Q&A: Meet the School of Social Work Ph.D. Student Madri Hall-Faul

Hall-Faul's research focuses on how social welfare policy affects the social and economic rights of families living in poverty.

School of Social Work Ph.D. student Madri Hall-Faul

Madri Hall-Faul is a Ph.D. student at UConn School of Social Work and an instructor of Analysis of Social Welfare Policy and Social Delivery Systems in the Master of Social Work program.

What is the topic of your dissertation?

A. My dissertation focuses on the impact of decentralized policy implementation on the social and economic rights of families living in poverty. I’m interested in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) specifically because it’s a good example of a social safety net program that gives a lot of discretion to states in how they implement it. I’m writing a three-article dissertation that takes a broad and narrow approach to this question of how decentralization impacts the rights of families.

Can you say more about what it means for a policy to be decentralized?

A. The way the United States structures its social welfare programs is through what’s known as federalism, meaning there’s this overarching belief that states and localities are best positioned to implement and shape policies. States have the ability to decide, depending on the level of decentralization of the policy, who is eligible, how much they get for benefits, and what happens if they don’t comply with the rules of the program.

TANF is a block grant, which means that states get this lump sum of money, and they essentially get to decide how they want to spend it. It has very few requirements. Other programs like SNAP, or what’s known as food stamps, have more federal protections and states have more rules to follow in terms of who has access. With TANF, there’s no minimum benefit level. There’s no minimum amount of people that have to be served. It’s not what’s known as an entitlement program. You have this varying level of discretion in how the program is implemented in states. That’s the central idea of my dissertation — looking at what shapes those program implementation decisions and who makes them.

How did you come to focus on this topic?

A. Before I came to the Ph.D. program, I worked for an area agency on aging doing a lot of coalition work focused on the health and well-being of older adults. Over and over again, I saw that older adults with resources had access to better treatment and supports than those who were living in poverty. It seemed to me that poverty was the driving force behind the care that people received and how they aged. It was important to me to address that root cause of economic inequality.

Describe how you’re conducting the research.

A. I’m beginning with the conceptual idea of looking at the policy through a human rights lens for my first paper. Instead of thinking about a needs-based approach that we often see, especially in social work, I’m using a rights-based approach and asking whether this policy recognizes the human dignity of participants. Does it provide for an adequate standard of living? For my second paper, I quantitatively analyze predictors of TANF spending for all 50 states. I look at the factors that shape how budgets are allocated within a state.

My third paper is a case study of Connecticut’s implementation of TANF. I’m curious about how Connecticut ended up with such a restrictive TANF program. Until last year, we had the second shortest time limit in the country. Families could only receive cash assistance for 21 months in their lifetime, with a few exceptions. So, I’m looking into decision making, power, and advocacy in the TANF program in Connecticut to better understand the human rights implications of such a decentralized policy.

What are the preliminary findings?

A. I think one of the most interesting pieces is this idea that TANF can be seen as cash assistance given to states and not to families. States are given this large infusion of money and they use it in whatever ways they see fit. In Tennessee, for example, it was revealed a year ago that they were hoarding more than $700 million in TANF funds that they just weren’t spending on anything or anyone.

In my case study, I’ve seen Connecticut is very efficient in spending its TANF grant. It spends every cent, but it doesn’t spend it on TANF specifically; it spends it on case management for families in the foster care and child welfare systems. It spends it on tax credits initiatives. Connecticut specifically sees its TANF program as a revenue source rather than the program aimed at families and poverty. That perception of TANF is different than how advocates see it. I think that view of the state is an important piece for advocates to know because it could shape how they try to lobby to get the program to expand its reach and be more generous. It could also inform movement for more federal protections to ensure that the money is spent on the intended recipients.

How do you hope to use your findings in the future?

A. I hope to publish my results and to create policy briefs or work with advocacy organizations to translate my research into something that can have meaningful impact. Wherever I land after my Ph.D., I want to form relationships with legislators to provide information about how this program works because many legislators know very little about TANF. A goal I have is to take my research out of the academic context and into more digestible policy briefs for legislators.

Anything else to say about your plans after you complete your dissertation?

A. I hope to get a position at a research university and continue focusing on policy implementation and human rights. I think that we often talk about human rights in an international context, not in a domestic context. It’s important to me to continue thinking about the social and economic rights of families within U.S. borders in both in my dissertation research and other research that I’ve done with Dr. Kathryn Libal, focused on food justice as well as refugee resettlement. These themes of human rights and policy implementation, and how power operates within policy formation, is what I hope to be the common thread throughout my research.

Policy is such an important piece of social work and I hope it comes across in my teaching. I’ve gotten feedback from students that they didn’t care about policy before taking my class, but are now really fired up about it, so it’s exciting to me.