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'Voices of Welfare' website shares stories of public assistance

An initiative co-led by Elon's Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies created a website this spring to give a human face to the recipients of government aid in local communities alongside national data about welfare services.

Elon University alumna Jamie Albright '13 was one of several students who contributed to the "Voices of Welfare" project when she collected data in the fall of 2012 from several residents of Alamance County, N.C.

A new website developed by Elon University’s Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies and several nonprofit agencies offers personal stories that shed light on the motivations and experiences of those who receive government assistance.

The PERCS program website also shares information and statistics about public assistance in the United States, North Carolina and Alamance County.

Based on more than 100 interviews in Alamance County over the past three years, “Voices of Welfare”—http://blogs.elon.edu/voicesofwelfare—aims to create a deeper understanding of issues related to poverty for both local and national audiences. The website presents stories told by aid recipients, aid providers, public officials and members of the general public.

It also emphasizes six points that researchers concluded from their work: Aid recipients don’t gets rich on welfare; economic dependence is caused by poverty, not government aid; welfare goes to the needy, who are often children, women and ethnic minorities; most aid recipients want to work and many do; increased welfare benefits are not among the reasons women cite for having children; and alcohol and drug abuse spans all classes, from the very rich to the very poor, and are not significantly more common among aid recipients.

Many of the aid recipients interviewed for the project expressed frustration about their situations and their desires to work, but due to divorce, disability or other life circumstances, found that government aid was their only option to safely raise children or keep the roof over their heads.

For example, after raising her biological children, one woman receiving government aid found herself caring for the children of friends whose own family circumstances made it difficult for them to provide care. Another was married and working in the military when she had her three children, but after a divorce and injuries that put her on disability, she found herself overqualified for half the jobs that were open and under-qualified for the rest. Today she has a job, but with a child with severe medical issues, she continues to need help with medical insurance.

One man fell and broke a hip that without proper medical attention never healed properly. He now walks with a permanent limp, no longer able to bike to work or stand for long shifts, and relies on a local homeless shelter for food and lodging until approved for disability payments to help him get back on his feet.

These stories, coupled with current research and statistics on the website, help provide a more complete picture of public assistance in the United States.

Among the contributing 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. Fifteen Elon University students worked with Associate Professor Tom Mould, director of the PERCS program, to record and analyze the interviews.

“Voices of Welfare” was made possible by funding from Elon University and its Turnage Family Faculty Innovation and Creativity Fund for the Study of Political Communication.

The project website allows visitors to sign up for occasional updates when new stories and resources are added. Links to Alamance County community agencies also offer more information for stakeholders seeking educational resources.

One of the main goals of the project, and the website, is to tackle the myths of welfare without perpetuating them. Rather than repeat the myths, Mould said, the research team has developed the top “truths” about welfare, based on national and local surveys. The results challenge many of the assumptions made about welfare recipients from people at both ends of the political spectrum.

“Much of the news coverage about welfare recipients centers around cases of fraud,” Mould said. “A few of the people we talked to acknowledged that they have occasionally sold food stamps, but they also explained why they do it, something rarely addressed in the accusations of widespread fraud mentioned in the mass media.”

The reality is that some people sell a portion of their food stamps in order to pay for bills or services that government assistance doesn’t cover, he said.

And though fraud does exist, Mould said, it is a relatively small percentage of the overall funding for government assistance to the poor. Popular notions of welfare frauds simply don’t represent the reality of recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and food stamps, he said. It’s projects like “Voices of Welfare” that chip away at those myths.

“We recognize the power of stories and narratives when we’re combatting legends,” Mould said. “We want to replace those legends with the stories of real people.”

Eric Townsend,
4/2/2014 9:00 AM