Getting There of Losing Out: Place, Race, and Access to the Safety Net

Presented by Scott Allard
John Hazen White Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, Brown University
On Monday, December 3rd, 2007 at the Evans School of Public Affairs


Discussion of race and poverty in America lays clear the connections between place, racial segregation, and concentrated poverty in urban and rural communities. Less obvious is the relationship between place and the manner in which the safety net delivers antipoverty assistance to those in need. Because social service programs are a primary method of providing assistance to the poor, however, place is increasingly relevant to the delivery and receipt of safety net assistance than we might otherwise assume. While one can receive a welfare check in the mail or have a food stamp allocation placed on an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, job training services or domestic violence counseling cannot be delivered to one’s home typically. Living in a community where relevant social service agencies are located is essential, therefore, to receiving assistance. In this paper, I compare spatial variation in access to social services across different race and ethnic groups in seven different urban and rural locations. I find evidence of significant racial inequalities in access to the safety net, in that blacks and Hispanics have access to far fewer social service opportunities than whites across a range of urban and rural settings. These race-based mismatches in the location of safety net assistance not only have important implications for the study of race and poverty, but for antipoverty policy and program administration in the future.

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Scott Allard is a West Coast Poverty Center Poverty and Policy Small Grant recipient (2006-2007) for his work Out of Place: The Geography of the Safety Net in the West. This work examines the delivery and financing of social services in Los Angeles, Southeastern New Mexico, and the border counties of Southern Oregon and Northern California. Professor Allard’s project will cast insight into location decisions of providers, mismatches between services and areas in need, challenges of funding services, and salient barriers to service receipt.

Allard’s research is focused upon understanding spatial variation in welfare-to-work program outcomes and upon the evolution of antipoverty assistance in America. His forthcoming book Out of Place: The New Geography of Welfare Policy (Yale University Press, Summer 2008) looks at key aspects of the changing social safety net system in the United States. He previously had a faculty appointment in the Department of Public Administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

The West Coast Poverty Center took this opportunity to ask Professor Allard about his thoughts on his upcoming book.

WCPC: How did you become interested in the role that race and geography play in individuals' abilities to access the safety net?

Allard: The work by Wilson, Jargowsky, and others exploring the connections between place, race, and poverty has always interested me. I began exploring the relationship between access to jobs and welfare-to-work transitions among welfare recipients in the mid-1990s, then became aware of how welfare assistance was shifting away from cash assistance. Shifts in the character of welfare assistance led me to start thinking about place, poverty, and the safety net. I wrote a few articles about access to mental health and substance abuse services in Detroit with Richard Tolman and Daniel Rosen, which gave me a glimpse as to how racial inequality may be reinforced and exacerbated by mismatches in access to the safety net. Scholars had discussed racial and spatial gaps in access to the safety net, but most of the focus remained on welfare cash assistance because that is what the government counted and tracked. Those projects led me to build a database containing a broader array of social service providers in three other cities that eventually became the Multi-City Survey of Social Service Providers. Once I had survey data from providers, I was able to estimate how big the race and place mismatches actually were. To be honest, I was surprised by how big the gaps in access to safety net assistance were – I hadn’t expected the disparities between whites, blacks, and Hispanics to reach such a magnitude across so many different social service sectors. The unique survey data has been critical to telling a compelling story that connects issues of poverty and race to the realities of the contemporary safety net and the challenges confronting nonprofit service organizations today.

WCPC: What is the most interesting or attractive part about working with the in-depth interviews form social service providers? (Please feel free to also discuss the interview/ data collection process)

Allard: In-depth interviews helped me to understand how place worked or mattered in different communities. It is hard to envision the narrow winding roads in southeastern Kentucky through a telephone survey, or to imagine the difficulty of commuting in the mountainous timber country of southern Oregon from looking at a spreadsheet. Interviews also helped me to see where my analysis of the larger survey data set was spot on and where I might have been missing part of the story. For instance, when I began in-depth interviews, providers didn’t think there was an “access” problem. They always had demand for services that exceeded their supply of assistance, so access couldn’t be an issue. Yet, it became apparent that when providers were talking about program funding, difficulties finding qualified staff, and rising operating costs, they were talking about issues that constrained their choices over where to locate. While the surveys highlight the accessibility issues, the in-depth interviews showed providers were juggling multiple constituencies and obligations that helped explain why location choices were made. In-depth interviews also highlighted the racial and class discrimination social service providers experienced when seeking to rent office space.

It has been interesting to compare the process of collecting survey data to that of completing in-depth interviews. When you are conducting a survey, you want interviews to be completed exactly the same way for each respondent. The goal is to get reliable and valid measures, even if it means losing some of the more interesting details or subtleties of a particular case. In-depth interviews demand that you begin with fewer assumptions about what the answers might be and allow you to immerse yourself in the organizational or community context. When you conduct both types of data collection properly, your findings have a rigor, depth, and breadth that is not possible to achieve through a survey or fieldwork alone.

WCPC: What was the most significant finding to you?

Allard: Two findings are of particular significance to me. First, as I noted above, I did not expect to find such substantial spatial mismatches in access to social service providers by race and poverty rate. Yet, high poverty areas and neighborhoods with large percentages of racial minorities have about half as much access to social service providers as do low poverty neighborhoods or areas that are predominately white. Such results underscore the barriers to opportunity that poor populations and racial minorities encounter in America today. Second, I thought the evidence of substantial volatility in programs and operations among social service agencies highlights the fragility of our safety net, which compounds issues of mismatch. In part this volatility is due to the fact that many service organizations are dependent on a limited number of revenue sources. Volatility is also due to the fact that social service programs are the most vulnerable in public budgeting processes. Whatever the source, instability within the social service sector makes it difficult for working poor populations to receive needed assistance and it undermines the ability of service organizations to strengthen poor communities.

WCPC: What questions does this research raise for future inquiry?

Allard: I think this project suggests that scholars need to spend more time thinking about how communities assist working poor populations. In part this means collecting better data, which will reflect geographic variation in need, work, program participation, and the availability of social assistance. Better data will help cast insight into how issues of service accessibility affect individual outcomes. Scholars also should develop better theories and models to reflect the reality of today’s safety net. Since social service programs are central to how American society helps the working poor, we should explore how service delivery, accessibility, program attrition, and organizational stability vary across states and communities. Increasingly our focus should be on social service program participation, rather than welfare cash assistance. The fact that nonprofit service organizations rest at the core of the modern safety net has implications for issues of equity, accountability, and efficiency. To this point, I think scholars should do more to investigate the nature and consequences of the institutional fragmentation that characterizes local safety nets.

WCPC: What implications does this study have for policy makers?

Allard: I see many implications of this work for both policy makers and practitioners. In particular, my findings suggest that communities should invest resources in improving linkages between poor persons and service providers. Solutions here could range from better methods of disseminating information about social service programs to improving client referral and tracking processes. Where mismatches exist, policymakers should seek to help local nonprofit organizations locate quality, affordable office space located in close proximity to poor populations. Community leaders also need to be aware of the challenges that rising poverty rates in suburban America poses for delivering safety net assistance. Many suburban communities have few service agencies and few public resources to devote to antipoverty programs. Finally, policymakers and practitioners should help nonprofit service organizations diversify their revenue bases to minimize organizational instability over the long-run and to cultivate greater private support for programs. At the same time, federal, state, and local government need to maintain our public commitments to social service programs so as not to create a “subtraction ripple effect,” where cuts in public funding weakens the nonprofit base upon which local safety nets rest.