Using Semistructured Interviews to Understand the Experiences of Families and Children Living in Poverty

By Rashmita Mistry, Samantha Wulfsohn

This post is one in a series highlighting MDRC’s methodological work. Contributors discuss the refinement and practical use of research methods being employed across our organization.


Semistructured interviews involve an interviewer asking an interviewee a prespecified set of open-ended questions, with follow-up questions, or probes, based on what that interviewee has to say. Semistructured interviews are a useful way to draw out the perspectives and experiences of interviewees. They are one type of data collection used in qualitative inquiry; a separate post in MDRC’s Implementation Research Incubator further describes how research using these methods defines “rigor.”

In the Understanding Poverty: Childhood and Family Experiences study, MDRC conducted in-depth, semistructured interviews with children and adolescents ages 7 to 17 and their parents/guardians about their economic circumstances. The study is sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and is being conducted in partnership with MEF Associates.[1]

What Questions Are We Trying to Answer?

Researchers know little about how children who experience poverty perceive their situations, think and feel about their economic status, and view public benefit programs. The study is examining four primary research questions, defined at the outset of the project, that aim to shed light on the lived experiences and perspectives of children and families experiencing economic hardship:

  1. What do children understand about their families’ economic circumstances?

  2. How do families talk about public assistance benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)?
  3. How do parents perceive that their economic circumstances and benefit receipt affect their families and children?
  4. How do parents and their families interact with public assistance offices and workers? If children interact with these offices, what is it like for them?

Whom Did We Interview?

We conducted in-person interviews with children and, since children’s experiences and views are shaped by their families, with their parents or guardians as well. The interviews took place in two urban communities and one rural community. In each community, we interviewed 10 families, all of whom were recruited by community organizations and agencies that serve families living in and dealing with poverty. We interviewed 30 families, with a total of 35 adults, 21 adolescents, and 26 children. Interviews with adults lasted about 90 minutes, interviews with adolescents about 45 minutes, and interviews with children about 30 minutes.

What Was Our Interview Approach?

We aimed to collect consistent information (using semistructured interview guides) to inform the core study questions, while obtaining information (using the interview probes) that added depth beyond what might be collected using a closed-ended response instrument. Each individual’s experiences and perspectives were unique and do not represent those of all families experiencing economic hardship. As is consistent with tenets of qualitative research, the study results are not generalizable beyond the parents and children interviewed.

Our research team developed the semistructured interview protocols drawing on past research, help from experts in the field, and pilot testing to refine the instruments. The child and adolescent protocols began with a brief getting-to-know-you exchange with each interviewee to help put him or her at ease. The protocols that followed had three main sections: awareness and experiences of how much money the child’s family has; sources of family income, including from work, government benefits, and other sources; and the interviewee’s thoughts about wealth and poverty generally and about his or her future.

The protocols included a range of semistructured interview techniques to draw out details, thoughts, and feelings from interviewees. For adolescents and younger children, the literature emphasizes it is important to create examples and constructs that make concepts related to poverty and economic hardship more tangible. For example, when asking children what they understood about their families’ economic circumstances, the interviewer used a visual cue, prompting the children to place themselves on an economic ladder. This approach, adapted from a well-known measure of subjective social status,[2] helps children think concretely about their economic circumstances relative to others in society.

Money Ladder diagramFor this next question, I want you to imagine that this ladder [Instructions for interviewer: POINT TO PICTURE OF LADDER ON PAGE] pictures how American society is set up. At the top are the people that have the most money and at the bottom are the people who have the least money. Now, think about your family. Where do you think they would be on this ladder?

Mark an X on the step where you think your family would be on this ladder.


This approach gave us a common scale across interviews and also set up a follow-up probe that we used to understand better the children’s and adolescents’ assessments of their economic status:

[Instructions for interviewer: IF CHILD APPEARS TO UNDERSTAND AND IS ABLE TO RATE THEIR FAMILY ON THE LADDER, ASK:] Why did you put your family there on the ladder?

For the parent/guardian interview, after a brief getting-to-know-you exchange, the protocol had sections on the interviewee’s perceptions of her or his economic circumstances; income sources; employment; social support networks; interactions with TANF and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); general perceptions of public benefit programs; and family conversations about finances and public assistance benefits.

We purposely asked children, adolescents, and parents/guardians in the same family unit about their perceptions of need and their familiarity with public assistance programs. Doing so gave us a more nuanced understanding of the individual perspectives of each interviewee as well as similarities and differences within families. We were also able to create this more complete picture of the family experience by approaching the topic from the different perspectives of young people and adults.

For example, we asked children and adolescents “Have you heard about a program called ‘SNAP’ or ‘food stamps’ or [NAME OF STATE PROGRAM]?” If the response was “yes,” we followed up to ask what interviewees knew about the program, whether their families used it, whether they had ever visited the program office, what they thought about their families using that program, and what they thought other people thought about families who received benefits from the program.

We asked parents/guardians about their family’s participation in different public assistance programs. (We did not verify their responses using administrative data.) We also asked them questions like, “Do you talk with your children about any of the public benefit programs you’re enrolled in?” and “How do you think your children feel about your family receiving public benefits?”

What Are the Next Steps for the Study?

We are currently analyzing the interview data to inform the four research questions. We anticipate releasing the report and other products in 2021.


Rashmita Mistry is professor of education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

[1]  As a federally funded study that involved collecting data from more than nine research participants, the work was subject to guidelines under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995. The research team was required to submit a study justification and the interview protocols for review and approval by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget in the Executive Office of the President of the United States. As with all such reviewed material, the interview protocols and supporting documents are available through

[2]  Elizabeth Goodman, Nancy E. Adler, Ichiro Kawachi, A. Lindsay Frazier, Bin Huang, and Graham A. Colditz, “Adolescents’ Perceptions of Social Status: Development and Evaluation of a New Indicator” (Pediatrics 108, 2: 31-38, 2001) doi: 10.1542/peds.108.2.e3; Rashmita S. Mistry, Christia S. Brown, Elizabeth S. White, Kirby A. Chow, and Cari Gillen-O’Neel, “Elementary School Children’s Reasoning About Social Class: A Mixed-Methods Study (Child Development 86, 5: 1,653-1,671, 2015) doi: 10.1111/cdev.12407.