Spotlight: An Interview with Scott Allard on his Work, "Out of Reach: Place, Poverty, and the New American Welfare State

Scott W. Allard
WCPC Western Poverty Scholar, 2007-08
Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration
University of Chicago


Scott W. Allard is an Associate Professor in the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration. His primary research interests are in social welfare policy, poverty, and nonprofit organizations in the United States.


Professor Allard has just published the book Out of Reach: Place, Poverty, and the New American Welfare State (Yale University Press (December 16, 2008)) which examines our current system of service programs that are targeted to help the poor, and the role that geography plays in the accessibility of those services. In 2007 Allard presented a portion of this work as a part of the ‘07-‘08 WCPC Seminar series (more).  Professor Allard's work is also highlighted in the November 2008 Poverty Research Flash. WCPC had the opportunity to ask Professor Allard about his thoughts on this important work.


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 William Julius Wilson, Paul 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 and that led to my book Out of Reach: Place, Poverty, and the New American Welfare State. Survey data enabled me to estimate the magnitude of race and place mismatches in the safety net. 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?

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 indicate there was an “access” problem. They always have 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 of 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: Since completing the surveys, the in-depth interviews, and the book, the economic conditions in the U.S. have changed dramatically. We have moved from a jobless recovery that didn’t help workers at the lower end of the labor market to a recession that is severely reducing job opportunities for those at the bottom. As we see every day, the number of working Americans seeking aid from local social-service organizations is rising fast in cities, suburbs, and rural towns across the country. But for many Americans in need, there may not be help available because of cutbacks in government funding and private giving to social services.

Perhaps more worrisome, cutbacks in government aid are putting a terrible strain on social-service organizations, causing many to shut down, reduce caseloads, or eliminate important programs. Given the severity of the downturn ahead, we need our nonprofit organizations to be ready to handle the increases in the demand they will face - we cannot keep weakening them. After all, if the country is to emerge fully from this downturn, we need to make services available that will allow poor families to deal with their economic troubles, find work, and increase their earnings so they may contribute to the recovery.

I think my work has a number of implications for policymakers and practitioners in this uncertain environment.

Although there is pressure to cut government spending for social services, elected officials must maintain our public commitments to social service programs. It may not be possible to expand aid to meet rising needs, but cuts to government programs now proposed in many states and communities will destabilize local nonprofit organizations upon which the safety net rests. Not only does this make it more difficult for people to find help, but it also means that there will be fewer organizations able to help people in the coming months and years. We should view a strong, government-financed safety net as a necessary part of any strategy to emerge from economic recession, rather than a burden that can be discarded to balance budgets.

In addition, my findings suggest that communities should invest resources in improving linkages between poor persons and service providers. Solutions here could range from using information technology to disseminate 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, we need to strengthen our private commitments to the safety net. Even though individuals, corporations, and foundations gave more than $300-billion to charities last year, less than 10 percent of that money was provided to social service organizations; the share of volunteer hours to social service agencies is similarly small. While greater giving will help ensure the safety net better provides help to the poor, communities must help connect private donors and volunteers, many of whom may not live in high-poverty areas or be knowledgeable of the organizations operating in those areas, to nonprofit groups that are working in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.