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Welfare Reform - Letter from Louise Lamphere

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November 27, 2001

TANF Reauthorization Ideas
Office of Family Assistance
5th Floor East
Aerospace Building
370 L'Enfant Promenade SW
Washington, DC 20447

I am writing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to comment on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the considerations that will need to be taken into account to ensure that poverty in the United States is reduced and eliminated. Specifically, I express concern that the upcoming evaluation of TANF may over rely on the results of quantitative studies and analysis of administrative data. In so doing, policy makers will miss the opportunity to take advantage of the significant body of qualitative ethnographic research that has followed the actual experiences of TANF leavers and other families that need public assistance as well as focused on the processes of policy implementation associated with welfare reform. I urge the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and related policy makers to consider both qualitative and quantitative research results, focused on the effectiveness of welfare reform, in their deliberations of the reauthorization of TANF. I believe that qualitative studies will contribute a more comprehensive understanding and evaluation of how TANF has worked in the everyday lives of low-income families.

While the statistics appear to indicate that welfare reform is working, research on the ground with the poor indicates that the situation is not as rosy as the statistics portray it to be. Anthropologists working in the area of poverty and welfare and employing qualitative research methods like ethnography have found that TANF is having adverse effects. For example, TANF disrupts traditional "sharing" arrangements whereby low-wage workers are able to continue working because family members (e.g. sisters or mothers) who receive public assistance provide child care at no cost in return for other forms of help from the low-wage earner. With time limits on receipt of public assistance required by TANF, these welfare recipients, the sisters or mothers who provide free childcare, must go to work. As a result, the low-wage earner must find alternative childcare for minimal or no cost in order to continue working. The implications are profound because the situation could result in rotating the receipt of welfare within and among families and, as a result, never reduce or eliminate poverty.

These and other qualitative ethnographic research findings illustrate that, counter to what current statistical results claim, overall poverty in the US continues unabated and in different guises despite reforms enacted through TANF. Qualitative ethnographic research studies help to better understand quantitative research findings on the effectiveness of TANF. For instance, qualitative studies can help discern whether the decline in welfare case loads results from recipients being dropped from welfare rolls when the term of support ends or from recipients gaining successful employment. Similarly, qualitative studies can help clarify both the extent of economic hardship facing these families and the resources available (and unavailable) to them to meet their family's most basic needs.

On behalf of the AAA, I offer you the assistance and expertise of anthropologists who have been working on poverty, welfare and related issues for many years in your deliberations of TANF. The AAA has focused attention on poverty and welfare reform through publications and scholarly sessions at its Annual Meeting. At least three sessions on welfare reform are scheduled for the upcoming 2001 AAA Annual Meeting November 28-December 2 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, DC. I invite you to attend the following sessions:

"Anthropological Perspectives on Welfare Reform: Politics, Culture and Public Policy" on Friday, November 30th at 1:45-5:30 PM;

"Public Myths Private Realities: The Complexities of Poverty through the Anthropological Lens" on Friday, November 30 at 8:00-11:45 AM; and

"Welfare, Working, and Women in San Antonio, Texas: Observations and Interviews" on Thursday, November 29th at 10:15 AM-Noon.

I call your attention, also, to the upcoming publication of the AAA's journal the American Anthropologist (Volume 103(3)) that will include seven articles focused on social welfare and welfare reform. These articles will address, among other topics, the safety net in New Mexico, the agency of welfare workers, the impact of welfare reform on Harlem's poor. The AAA can provide you a copy of this volume or the articles.

Additionally, the AAA is able to put you directly in touch with anthropologists who are researching poverty and welfare reform.


I look forward to hearing from you.


Louise Lamphere Professor and President

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