, which typically lie outside the realm of rational choice theory, had a large influence on take-up. …

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