Qualitative Research Proposal on Attitudes Toward the Working Poor

This is a research proposal that I completed on 2017-12-06 for the class, EDF 7475: Qualitative Research in Education taught by David Boote, Ph.D. at University of Central Florida. Note that I do not intend to conduct this research.

EDF 7475 Qualitative Research Proposal on Attitudes Toward the Working Poor
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida

Financially, many Americans are not only unprepared for retirement, but also the day-to-day surprises of life. When Americans are asked whether they can “come up with” $2000 within 30 days, nearly half say they could “probably not” or “certainly not” do so (Lusardi, 2011). While this is troubling, one way we can shed light on this phenomenon is to research Americans’ approach to saving and perceptions toward others who are financially struggling.

Purpose

My proposed study is to conduct semi-structured interviews with working-class and privileged Americans about their approach toward saving and their perceptions of others who are struggling financially. My interest here was crystallized from analyzing employee–employer reviews of Rent-A-Center (Glassdoor, 2017) that I selected for complaints about taking advantage of customers (e.g., repossessing children’s beds). However, to my surprise, when coding these interviews, there were more statements deriding the customers as “liars and thieves,” the “worst specimens of humanity,” and as deserving their fates due to their lack of personal responsibility. While in part, this may be due to racism toward African Americans (Gilens, 1996), surprisingly, welfare recipients themselves may tend to consider other welfare recipients “dishonest and idle” (Bullock, 1999). The purpose of this study is to learn, via qualitative methods, about attitudes toward people with financial difficulties from individuals of two socioeconomic strata. A semi-structured interview approach will yield richer data and useful insights that would not appear in a simple questionnaire.

Research Questions

1. What are privileged and working-class Americans’ thoughts toward others who are financially struggling, and how do these attitudes differ between group?
2. How do privileged and working-class Americans differ in their approaches to saving?

Significance of the Project

This study will contribute to research on financial psychology, such as with respect to spending behavior (e.g., Soman, 2001). A wealth of survey data shows a lack of financial literacy in the United States, Europe, and beyond (Lusardi & Mitchell, 2014). Educators and policymakers erroneously presume that financial education is efficacious (Fernandes, Lynch, & Netemeyer, 2014). Meanwhile, inequity in the United States is growing at a breakneck pace, which financially disenfranchises a large proportion of the population (Lusardi, Michaud, & Mitchell, 2017). Looking at differences between the rich and poor in their beliefs about the financially downtrodden may yield useful insights.

Literature Review

When comparing the working poor to the financially privileged, it is important to recognize the two groups are not at all on equal footing. For instance, while using a tangible or immediate payment method like cash or a debit card results in reduced spending (Soman, 2001), the tendency for the working poor to use debit cards, rather than credit or charge cards, engenders delinquency and overdraft fees. Stango and Zinman (2009, 2014) lament that consumers pay an annual average of about $150 per checking account in overdraft fees, and more than half of these are “avoidable,” meaning the consumer has funds available elsewhere that could have paid for their purchase. Moreover, the working poor are disproportionately affected, which may be due to a lack of attention due to many other pressing financial concerns (Stango & Zinman, 2014), and because a $35 overdraft fee does not scale with financial privilege. In fact, banks may be more willing to refund such a fee for those who need it least.

Lusardi and Mitchell (2014) discuss a saddening finding from the U.S. Financial Capability Study (www.usfinancialcapability.org): While 70% of Americans rate their financial knowledge highly, only 30% can actually answer a small number of quite basic financial questions correctly. Less education and being in a vulnerable group, such as African Americans, women, young or old, and rural residence, are all correlated with less financial literacy and by consequence, financial struggles. At a macro level, this undermines American economic stability and perpetuates wealth inequality, including the subjugation and disenfranchisement of vulnerable and protected groups (Lusardi et al., 2017).

Sadly, financial education courses, at least in their present form, do not have lasting beneficial impact on financial behaviors (Fernandes et al., 2014; Mandell, 2012). On the other hand, regulatory reforms (Grubb, 2015) and “nudging” the working poor toward better choices (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008) have merit. However, a complete analysis of the plight of the financially disadvantaged must include our attitudes and attributions. Financial education may implicitly embody these perceptions, thereby patronizing and alienating its intended population, or at the very least, lacking relevance.

