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Refugees -- United States -- Social conditions, Social work with refugees, Poverty -- Research


Background: This study is among the first to calculate refugee poverty using the capability approach in the United States. The concept is novel as it avoids limitations of the monetary approach to poverty and provides a more comprehensive perspective on multiple deprivations that refugees might experience within their first five years of arrival to the United States. As the majority of refugees flee war or conflict-affected areas, they frequently escape with limited assets (Jacobsen, 2005; Potocky & Naseh, 2019). Often they spend their last resources on paying the smugglers to reach safety (Jacobsen, 2005) and arrive to host countries with limited to no belongings. Lack of assets, limited social support, physical or mental harms caused by forced displacement, lack of familiarity with the language, and under-evaluation of skills in host countries can result in multiple deprivations in refugees’ lives after resettlement (Ekren, 2018; Lewig et al., 2010; Potocky & Naseh, 2019; Zetter & Ruaudel, 2018).

Conceptual framework: The most commonly used method for calculating poverty and separating poor, those in need of assistance, from non-poor, those usually not qualifying to receive help, is the monetary approach to poverty. In the monetary approach to poverty, households or individuals are labeled as poor if their income or expenditures are lower than pre-defined poverty lines (Haughton & Khandker, 2009). Although the monetary approach to poverty is a popular method, it has major limitations associated with using money as a proxy to quantify deprivations. The capability approach to poverty was introduced by Sen as a response to the limitations of the monetary approach to poverty (Sen, 1988, 1999). The capability approach argues that wellbeing is about opportunities that individuals or groups have to live the lives that they have reason to value (Robeyns, 2005). Among the more popular indices based on the capability approach is the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). An adjusted version of the MPI (aMPI) was used in this study.

Methods: The 2016 Annual Survey of Refugees (ASR) dataset was utilized to explore multidimensional poverty among a representative sample of refugees in the United States. Provided U.S. census microdata by the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) USA (Ruggles et al., 2019) was also used to compare the calculated multidimensional poverty rates among refugees with the general population. The aMPI was calculated based on the sum of the equally weighted poverty scores (1/3 or 0.33) in the three dimensions of education (indicator: school attainment), health (indicators: a. chronic diseases and b. disabilities), and standards of living (indicators: a. receiving food stamps, b. Refugee Cash Assistance [RCA], c. Supplemental Security Income [SSI], d. General Assistance [GA], e. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families [TANF], and f. living in public housing project). A household was categorized as poor if the aMPI score was 33.3% or greater. To better understand the calculated multidimensional poverty rates for refugees, these numbers were compared with poverty rates among the general population in the United States using the IPUMS USA online tool and the 2016 ACS dataset (Ruggles et al., 2019).

Results: Multidimensional poverty among the surveyed households was around 63% (n=952). Poverty in the education dimension was 61% (n=921). In the health dimension, around 19% of the households (n= 284) had at least one member with a chronic health condition and around 10% (n= 156) had a member who was unable to work due to poor health conditions or a disability. In terms of deprivations in standards of living, around 55% (n=827) of refugee households had at least one member who received Food Stamp, around 18% (n= 275) had a member who received SSI, and less than five percent had a member who received RCA, GA, or TANF. Moreover, around 18% (n= 263) of the surveyed refugee households were living in a public housing project. Poverty rates among refugees were comparatively higher than the general population. Education poverty among the general population was three times lower compared to refugees. In the health dimension, poverty rates among the general population were similar to the calculated rates among refugees, but compared to refugees the general population was twice less likely to be enrolled in the government assistance programs

Conclusion: Overall poverty rates among refugees were high and higher than the general population. Findings call for more attention to poverty measurement methods and encourage service providers, specifically social workers, to consider using multidimensional indices to gain a more realistic understanding of refugees' poverty and wellbeing.


Presented at the Council on Social Work Education Conference 2020 (CSWE2020), Leading Critical Conversations: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Using the 2016 Annual Survey of Refugees and an adjusted version of the global Multidimensional Poverty Index, this study is among the first to calculate refugees’ multidimensional poverty within the first five years of their arrival to the United States in three dimensions of education, health, and standards of living.

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