Understanding Poverty: Childhood and Family Experiences and TANF Office Culture, 2016 - 2021

The Understanding Poverty project, which is being conducted by MEF Associates in partnership with MDRC, is examining the organizational culture of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) offices and the perspectives of families and children living in poverty.

  • TANF Organizational Culture Study

This study is exploring how organizational culture, office design, and office procedures contribute to shaping clients’ experiences with TANF, the services provided to them, and potentially their outcomes. The concept of organizational culture encompasses the organization’s mission and vision in relation to its clients and the shared objectives guiding its work as well as values, attitudes, expectations, assumptions, and norms. It also manifests in more concrete, everyday ways—such as physical location and office design, staff training, staffing decisions, employee decision-making and interactions with clients, and written procedures and materials. Fieldwork is focusing on exemplars of productive client-oriented office settings and organizational processes and culture and/or TANF offices that have made conscious attempts at organizational culture change.

  • Childhood and Family Experiences Study

This study is examining the experiences and perspectives of children and families living in poverty, including those who apply for and access TANF and other safety net benefits. A large body of research spanning decades has reflected a range of psychological, educational, health, and other serious and sometimes long-term impacts associated with severe economic disadvantage in childhood. While there is a growing literature on the lived experiences of adults in conditions of severe deprivation, less is known about how children of various ages experience, perceive, and view the day-to-day circumstances of living in poverty. Interviews with children and youth as well as their parents are intended to facilitate a deeper understanding of what children understand about their families’ economic circumstances, how families talk about public assistance benefits, and other aspects of their life experiences. 

Both studies under the Understanding Poverty project include a literature review, consultations with experts in the field, and site-based fieldwork. Taken together, the findings of this inquiry can be expected to improve the field’s understanding of the experiences of children living in poverty and their families, including how the TANF program and organizational culture affect individuals within this population.

The points of contact are Amelia Popham and Lauren Deutsch.

Related Resources

This infographic distills key findings from a literature review conducted as part of the Understanding Poverty: TANF Office Culture study sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The full literature review identifies key factors associated with a positive organizational culture as well as accompanying strategies TANF offices may employ to promote positive organizational culture.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is designed to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency by providing cash assistance and promoting job preparation, work, marriage, and two-parent families. States receive block grants from the federal government to design and operate TANF cash assistance programs in addition to other benefits and services that promote these goals.

One in five American children — 14.5 million — live in poverty, with even higher proportions among groups such as black and Hispanic children and those in rural areas. While the scholarly literature on families experiencing poverty is sizable, relatively little attention has been paid to how children describe what it is like to be poor, their thoughts and feelings about their economic status...

While there are many important facets to developing an understanding of how to best serve low-income families, two crucial components are the operations of the programs themselves and the perspectives of families and children living in poverty. The Understanding Poverty study, which is being conducted by MEF Associates in partnership with MDRC, will examine the organizational culture of TANF offices and the perspectives of families and children living in poverty...