The Value of Qualitative and Mixed-Methods Research: Examples from our Portfolio on the Social Settings of Youth Development
Taken together, these studies produced deep insights that would not have been accessible through quantitative research alone.
As part of our former research initiative on understanding youth social settings, which ran from 2004 to 2014, the Foundation funded a number of projects that illustrate the unique potential of qualitative research, especially when it is integrated as part of a mixed-methods study. While these projects predated the Foundation’s reducing inequality initiative, a handful intersect with our current interest in identifying effective strategies to reduce inequality in youth outcomes.
Moving to Opportunity
One notable example centers on a pressing social problem: how to improve the quality of the neighborhoods where poor families live. In 1994, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Moving to Opportunity program (MTO), a randomized housing mobility experiment that ran for four years and provided poor families the opportunity to move into non-poor neighborhoods. The guiding principle of the program was that living in better resourced neighborhoods—those that are safer and have less poverty and better performing schools—would improve youth outcomes.
The experiment was conducted in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. MTO focused on families with children who were living in public housing located in high-poverty neighborhoods, where the rate of poverty exceeded 40 percent. The program gave 4,600 eligible families the chance to move to private-market housing in better off neighborhoods. Families were randomly assigned to one of three groups: those that received housing vouchers that they could use only in low-poverty neighborhoods, those that received traditional Section 8 housing vouchers that they could use anywhere, and those that received no vouchers.
We might assume that incentives to move would seem prone to fail, because families are not interested in moving to or staying in more advantaged neighborhoods. But findings from the qualitative work suggest quite a different response.
Families were interviewed 10 to 15 years later as part of the program evaluation, which was designed to reveal the program’s long-term effects, as well as the mechanisms for those effects and how they unfolded over time. As Mario Small points out, MTO serves as a powerful example of a nested mixed-methods design. Nested data refers to multiple types of data being drawn from the “same actors, organizations, or entities.” These kinds of studies have been especially effective in policy research that includes randomized control trials. In the case of MTO, all participants were surveyed, and a random subsample was selected for in-depth interviews or observations.
The quantitative analyses of MTO revealed that a majority of families did not use their vouchers to move, and even those who did move did not stay long in their new, better resourced neighborhoods. Of the latter group, some subsequently moved into high-poverty areas. These outcomes were contrary to the goals of MTO, and the findings were disappointing to the policymakers who had pushed for the program. The critical question was why?
Conventional wisdom suggested that poor families did not gravitate to or stay in better off neighborhoods because they simply “did not want to” live among neighbors so different from them. This is where Kathryn Edin and her fellow qualitative researchers stepped in to find answers.
The team’s findings ultimately contradicted the assumptions of the conventional wisdom. With funding from our Foundation, Edin and colleagues conducted two rounds of qualitative interviews and neighborhood and classroom observations for the MTO evaluation in Baltimore and Chicago, from 2003-2004, and again from 2010-2011. They found that families in low-poverty neighborhoods did in fact appreciate their advantages, and did not leave out of discomfort with the neighborhoods’ racial and economic diversity. Instead, they tended to leave because of problems with their landlords or their rental units. Typical problems included a hike in rent that exceeded the program’s guidelines, or a major maintenance issue that went unaddressed. Sometimes units did not meet the standards required by annual inspections. Families who experienced these challenges tended to return to high poverty areas because they found it difficult to navigate housing markets that were so highly segregated. Many needed more counseling than MTO could provide.
We might assume that incentives to move would seem prone to fail, because families are not interested in moving to or staying in more advantaged neighborhoods. But findings from the qualitative work suggest quite a different response, and in fact contribute to a case for incentives or sanctions for landlords to maintain their rental units, as well as more one-on-one support for families during and following their initial move.
Interviewers found that the families made the decision to live in high-poverty areas based on a calculus derived from a long history of living in impoverished housing circumstances. To start with, the families had low expectations for the quality of their neighborhoods. They believed that if they kept to themselves, their children would stay safe. If they moved back to a high-poverty neighborhood, the families took comfort in living “on a good block” in an unsafe neighborhood. Families had similarly low expectations for their children’s schools: though the schools may have been poor quality, some parents believed that their children’s hard work in school mattered more than the school itself.
Housing Choice Vouchers
Stefanie DeLuca, a former William T. Grant Scholar (2008-2013), had been an interviewer for the MTO Baltimore study in 2003-2004, and was a co-Principal Investigator with Kathryn Edin for the 2010-2011 work. As part of her Scholars award, DeLuca and her team sought to answer a similar set of questions around Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV), formerly known as Section 8. Families could use these vouchers to rent a home in the private market, as long as the landlord was willing to participate in the program. HCV also are designed to help minority families move into neighborhoods with more racial and economic integration than the ones where they were living.
