Date of Award

Spring 2002

Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




One of my early experiences in social work was with a non-profit agency whose primary focus was to provide assistance to area residents who found themselves in difficult situations, financial as well as personal. In addition to helping people connect with appropriate government and other long-term resources, the agency operated a food pantry, as well as offered cash assistance for rent, utilities, and transportation on a limited, emergency basis. Just a short time into my work there, a woman came in requesting money to pay her cable television bill. She needed the money in order to keep the cable company from cutting off her service. No stranger to our program, she had already received food and other forms of assistance several times during her latest bout of unemployment. To my surprise, the director gave her the check she requested. At the time, I myself was working many long hours and struggling financially to pay for groceries, rent on a one room efficiency apartment, and so forth. The thought of having cable television (or even the time to watch it) seemed to me a luxury; not a necessity. Given the nature of the agency's mission and the fact that such agencies often struggle for funding, I was naturally curious about why the director chose to allocate resources in this way. She explained that for this particular woman, watching cable television was one of the few enjoyments she had in life-a life plagued with hardships. For her, maintaining the cable service was a quality of life issue. "Besides," the director explained, "we're only talking about twenty dollars." "Only twenty dollars?," I thought to myself. "but with twenty dollars, I could buy two weeks worth of groceries ... :' How does one understand need in this situation? While this incident stands out in my mind as an example of how the line between desire and necessity can easily blur, it is certainly not an unusual case. I quickly learned that even in a profession where people are specifically trained to help others in need, what "need" is in a given case may not be readily agreed upon. Even with years of experience behind them, professionals cannot always agree upon what counts as a legitimate need and what does not. Nor is it always clear how to go about making such a determination in a manner with which all would agree...



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