Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: “Money Is a Burden”: Using Qualitative Research to Inform Policy Surrounding Household Finances

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 8:50 AM
Brickell Prefunction (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Diana Elliott, The Pew Charitable Trusts
Our collective understanding of the health of the economy is often derived from macro-economic indicators. Consequently, our data and policy tend to feel far removed from the financial realities of many Americans’ lives. One example of this is the unemployment rate. It is a key indicator, for example, as to whether the economy is in a recession. Its release every month can cause the stock market to rise or fall depending on its outcome. By reifying it in this way, it is possible to forget that the unemployment rate is based upon survey responses from the American public about their work situation in the previous week.  Thus, policy discussions often over-emphasize the importance of “large-scale” indicators, all the while obscuring the contexts of the households and people that drive the economy.

One way to address this shortcoming within economic and financial policy discussions is to better integrate qualitative research into our understanding of quantitative data.  Doing so restores the diverse lives of American families back into the debate, and encourages us to think differently about how policy could best improve their circumstances. At the very least, better integrating families’ assessments of their own financial lives would undoubtedly improve the data collection behind many of our large-scale government surveys.

This paper explores these ideas by presenting a case study of findings from six focus groups conducted prior to the creation of Pew’s “Survey of American Family Finances.” Throughout the course of the project, we learned through Americans’ own words how they thought about and talked about their financial situations—resulting in a better understanding of how to put families on a more secure financial footing. This paper documents how we designed our focus groups in advance of the survey, what lessons we learned about questions we had assumed were successful and the questions we did not know needed to be asked, and how this qualitative work has informed our policy thinking moving forward.  The best policies are designed to meet families where they are at.  As we learned in the course of this project, families may be far from where researchers and policymakers think they should be.  By truly listening to Americans discuss their finances in their own words, we can develop a deeper understanding of why Americans may be falling short and what can be done to help them.