Like MTO, HCV’s disappointing outcomes raised questions: “Given its potential, why hasn’t the HCV program been more effective in helping minority families move into lower poverty, less segregated neighborhoods?”
Their analyses showcase how individuals and institutions interact in ways that policymakers need to understand.
To find the answers, DeLuca and her team conducted four years of fieldwork with 100 low-income African-American parents in the Mobile metro area of Alabama. These parents were a sub-sample of the households in the Mobile Youth Survey (MYS), which surveyed 10- to 18-year-olds living in 13 of the area’s poorest communities, from 1998-2011. MYS was designed to investigate the factors involved with violence, sexually risky behavior, and substance use and abuse among young people and adults. In interviewing the heads of household and observing how they actually lived— having meals together, socializing with their family and friends, attending community meetings, and joining them on housing searches—the team was able to understand the significant constraints faced by families. Their analyses showcase how individuals and institutions interact in ways that policymakers need to understand if they want more families to use the vouchers to live in lower poverty, less segregated neighborhoods.
Specifically, DeLuca and colleagues found that families had difficulty meeting the federally mandated window of 60 days to find a home using their housing voucher (extensions are discretionary, and, during this project, were rarely granted in Mobile). Families without cars were especially stymied. Lists of available units provided by the housing authority did not prove to be very helpful, as they were often out of date. Here, as in MTO, families had to navigate a housing market with more “affordable rentals in lower-income neighborhoods.”
Indeed, as Burton, Welsh, and Small have illustrated in other examples, the gatekeepers of the resources were a big part of the story. Federal evaluation guidelines of public housing authority employees offer relatively few points to staff for succeeding in helping families move to low-poverty and non-segregated neighborhoods. Staff therefore may have little incentive to make this a priority. Similarly, in addition to housing authorities, landlords who participate in the program are also gatekeepers, and DeLuca and her colleagues rightfully call out the need for researchers to understand how the program incentivizes or dis-incentivizes certain behaviors on their part.
Despite the scope of the challenge, research that thoughtfully considers the types of “how” and “why” questions that qualitative methods are well-suited to answering can form a body of knowledge that leads to change, helps reduce inequality, and improves opportunities and outcomes for young people across the country.
Taken together, these studies produced deep insights that would not have been accessible through quantitative research alone. The qualitative research in these examples showed why well-intentioned policies that were designed to improve poor families’ neighborhood quality as a means of improving youth outcomes were less effective than envisioned. The research also generated important and useful hypotheses about how to improve and strengthen the policies. A particular challenge with “black box” randomized controlled trials is a focus on whether the intervention worked or did not work. While this approach is certainly important, it misses key pieces of the puzzle that could tell us how to improve what is already in place.
Further, the insights from the housing studies expose unanswered questions for researchers to investigate, including how organizational practices can incorporate the knowledge generated about how families, landlords, and institutions engage with one another. The insights reveal the lived experiences behind the quantifiable outcomes, and spell out compelling hypotheses that may be tested in future quantitative work.
In their new book, Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist, and Kathryn Edin draw on their interviews and observations with Baltimore youth to tell the story of a “glass half full and a glass half empty.” Thanks to their own resilience and the impact of policies that have improved their neighborhoods, most of these young people had climbed out of poverty and were doing better than their parents. And yet, due to roadblocks in college access and an exploitative labor market, most have fallen short of their own expectations and probable potential. They found themselves in low wage jobs with few prospects for stability and advancement. We still have more to know in order to reduce inequality in youth outcomes, including how to spur more effective uptake of services. Qualitative and mixed-methods studies that illuminate how and why programs succeed or fail to achieve their intended outcomes are essential to this task.
The strength of qualitative research is that it can tap into the unexpected; it can generate unanticipated insights that lead to new discoveries, generate fresh questions, and challenge even our own assumptions. But, as a longtime funder of research, we know that discipline, forethought, and adherence to well-thought out research plans are fundamental aspects of this work. As Eli Lieber writes, proposals that demonstrate “fluency and awareness at all stages—from clearly articulated research questions, to well-chosen methods and designs, to a keen eye on how findings will support meaningful conclusions—often make the most convincing case that they will lead to important and sound research.” In addition to Eli’s suggestions for applicants, and the examples and ideas I’ve shared in this essay, we have also compiled annotated excerpts from successful research proposals, which we encourage all potential applicants to review.
We hope that these resources help you to envision the types of qualitative and mixed methods research that we know are vital to the pursuit of our mission. Despite the scope of the challenge, research that thoughtfully considers the types of “how” and “why” questions that qualitative methods are well-suited to answering can form a body of knowledge that leads to change, helps reduce inequality, and improves opportunities and outcomes for young people across the country.