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Designing Research Rooted in Immigrant Families’ Lived Experience

For more than 15 years, MAF has cultivated relationships with low-income communities by putting the best of finance and technology in their service. When COVID hit, we built on these relationships and support from funders to provide cash assistance to immigrants excluded from federal stimulus. The Immigrant Families Fund and the insights from participant surveys led us to think even bigger about what immigrant families need to recover from the devastation of the pandemic. We designed the Immigrant Families Recovery Program (IFRP) to deepen not only our community relationships, but also our knowledge about their financial lives. Our research aims to inform the conversation on immigrants and the economy — how they live, persevere, and thrive — as we collectively push forward toward a more just world.

An intentional question

It might seem obvious, but good research starts with a clear and thoughtful question — one that
can focus, organize, and motivate all the research activities. On its surface, our research
question for IFRP seems rather simple:

What will it take for immigrant families to rebuild their financial lives faster?

In truth, though, the question is quite complicated. For us, it requires that we consider not only
the type and duration of support that immigrant families need and deserve, but also the specific
political and economic context of their lives; the material, emotional, and social dimensions of
their financial experience; and, their skills and strengths at both the individual and community
levels. The elegance of our question is that it’s big enough to hold both simple and complex

Context is everything

In our digital world, everything is data — but not all data are equal. People are best understood
in the context of their lives; similarly, data are best interpreted in the context of their collection.
So, to answer our research question, we developed a data strategy focused on gathering rich,
relevant, and timely information about people’s experience not just with our program, but also
more generally — their challenges, priorities, and opportunities. We do this through longform
surveys, pulse surveys, and in-depth interviews — in addition to collecting programmatic and,
for many, administrative data from credit bureaus and banks. When layered together, these data
will allow us to paint a more holistic picture of how immigrant families are doing across time.

From and for the people

We designed our question and data strategy with such care because in research, as with many
things, you only get what you put in. By rooting ourselves firmly in immigrants’ lived realities, our
research will have real-world implications. To understand what it will take for immigrant families to rebuild their financial lives faster, we’ll need to uncover how they navigate political and
economic uncertainty; what strategies they use under significant constraints; and, how civil
society and government can best support them. And that’s just the beginning. We might be
structuring the research process, but the truths we’re excavating come from people — and what
we do with those truths is ultimately for them.

Generating knowledge, generating power

This isn’t just an academic exercise; it’s another way in which we’re serving communities. Our
investigations are not only rooted in and reflective of immigrants’ lives, but they can also shape
the conversations we’re having in our cities, states, and nation. Knowledge is a powerful tool
and research is how we forge it. Using these tools, we’ll be able to build a more just and
equitable financial system.

We held a webinar about our research design, in conversation with Professors Fred Wherry and
Eldar Shafir, our esteemed collaborators from Princeton University. Learn more by watching