Understanding Poverty: Childhood and Family Experiences


The official poverty rate for the U.S. population is high, at 13.5 percent, and the rate among children is higher still, at 19.7 percent. The body of research examining deep poverty, severe deprivation, and stress associated with poverty in adults has grown steadily with continued interest in recent years; however, qualitative research examining the experiences and perceptions of families and children in poverty remains limited.

Sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and in partnership with MEF Associates, the study lead, MDRC is conducting the Childhood and Family Experiences study as part of the Understanding Poverty project. The project seeks to contribute to a more complete understanding of children’s and families’ experiences of poverty and deep poverty.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The goal of the Childhood and Family Experiences Study is to understand the perspectives of both low-income children and their parents in order to inform ways in which social safety net programs can better serve families living in poverty. In the last few decades, safety net programs have undergone considerable changes. Consequently, families have had to adapt to shifting processes and bureaucracies, new incentives and constraints, and evolving program goals. Research on the experiences of families living in poverty will shed light on how social programs can help parents achieve self-sufficiency while still providing a safety net for all members of the poorest families.

The study will address the following research questions:

  1. What do children understand about their families’ economic circumstances?

  2. How do families talk about public assistance benefits, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)?

  3. How do parents perceive their economic circumstances and benefit receipt as affecting their families and children?

  4. How do parents and their families interact with public assistance offices and workers? If children interact with these offices, what is it like for them?

The current study is being conducted concurrently with the TANF Office Culture Study (which is being led by MEF Associates). The TANF Office Culture Study will explore how organizational culture, office design, and office procedures contribute to shaping clients’ experiences with TANF, the services provided to them, and, potentially, their outcomes. The two distinct studies will inform one another on questions such as how families experiencing poverty interact with human services offices and the social safety net.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The Childhood and Family Experiences study will yield interview data from 30 families. Researchers will conduct interviews with up to two adults and up to two children per family. Families will be recruited and selected from three sites in metro and non-metro areas in states with different welfare and benefit levels. To qualify, families must have at least one child age 7 to 17 in the household willing to participate, self-identify as low-income, and express a willingness to discuss their economic situations, and may, but are not required to, participate in public assistance services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).