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Short Title

Who Defines Need?

Abstract

Existing research into participation and nonparticipation in U.S. public assistance programs is nearly all rooted in the assumption that people who meet a program’s eligibility criteria are in need of that program’s assistance. Based on in-depth interviews with members of 75 low-income households, this study argues that the failure to give low-income individuals a voice in defining their own need prevents researchers from understanding how and why these individuals choose to participate, or not participate, in public programs. The disconnect between individual interpretations of need and program eligibility standards pushes us to rethink the design of participation research and program implementation.

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