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Project Description

Tracking the Well-Being and Functioning of Rural Families in the Context of Welfare Policies

The NC-223 project was established in October 1, 1998 and was completed in September 30, 2003. The NC-1011 currently continues with many of the same researchers and three new states. Both of these projects have been designed to study rural, low-income families.


The overall purpose of the research is to assess changes in the well-being and functioning of rural families in the context of policies that reform welfare. The specific objectives are to:


Two major pieces of legislation have driven the welfare reform discussions. Public Law 104-193, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), and Public Law 104-180 The Agricultural, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 1997 (Food Stamp legislation). The legislation governing Food Stamps appropriations is passed each year. The latest one is Public Law 106-387. The reauthorization of the PRWORA continues to be discussed. There are other pieces of legislation that influences low-income families, but the team is focusing on these pieces.

Data Set

The database for this study is 414 families from 14 states panel 1 of a multi-state longitudinal study of low-income rural families with children approved by the USDA, Agricultural Experiment Station System, NC-223 “Rural Low-Income Families: Tracking their Well-Being and Functioning in the Context of Welfare Reform.” The study consists of multi-cultural mothers age 18 and older with at least one child 12 years old or younger, currently eligible for, or receiving Food Stamps, or Women Infants and Children (WIC ) Program transfers.

The families were recruited (1999-2000) through various methods designed to capture diversity across the states. Persons working in programs that serve the eligible families (Food Stamps, WIC Program, Head Start, Work Centers, Social Service Offices, Vocational Technical Schools, child care centers for farm labors, welfare to work classes, 4-H parents, Housing Authority offices, food pantries, Latino Migrant and Settled Workers Program, homeless shelter, and Spanish Speaking Community Action Program) recruited participants. Data were collected using a qualitative-quantitative protocol for face-to-face interviews. By combining data across the states (4 Western, 5 Central, 2 Southern, and 4 Eastern), in 25 locations, social science researchers can identify common forces affecting many rural people and counties, in relation to welfare policies. The panel 1 data set has 3 years (waves) of data. Two other panels of data have been added to the project. The entire data set has three panels with each having multiple waves.


Several instruments are administered during the interviews: Feelings About How Things are Going (Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale-CES-D in Radloff, 1977), Life Skills Assessment, Knowledge of Community Resources (Richards, Pamulapati, Corson, & Merrill, 2000), Adult Health Survey, Child Health Survey, and Food Security Module (18-item Core Food Security Module, USDA).

All family interview data were coded by one university team using agreed upon themes, rules, principles, and factors. Qualitative interview data with mothers are transcribed verbatim and coded for thematic content using the principles of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) and qualitative analysis techniques (Berg, 1997; Gilgun, et al., 1992; Kvale, 1996; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The quantitative survey measures permit numeric picture of low-income rural families over time. The qualitative data add voices to the numbers.

Policy Analysis

Welfare devolution challenges the manner in which public policies are studied. Researchers such as Moffitt (1996) indicated that some of the questions and situations for policy research are yet to be determined. As with any social experiment, only time and sufficient research will produce evidence for evaluating the new policy. Consistently, a general question is present: “What effects are occurring among adults and children because of welfare reform?” A National Research Council panel set some recommendations for evaluating welfare reform. Moffitt & Ver Ploeg (1999) indicate that a descriptive or monitoring study describes a population and focuses on their well-being along general and specific dimensions. Policy analyses using monitoring studies provide a baseline against which evolving changes can be measured. In the changing policy milieu related to devolution and welfare reform, qualitative research is critical for capturing the complexity and dynamics of the issues (Barnow & Moffitt, 1997). The need for identifying indicators of quality of life and well-being is critical. If these indicators are not identified, using poor-quality measures can have negative consequences (Brown & Corbett, 1997; Bauer, et al., 2000; Braun & Bauer, 1998a & b; Braun, et al., 1999).

In the scholarly debate about welfare reform, voices and experiences of individuals are often lost in macro analysis and aggregated statistics that often distance us from the daily struggles of low-income families. Policy makers, community leaders, and others wanting to make changes in the dynamic systems of support for self-sufficiency need to hear the experiences of families in their communities (Edin & Lein, 1997; Seccombe, 1998). Thus, qualitative research is critical to policy analysis. The integrated qualitative and quantitative research design of this proposed study will make it possible to add human voices to abstract policy analyses.


Barnow, B.S. & Moffitt, R.A. (1997). Designs for evaluating devolution. Focus, 18(3): 59-63.

Bauer, J.W., Braun, B., & Olson, P.D. (2000). Welfare to well-being framework for research, education, and outreach: From welfare for the few to well-being for the many. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 34(1), 62-81.

Berg, B. (1997). Qualitative research methods for the social sciences (3rd ed.). New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Braun, B. & Bauer, J. (1998a). From welfare to well-being: A framework for dialogue and action. In M.I. Henry, D.I. Mitstifer, & F.M. Smith (Eds.), Toward a Theory of Family Well-Being II, (pp. 71-76). East Lansing, MI: Kappa Omicron Nu.

Braun, B. & Bauer, J. (1998b). Well-being: An appropriate framework for family public policy. In M.I. Henry, D.I. Mitstifer, & F.M. Smith (Eds.), Toward a Theory of Family Well-Being II, (pp. 67-70). East Lansing, MI: Kappa Omicron Nu.

Braun, B., Bauer, J.W., & Olson, P.D. (1999). Managing at the margin—Families moving off welfare assistance. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, 91(4): 88-90.

Brown, B. & Corbett, T. (1997). Social indicators and public policy in the age of devolution. Institute for Research on Poverty (Special Report no. 71). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.

Edin, K. & Lein, L. (1997). Making ends meet: How single mothers survive welfare and low-wage work. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Gilgun, J.F., Daly, K., & Handel, G. (1992). Qualitative methods in family research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Glaser, B.G., & Strauss, A.L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New York: Aldine.

Kvale, S. (1996). Interviews. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Moffitt, R. A. (1996). Evaluating the new state welfare reforms. Focus, 18(1): 18-2

Moffitt, R. & Ver Ploeg, M. (Eds.) (1999). Evaluating welfare reform: A framework and review of current work. Washington DC: National Academy.

Radloff, L.S. (1977). The CES-D Scale: A self report depression scale for research in the general population. Applied Psychological Measurement, 1, 385-401.

Richards, L. Pamulapati, S., Corson, C. & Merrill, M. (2000). “I used to have my head down all the time. Now it is up.” A report on the outcomes of Oregon’s 1998/1999 Even Start programs. Report for Oregon Even Start Programs and Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development.

Seccombe, K. (1998). “So you think I drive a Cadillac?” Welfare Recipients’ Perspectives on the System and its Reform. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.