Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Contribution of Social Support to the Material Well-Being of Low-Income Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Contribution of Social Support to the Material Well-Being of Low-Income Families

Article excerpt

We hypothesize that the social support available from low-income networks serves primarily a coping function, rather than a leverage function. Social support and its relationship to material well-being is assessed in a sample of 632 former and current welfare recipients. Respondents report higher levels of perceived emotional, instrumental, and informational support than perceived financial support, and received financial aid is particularly uncommon. Multivariate findings demonstrate that perceived support is unrelated to employment quality, but it reduces the likelihood of living in poverty and is associated with three different measures of coping. These findings generally support the contention that informal aid is important for the everyday survival of low-income families, but is less able to assist with economic mobility.

Key Words: coping, social networks, social support, welfare.

Recent debate over the reauthorization of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) has focused attention on how welfare families have fared in the postreform era. PRWORA ended the federal entitlement to cash assistance, replacing it with time-limited, work-based assistance available through PRWORA's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF's temporary nature and its "workfirst" premise have heightened the pressures on low-income families to support themselves through non welfare means. The labor market represents the primary nonwelfare context to seek economic support, and research has demonstrated the high level of employment activity among families leaving TANF (Loprest & Wissoker, 2002). Recipients typically find shortterm jobs, however, that pay low wages with minimal benefits (Johnson & Corcoran, 2003; Pavetti & Acs, 2001). As a result, they may turn to informal support-givers for assistance not available from the labor market or governmental sources. In particular, social networks of family, friends, and other associates may be called upon to supplement earnings, connect recipients to new opportunities, and provide support that reduces the hardships of everyday life.

Although popular accounts of how welfare families have fared since the 1996 reform often include testimonials on the importance of social networks for well-being, there have been surprisingly few empirical investigations of the question. Quantitative accounts have been particularly scarce. In this article, we use data from the Women's Employment Survey, a multiwave survey of former and current TANF recipients in Michigan, to explore the availability of social support (e.g., aid from social networks) and its association to two types of material well-being: daily coping and economic status. Our hypotheses are informed by findings from the social network and social support literatures suggesting that although many low-income families rely heavily on family and friends for support, the help they provide is constrained by limited economic resources. As a result, we argue that the assistance available from poor families' social networks may facilitate coping without significantly improving economic status.


Individual Characteristics and Economic Well-Being

A number of studies both before and after the 1996 welfare reform have documented that personal characteristics are important determinants of economic and employment outcomes. Greater levels of human capital (e.g., education, work experience, skills) predict shorter welfare spells, leaving welfare for employment, and staying off welfare for longer periods of time (Bane & Ellwood, 1994; Harris, 1996), as well as higher earning trajectories (Meyer & Cancian, 1998) and better quality jobs (Pavetti & Acs, 2001). Demographic characteristics such as race, age, marital status, and number and ages of children (Bane & Ellwood; Harris), as well as health and psychological factors (Danziger, Kalil, & Anderson, 2000), are also related to indicators of employment and economic well-being. …

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