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Carolyn Barnes: The Complexities of Poverty

Sanford faculty member draws on personal experiences to study the holes in the social safety net

New Sanford faculty member Carolyn Barnes

Would our understanding of poverty and food insecurity improve if people studying the topic had firsthand experience with economic hardship and hunger? A grant program created by a Duke-UNC research center hopes to show that it can.

Carolyn Barnes, who joined the Sanford School of Public Policy as an assistant professor on July I, is the first recipient of a New Perspectives Fellowship from the Duke-UNC USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research (BECR Center). 

“Poverty and welfare were never abstract research interests for me, but rather, an acute reality,” said Barnes, who comes to Duke from the University of Chicago. “While growing up, my family was dependent on a range of private and public programs to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the social safety net was insufficient in alleviating deep poverty for my family.”

Barnes’ research will complement the center’s efforts to discover ways to motivate healthy food choices, particularly among low-income individuals. The center focuses on three groups:

  • people receiving aid from the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
  • people receiving aid from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • the general population

Barnes plans to conduct in-depth interviews with WIC and SNAP recipients to study how low-income individuals make decisions about health and nutrition. She is also interested in the role of public policy in shaping those decision-making processes.

“My personal experiences taught me about the complexities of poverty,” Barnes said, “in particular, the survival strategies used by low-income individuals and the long-term effects of poverty on families.”

The BECR Center, directed by Sanford School of Public Policy Assistant Professor Matthew Harding, was established last fall with a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It plans to award up to six $15,000 fellowships to emerging researchers, with a special emphasis on scholars from low-income backgrounds or geographies, as well as ethnic and racial minority groups.

"We are extremely excited to offer a fellowship to Carolyn,” Harding said. “Not only will we be offering funding and mentoring opportunities for her research, but we will also gain a unique perspective from her. We hope to formulate a lasting partnership with Carolyn and look forward to the new perspectives that she will add to our work.”

Barnes’ previous research has examined how public policies and publicly funded social services shape the political behavior of the economically disadvantaged. She also studies the inner workings of human service agencies and client program experiences.

She earned a Ph.D. in public policy and political science in 2014, and a master’s degree in political science in 2011, both from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She teaches and conducts research at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.