How accessible are private social safety net programs in Durham?

Senior economics and public policy student David Deng spent this past fall semester visiting Durham homes and conducting an in-depth research project to gauge access to private social safety net services.

The private social safety net is a network of service providers  offering a goods and services including: job training, child care, adult education programs, housing assistance, substance abuse treatment, and food and cash assistance. The private safety net often plays a crucial role in meeting the needs of poor families, especially when public assistance is lacking. 

Due to the major influence of the private social safety net, there is a growing body of research studying the accessibility of these services that target low-income families. In communities where resources are scarce, location can be an important determinant of whether someone takes advantage of existing goods or services.

“Service providers rely upon local resources drawn from the community in which they operate, [thus] they tend to avoid locating in impoverished regions, where the presence of adequate facilities and financial resources is limited,” said Deng.

Traditional research methods have tried to approximate access to services by spatial equality, using the density of service providers within a given area of land. This approach makes the assumption that low-income families have greater access to social safety net services if they live in areas with a higher density of service providers, which means that they exhibit high spatial equality. Research conducted by Scott Allard, associate professor at University of Chicago and a leading researcher on the geography of poverty, suggests that there is low spatial equality and a lower density of service providers in the poorest communities.

This finding may be troubling, given that the implication is that services are not reaching the neediest populations. However, these conclusions were drawn based on spatial equality measures, which rely on the perspective of the service providers to gauge accessibility.

“Mapping accessibility in terms of how well resources are supplied, without considering demand, cannot provide a complete picture of the private safety net,” said Deng.

The missing side of the accessibility question is the client perspective. Few studies have measured access to social safety net services from the viewpoint of the poor.  Deng approached his research hoping to address this flaw by speaking directly with low-income residents in Durham.

In order to test whether low-income Durham residents living in high service-density or low service-density areas experienced varying levels of access to service providers, he conducted thirty-one interviews with local families asking them questions such as, “In the last six months, were there times when you or your family ran short of something or struggled to get something you needed? Was it easy or difficult to get to places for help?” 

Through these conversations Deng found that distance to service providers did not affect perceptions of access to services among low-income Durham residents.  Those living both in higher and lower density service areas experienced comparable and adequate levels of access.

Deng offered several reasons that his findings may seem inconsistent with previous spatial equality literature. According to Allard, smaller cities tend to exhibit less spatial inequality in the private safety net.  It is easier to reach the services when they are close by, and smaller cities have less complex transportation constraints and fewer transaction costs than larger cities.  

Another potential explanation is that among the Durham residents interviewed, the most commonly sought services were cash and food assistance. In general, food and cash assistance tended to be more abundant and better distributed. The spatial proximity measure may not adequately account for this imbalanced demand.

Deng’s research has exposed several areas for improvement in welfare and social service provision research.  When making plans for low-income service provision, policymakers must pay attention not only to the presence of service providers, but also to the size of a city, the voices of the residents in low-income areas, and the types of services that residents require. 

For Deng, addressing issues of poverty and welfare is a long-term goal, which started before this project.  He intends to serve in the PeaceCorps before moving onto a full-time career.