Rational and Ecocultural Circumstances of Program Take-Up Among Low-Income Working Parents


Journal Article

New Hope (NH) is a random-assignment, antipoverty program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that offers child care subsidies, wage subsidies, health insurance, and, if needed, a temporary community service job to participants working 30 or more hours per week. Despite the relative generosity of the program and supportive caseworkers, take-up was far from universal, and participants rarely used all services. Ethnographic analysis of a random sample of experimental participants found that NH's economically based offer was theoretically too narrow to motivate all participants. Four categories of personal and family circumstances were associated with take-up: 1) the constrained-by-information group (participants' understandings about the program differed from what NH in fact offered); 2) the disruptive-life group (significant personal troubles and instability); 3) the pro-con group (used often explicit cost-benefit calculations); and 4) the daily-routine group (used particular benefits but only if they helped sustain their family daily routine). Analysis of take-up of other services by the control group showed similar patterns, suggesting that these take-up patterns are not specific to NH. We conclude that use of welfare-to-work interventions reflects ecocultural conditions and personal goals and values, as well as a more conventional cost-benefit approach. Economic rational choice as well as local, situated rationality models are needed to fully account for benefit use

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Gibson, C; Weisner, C

Published Date

  • 2002

Published In

  • Human Organization

Volume / Issue

  • 61 / 2

Start / End Page

  • 154 - 166