Government agencies and researchers are producing an enormous quantity of data on the impact of the 1996 welfare reform legislation on low-income families and communities. This evidence reflects a big drop in welfare caseloads, increased employment and higher incomes among single mothers, a decline in child poverty, a steady decline in teen pregnancy, and a leveling off in non-marital childbearing.
Data that focus on overall patterns are important, but may fail to convey the multi-faceted impacts on the lives of low-income families, as well as the different impacts on individual families. To reach a deeper understanding of the lives behind the statistics, a number of research projects have been launched that rely on ethnographic research—a more detailed, long-term study of the lives of low-income families.
Ethnographic research is focusing on questions such as: Families may have more earned income, but how are they balancing increased work and child care responsibilities? How has the quality of their lives changed? What barriers do they face in getting and retaining jobs, and making ends meet? And how are families that have left the welfare rolls involuntarily, through sanctions and time limits, surviving? With respect to family formation, how are efforts to increase paternity establishment and collection of child support affecting child-bearing decisions and relationships between parents and children? And why does the very high percentage of unmarried parents who say that they want to marry not translate into higher marriage rates among this group?
The Brookings Welfare Reform & Beyond initiative is sponsoring a forum that will bring together leading ethnographic researchers and low-income parents to discuss the complex realities of the families behind the numbers. The event will feature two panels, one on the transition to work (including balancing work and family), and the second on family formation. Each panel will include two researchers and two low-income parents.