Employment is often a requirement to qualify for many federal assistance programs geared toward poor young families, but a new study shows that people who need the most help often have overwhelmingly high levels of adversity and exposure to violence that can limit their success in the workplace.
With so many challenges faced by young families in poverty, the researchers assert that safety net programs should also integrate services that address trauma.
The study, conducted by the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University, involved Philadelphia families with children under the age of six who are participating in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. This program, which provides monetary assistance to those living in poverty, requires each family’s head of household to work at least 20 hours per week unless they are exempt.
The researchers found that an extremely high number of the participants had witnessed or had been subject to violence, and roughly one-third had an adverse childhood experience (such as abuse or neglect). Additionally, nearly half of the fathers of the participants’ youngest child spent time in prison. The findings made it absolutely clear that such safety net programs need to take the difficulties of poverty into account.
“Programs like TANF require participants to overcome overwhelming stress without proper support. Participants face adversity in their childhoods that cause lifelong mental health challenges and can be barriers to success, “said Mariana Chilton, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities and professor in Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health.
“By acknowledging exposure to trauma and toxic stress and by building in peer support into TANF, programs like our Building Wealth and Health Network can better prepare families for the workforce and help them to break out of poverty.”
Families who were part of the center’s study also participated in the Building Wealth and Health Network, a program that offers trauma-informed peer support groups and financial empowerment classes. As part of the class, the participants open savings accounts and, through grant funding, the center matches their deposits.
The study involved 103 participants, 94 percent of whom were women. According to the data, 65 percent had seen someone who had been seriously wounded by violence and 27 percent saw someone being killed. On top of that, 60 percent said they’d been slapped, punched or hit, 30 percent said they’d been beaten up or mugged and over 17 percent said they’d been attacked or stabbed with a knife.
When it came to adverse childhood experiences, 43 percent of the participants reported that a household member had engaged in substance abuse, 37 percent reported emotional abuse, and 18 percent had been sexually abused.
Almost 60 percent of the participants reported depression and slightly more than half said they felt their food situation was threatened or insecure.
All of these numbers were significantly higher than a representative sample of the population of Philadelphia.
Although these findings show that TANF participants face many challenges when trying to gain steady employment, most of them scored quite high on a scale established to measure employment hope. In fact, a little more than 20 percent had the top score. On a scale for self-efficacy, the participants again ranked relatively high, slightly exceeding the national average.
“These results prove that people receiving TANF benefits are highly motivated and confident in their career readiness, but face many obstacles in achieving their goals,” said Falguni Patel, M.P.H., research manager of the Building Wealth and Health Network. “Our public assistance programs need to improve those programs so more people can be successful.”
With so many challenges faced by young families in poverty, safety net programs like TANF need to integrate programs and services that address trauma. The research shows that TANF participants want to work but need access to programs that address financial and psychological adversity, like the Building Wealth and Health Network, to ensure potential success in the workforce.
“Our research shows that the adversities faced by families in poverty can be overcome. Through a trauma-informed approach, families can gain the skills and support they need in order to break the cycle of poverty,” said Patel. “Our goal is to see these findings inform TANF and other programs so they are more focused on the needs and therefore success of the participants.”
The study is published in the journal BMC Public Health.
Source: Drexel University