E-Net News

PERCS examines myths & realities of public assistance

The Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies this fall launched a "Faces of Welfare" initiative in Alamance County.

Elon University senior Jamie Albright is one of several students working with policy makers, public assistance recipients, legal experts and community advocates for an ethnographic study titled "Faces of Welfare" through the Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies.


Students and faculty in Elon University’s Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies are researching the realities faced by people who receive government assistance and the popular misconceptions that persist about many recipients.

The “Faces of Welfare” ethnographic research project is an ongoing, collaborative effort between university scholars, community partners and undergraduate students with the goal of better understanding the experiences of welfare recipients, whose reputations were forever changed by the “welfare queen” narrative devised by former President Ronald Reagan.

The current project, with preliminary findings to be publicized as early as next summer, will provide a more complete picture of public assistance by gathering and analyzing the narratives of those who offer and receive public assistance, as well as from politicians and the general public. The team will examine stories told about public assistance locally, nationally and in the media, with the primary goal of understanding the varied opinions, views and lived experiences of those involved both directly and indirectly in the welfare system.

Among the community partners participating in the initiative are the Department of Social Services in Alamance County, the United Way of Alamance County, the Burlington Housing Authority, the Open Door Clinic, and Allied Churches of Alamance County.

“If we can use the results of this project to influence public policy, both locally, and state level and otherwise, I think that would be tremendous. We can work really hard on the grassroots level, but sometimes policy change is the only way to get change done,” said Heidi Norwick, director of community impact for the United Way of Alamance County.

The research project was launched this fall with a “Faces of Welfare” course taught by Associate Professor Tom Mould in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Students in the course conducted fieldwork at a variety of locations including healthcare clinics, churches, social service agencies, grocery stores and transportation facilities.

Researchers also will be talking with county officials, legal experts, and local and state politicians. To date, students have conducted 63 interviews and focus groups with aid providers, aid recipients, local politicians, cashiers and the broader Alamance County public. Those Elon students are: Jamie Albright, Heather Cassano, Kit Connor, Jessica Elizondo, Greg Honan, Caroline Miller, Alex Sherry, Chessa Simpson, Gloria So, Laura Lee Sturm and Ben Waldon.

Before beginning their fieldwork, students participated in a poverty simulation at the university, experiencing what it is like to live just above the poverty line, including the stress of dealing with childcare needs, eviction notices and healthcare worries while living on a limited income.

In addition to developing academic research articles on the subject, researchers plan to establish a website for housing community narratives, and to host public forums and other community initiatives to encourage ongoing dialogue about these important issues.

Faculty or students interested in joining the Project PERCS initiative are encouraged to contact Mould at tmould@elon.edu.

The Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies is an interdisciplinary program launched at Elon in 2000 to further the understanding and ethical application of ethnographic research across all fields of study.

The Faces of Welfare project is the program’s second Project PERCS initiative; the first study examined life and culture in Cowee in the North Carolina Appalachian region.

The Turnage Family Faculty Innovation and Creativity Fund for the Study of Political Communication made funding for the project possible. Additional resources come from a Teaching and Learning Grant from Elon’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, and an Elon University Community Partnership Initiative Grant.

- Story by Lee Bush in the School of Communications

Eric Townsend,
12/5/2012 2:22 PM