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


Background: The abrupt and unplanned nature of forced displacement usually leaves refugees with limited financial and social assets (Betts et al., 2017; Naseh et al., 2018). Moreover, forced displacement often interrupts refugees’ access to education and opportunities to invest in their human capital (Dryden-Peterson, 2011). These challenges together with other factors such as lack of familiarity with a new language, stigma and discrimination, and unfamiliarity with the job market can result in poverty among newly resettled refugees (Ekren, 2018; Lukasiewicz, 2017). This study aimed to build a multidimensional poverty framework for adult refugees with a specific focus on their first five years in the U.S.

Conceptual framework: The conceptual framework was a combination of the monetary and capability approaches to poverty, Ager and Strang’s (2008) refugee integration framework, social exclusion theory, and Kuhlman’s (1991) comprehensive theoretical model for economic integration of refugees.

Methods: The methodology used in this study consists of three elements: a systematic review of literature on risk factors for poverty among adult refugees, an inductive analysis of semi-structured interviews with key informants (n=10), and a secondary analysis of the 2016 Annual Survey of Refugees national dataset (n=1,500). Based on the results of the systematic review, factors associated with poverty among refugees were explored further using qualitative and quantitative analyses. Income poverty was calculated by comparing household income with national poverty lines. Multidimensional poverty was calculated using an adjusted version of the global Multidimensional Poverty Index (Alkire & Santos, 2010).

Results: The systematic search found 779 unique studies, out of which only 31 explored poverty among refugees within their first five years in the U.S. Sex, ethnicity, access to transportation, discrimination, resettlement policies, English language proficiency, and social connections were the extracted factors that were cited in at least two studies. Thematic analysis of the qualitative data and Pearson’s chi-square tests between these factors and poverty among refugees provided further evidence of association. The identified risk factors for refugee income poverty and multidimensional poverty based on the triangulation of three data sources were grouped into four categories based on Kuhlman’s (1991) comprehensive theoretical model to form a multidimensional poverty framework. This proposed framework of this study suggests that refugee poverty at a household level (income poverty and deprivation in education, health, and housing) is interrelated to refugee household demographic characteristics (sex and ethnicity of the head of the household), resettlement policies, host-related characteristics (discrimination and access to transportation), and non-economic aspects of adaptation (English language proficiency and social networks).

Conclusion: The findings contribute to the limited literature on poverty among refugees and have important implications for the social work profession in the context of this conference. The social work profession emerged as a response to poverty and addressing this problem has remained a core component of the profession (Krumer-Nevo et al., 2009). In this context, knowledge of factors associated with poverty among refugees is essential and relevant for social workers as front-line service providers. Social workers are well-positioned to advocate for economic justice for refugees as new Americans.


© Mitra Naseh 2021.


Presented at the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) 67th annual program meeting: Orlando, FL., November 4-8, 2020.

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