Americans tend to have negative attitudes toward the poor. If they believe in the Protestant work ethic or the “just-world” hypothesis, which claims that good and evil actions are eventually rewarded or punished, they may be more likely to blame the poor for their situation (Cozzarelli, Wilkinson, & Tagler, 2001). Individuals who are homeless have been shown to be stigmatized as much or more than the mentally ill, with a general attitude that they should blame themselves for their situations (Phelan, Link, Moore, & Stueve, 1997). “Black welfare mothers” are stigmatized and derided far more than their white counterparts, in part because of availability bias due to politicization (Gilens, 1996). While welfare recipients tend to blame structural rather than individual factors for poverty, they surprisingly view other welfare recipients as dishonest and lazy to a greater extent than middle-class respondents (Bullock, 1999). This finding is in line with my observation of Rent-A-Center employees’ (Glassdoor, 2017) derogatory views toward customers, given Rent-A-Center is not a high-paying job and thus most employees could be classified among the working poor. Attitudes toward poverty, including differences between the poor and financially advantaged, deserve further inquiry.

Research Methods

My research will be organized around in-person semi-structured interviews from purposefully sampled participants who volunteer for this research by responding to solicitations.

Research Site

The research site will be my office, Education Complex, Room 123L, at the University of Central Florida. I share an office with other doctoral students, but will coordinate with their schedules to conduct interviews when I have the room to myself. Because personal finances can be a sensitive topic, this setting may be preferable to a public setting (e.g., a cafeteria) because it offers more privacy. In the office, I will interview participants across a small desk. I will use an audio recording app on my smartphone and a printed interview protocol attached to a clipboard, with space to jot down notes with a pen. This is much less intrusive than taking notes on computer or mobile device during the interview.

Researcher’s Role

I will be interviewing the participants using a semi-structured interview protocol that I developed, conducting brief follow-up contacts with participants for member checking, and conducting analysis and interpretation of the data which will include my rough notes, field notes, and audio recording of the interviews (Creswell & Poth, 2017). Overall, my positionality is as a financial expert and researcher who advocates for educational interventions and industry reforms that benefit the working poor. One weak spot is that I am not personally familiar with having financial difficulties, so it is somewhat challenging to relate to the working poor.

Sampling Method

I will solicit participants via advertisements posted in the Education Complex at UCF and at a nearby country club or other place where privileged people congregate. I may also use email or web solicitations. All solicitations will funnel prospective participants into a Qualtrics questionnaire which will use deception (with approval from the UCF Institutional Review Board) to hide the primary purpose of the research; namely, searching for differences in attitudes toward the financially disadvantaged between working class and privileged individuals. The Qualtrics questionnaire will frame the purpose of the research in general terms about Americans’ attitudes toward saving. Several questions about prospects’ financial and work situations will be included, ostensibly to gauge the financial situation of Americans. I will use responses to these questions to select a number of privileged and working-class participants to contact.

To define the construct of privileged versus working class, I will ask these questions:

1. What is your annual income?
a. $1 – $29,999
b. $30,000 – $74,999
c. $75,000 – $149,999
d. $150,000 or more

To what extent do you agree with the following statements? [Each question will be on a 1-5 Likert-type scale from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree]

2. I could come up with $2000 within 30 days (Lusardi, 2011).
3. I could stop working for a year and live comfortably on either accumulated savings or income from a pension, gifts from family, et cetera without going into debt.
4. I have not had significant financial difficulties in life.

Participants who have higher incomes and agree who tend to agree with the latter three questions will be considered privileged, while others will be considered working class. Participants may be any age 18 or older. I may aim for rough parity in age between groups, but am not specifically interested in age differences (nor gender, ethnicity, etc.) so this would not be preeminent.

Data Collection Methods

When contacting prospects, I will offer participants an incentive of $20 to participate in a 30-minute face-to-face interview at my UCF office. This will be explained as furthering research on financial literacy, education, and attitudes for the public’s benefit. I would likely invite 10 participants per group (privileged and working class) with a goal of five final interviews per group. Because these would already be “warm” prospects who completed a Qualtrics questionnaire that mentioned an in-person interview, conversion rates should be relatively high. For certain participants on an as-needed basis, I may conduct some interviews via recorded telephone call or Skype video chat.

Interviews will be semi-structured, first with the icebreaker question, “what would you do if you received $10,000 unexpectedly right now?” There may be interesting differences between groups in their approach to handling a small windfall. The remainder of the interview will use these guiding questions:

1. Tell me about your approach to saving money.
2. Have you had significant financial struggles in your life?
3. How do you feel about others who are financially struggling?

