In the United States, the system of child welfare acts as a powerful and complex structural agent in the lives of families, especially those living in poverty. According to the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, children living in poverty are three times as likely to be abused and about seven times more likely to be neglected (Sedlak et al., 2010). However, many scholars and activists have critiqued the system of child welfare for ignoring the interconnected issues of poverty (Lindsey, 2003; Pelton, 1989; Roberts, 1999), gender inequality (Mink, 1995; Roberts, 1995, 1999), and the racialization of the system (Roberts, 1995, 1999, 2002). Scholars argue that studying the perceptions of the causes of poverty is warranted because individuals' perceptions shape behavior toward poor people and actions related to poverty (Strier, 2008), yet research on child welfare workers' perceptions of the causes of poverty is lacking. This dissertation presents a grounded theory informed study, shaped by an intersectional analysis that explores how public and tribal child welfare workers think about poverty, by examining their construction of poverty, perceptions of its causes, and how workers translate these into their practice framework. From individual interviews with 30 public and tribal child welfare workers throughout Minnesota, a nascent theory developed that describes these workers making sense of poverty in child welfare, depicted in a theoretical model. Findings include that the main way workers defined poverty was "not meeting basic needs." Three of the causal explanations of poverty workers identified built on findings from prior perception of poverty studies: individual cause, structural/systemic cause, and luck, while a fourth main causal explanation rose from the data, which was family/generational cause. In addition, the workers in this study had more to say about what child welfare workers could not do to address poverty than what child welfare workers could do. The two main strategies workers stated that child welfare workers could take to address poverty were being "resource brokers" and having an advocacy perspective. Lastly, workers perceived their social location, specifically class, and somewhat their race and their gender, had an impact on how they thought about poverty. The implications of these findings include child welfare reforms that respond to the structural and internalized limitations workers experience when addressing poverty which extends to the frame of poverty as child welfare issue, and social work education and child welfare training that starts with the historical realities of the United States and situates how racial and gender inequality today continue because of the federal, state and local policies that supported race-based and gender-based discrimination, limiting the access to resources and assets that impacted the evolution of wealth in this country.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2013. Major: Social Work. Advisor: Elizabeth Lightfoot. 1 computer file (PDF); v, 206 pages.
Making Sense of Poverty in Child Welfare: A Grounded Theory Informed Study of Public and Tribal Child Welfare Workers' Poverty Constructions, Perceptions of Causes, and Praxis.
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