As an undergraduate, Assistant Professor Vincent Fusaro majored in political science at the University of Rhode Island. He was fairly certain law school was in his future until an internship at URI’s Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America opened his eyes to another large-scale issue: poverty.
Today, Fusaro is a social worker and public policy expert whose leading-edge research is helping to inform the national dialogue on poverty. Appointed to BCSSW’s faculty in 2017, BCSSW caught up with Fusaro in his McGuinn Hall office to learn more about his research and his goals for his students.
Q: As a social worker and a political scientist, you have an interest in how individuals experience systems and how those systems work. Can you tell us more about your work?
A: I tend to divide my work into three domains. The first looks at the experiences of low-income households in the U.S.—things like their interaction with our social welfare system, low-wage work, their experience with food insecurity, homelessness, and other kinds of hardships.
My second area of interest involves examining social welfare policies. So, how do things like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)—what we typically call “food stamps”—affect low-income households? How does Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, what we tend to call welfare, impact these households?
And my third area of interest is public policy in the context of social work practice. How do social workers understand how public policy affects their clients? How do they use that information to help their clients make decisions? How do they use that information to advocate for policy changes?
Q: Those are wide-ranging topics. When you consider a topic as broad as poverty, how do you determine where to focus your research?
A: Poverty is a very broad topic. Part of the reason I got interested in it is because it touches on so many other kinds of social problems. When I think about what to pursue in my research, I’m most often drawn to the implications of poverty in the U.S.
For instance, think about something like just having adequate food to eat. If you can’t afford an adequate diet, that’s going to have lots implications for whether you can be successful at work. If you’re a child, it can determine whether you’ll be successful in school. It can lead to health disparities that bring further challenges, like if you can afford medical care. And so, poverty has implications for who can get ahead in society, who can be successful, and who can be a more complete participant in society.
Another important consideration for my research is how it can intersect with the work of others. For example, I just completed a study on homelessness with my former colleagues Helen Levy and Luke Schaefer at the University of Michigan. By combining interests, we can take a problem like poverty that does seem enormous and narrow it down into a manageable slice by thinking about where it intersects with another issue that a researcher is studying.
Q: Your study on homelessness is getting buzz in the national press. What did you and your co-authors discover in this breakthrough research?
A: We examined data from The Health and Retirement Study, a survey conducted by the Institute for Social Research and sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration. It is broadly representative of older Americans. In the 2012 and 2014 editions of this survey, respondents were asked if they had experienced homelessness at any point in their lives. This information is useful because federal statistics report who’s homeless at any given point in time.
What we wanted to know for our study was, over the course of a person’s lifetime, how many people have had at least one experience of homelessness? We found that at least six percent of the U.S. population had at least one experience of homelessness.
We also uncovered some pretty dramatic racial and ethnic disparities. In particular, 17 percent of non-Hispanic blacks have had at least one experience of homelessness compared to 8 percent of Hispanics and 4.8 percent of non-Hispanic whites.
This study shows that the population that has been touched by homelessness is much larger than the number of people currently experiencing it. Ultimately, we may be interested in all who have been touched by homelessness, if it has long-term consequences for one’s health and well-being. We’re pleased this study has been getting some attention—there was just an article written about it in The Washington Post.
Q. You’re teaching Introduction to Social Welfare Policy again this spring, how does this big-picture survey help students become more informed practitioners?
A: To a large extent, this class is about helping students to understand the facts about how we carry out social policy in the U.S. My goal is to present what we know about people in poverty and what we know about how our social welfare programs function.
What makes social work unique among the helping professions is that it views individuals through the lens of society; your work is not just about the individual, even if you’re doing individual practice. As a social worker, you’re trying to think about people interacting with their family or with their community. And so, while it’s true that the majority of social workers these days will pursue individual-level practice, if you’re a social worker in Boston, the systems that your client might be interacting with could be very different than if your clients are in Indiana or California or Louisiana.
If you’re a student seeing a client that is experiencing homelessness and you learn that client has applied for housing assistance and is on waitlists, my hope would be, having taken my class, you’d understand why that might be the case. And, in turn, how this ties back to this larger system that you as a professional might be able to intervene in on behalf of your client. You’re someone who can bring those kinds of issues to the attention of policy makers.
So, what I try to do in the classroom is help students who might not have thought about these issues before to consider the policies that affect the clients they see and the systems that are both implementing those policies and making those policies. Some of my favorite moments are seeing clinical students come to understand how policy structures their practice and affects the lives of their clients.
Q. Do you find reason for optimism in thinking about current efforts to mitigate poverty in the U.S.?
A: We know that research leans toward things like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—food stamps—having a real effect on food insecurity. When we design studies that look at the beneficiaries of these types of programs, we see that participating in a program like food stamps actually reduces your probability of experiencing a problem like food insecurity. And it seems like welfare benefits have similar effects, even reducing the risk of a family experiencing homelessness. The evidence indicates that the programs we have now do help.
We have a safety net in place—and yes, it does have holes in it—but there are innovative conversations going on about how we should fill those holes even if they are not always making the headlines. Periodically, these issues do rise up to the public policy agenda and maybe we can get some leverage on taking action on some of these ideas.
Q: As you settle more firmly into your BCSSW faculty role, what’s on your bucket list?
A: My impression from teaching my BCSSW intro classes is that students here are very interested in developing more knowledge around large-scale system interactions. So, for example: how do I as a social work professional interact with state government? Or how do I analyze a policy? I hope to develop an elective course on those kinds of topics. I’m also open to working with individual students interested in pursuing these topics on their own through independent studies or small groups.
As for research, I have a few questions I’d like to tackle in the next few years. One thing I’m hoping to look at is differences in attitudes at the state level toward policies that serve people in poverty. We have research tools available that help us take public opinion data that’s collected at the national level and use it to examine what’s going on at the state level. And so I’m hoping to take some of those tools to examine how people in the general public think about poverty and to determine if those perceptions affect how state government approaches its poverty policy.
My favorite part of this work is being able to take this type of information—statistics and numbers—and translate it into a language practitioners can easily grasp to improve their practice or as a means of raising awareness of potential issues.