I will listen carefully to what participants say. Although my research questions are the primary interest, if the interview diverges, this may also be of interest. At the conclusion I will ask them to verify what I have written down (member checking) and I will take notes or make corrections as appropriate. Immediately after I will write up field notes. Later, I will transcribe the audio recording. Subsequently, I will perform thematic coding on the interviews. I anticipate an emergent coding process whereby one or several interviews are coded prior to conducting the rest of the interviews with an interview protocol that may be revised based on prior findings.

I will also be asking participants if they are interested in an optional follow-up interview which can be in-person, by phone, or Skype. Then, I hope to conduct at least one follow-up interview per group to collect more data based on findings that emerge from initial interviews.

Analysis and Trustworthiness

Data analysis plan. I will set the stage for data analysis with detailed field notes and transcripts. Then, I will code the interviews iteratively for meaningful and noteworthy statements. These will be clustered into themes regarding participants’ attitudes toward the financially struggling, in–out group bias, approaches to saving, feelings of self-determination or external locus of control, et cetera. The goal will be to reach thematic saturation, thereby exhaustively describing the phenomenon and enabling analysis of its structure (Creswell & Poth, 2017). This will be an iterative process with revisions between interviews, as I do not expect to conduct all 10 interviews at once.

Establishing validity and trustworthiness. These will partly be established from member checking at the conclusion of interviews, iterative revisions between interviews to address shortcomings, and in at least one follow-up interview per group (privileged and working poor). Conducting interviews in a private, in-person setting may enable trustworthiness by encouraging participants to be frank about their attitudes toward the working poor. Participants will have already completed a sorting questionnaire via Qualtrics, and will be assured their responses will be kept anonymous by use of aliases and, when published, masking or alteration of information that might give away their identities. In particular, this may be important for privileged participants who may be community figures. Overall, the insights from this qualitative investigation should be both practical and entertaining, with a level of validity and trustworthiness comparable to or exceeding that of similar qualitative research.

References

Bullock, H. E. (1999). Attributions for poverty: A comparison of middle-class and welfare recipient attitudes. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 10, 2059–2082. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1999.tb02295.x

Cozzarelli, C., Tagler, M. J., & Wilkinson, A. V. (2001). Attitudes toward the poor and attributions for poverty. Journal of Social Issues57, 207–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/0022-4537.00209

Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2017). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fernandes, D., Lynch, J. G., Jr., & Netemeyer, R. G. (2014). Financial literacy, financial education, and downstream financial behaviors. Management Science, 60, 1861–1883. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2013.1849

Gilens, M. (1996). “Race coding” and white opposition to welfare. The American Political Science Review, 90, 593–604. https://doi.org/10.2307/2082611

Glassdoor (2017). Rent-A-Center Employee Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.glassdoor.com/Reviews/Rent-A-Center-Reviews-E3914.htm

Grubb, M. D. (2015). Consumer inattention and bill-shock regulation. Review of Economic Studies, 82, 219–257. https://doi.org/10.1093/restud/rdu024

Lusardi, A. (2011, December). Why are Americans so bad at saving? Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2011/12/19/143961175/why-are-americans-so-bad-at-saving

Lusardi, A., Michaud, P.-C., & Mitchell, O. S. (2017). Optimal financial knowledge and wealth inequality. Journal of Political Economy, 125, 431–477. https://doi.org/10.1086/690950

Lusardi, A., & Mitchell, O. S. (2014). The economic importance of financial literacy: Theory and evidence. Journal of Economic Literature, 52, 5–44. https://doi.org/10.1257/jel.52.1.5

Mandell, L. (2012). School-based financial education: Not ready for prime time. CFA Institute Research Foundation, 2012(3), 107–124.

Phelan, J., Link, B. G., Moore, R. E., & Stueve, A. (1997). The stigma of homelessness: The impact of the label “homeless” on attitudes toward poor persons. Social Psychology Quarterly, 60, 323–337. https://doi.org/10.2307/2787093

Soman, D. (2001). Effects of payment mechanism on spending behavior: The role of rehearsal and immediacy of payments. Journal of Consumer Research, 27, 460–474. https://doi.org/10.1086/319621

Stango, V., & Zinman, J. (2009). What do consumers really pay on their checking and credit card accounts? Explicit, implicit, and avoidable costs. The American Economic Review, 99, 424–429. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.99.2.424

Stango, V., & Zinman, J. (2014). Limited and varying consumer attention: Evidence from shocks to the salience of bank overdraft fees. The Review of Financial Studies, 27, 990–1030. https://doi.org/10.1093/rfs/hhu008

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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