Privacy, Poverty, and Punishment: How Surveillance in the Social Safety Net Penalizes Poor Black Mothers (under contract with University of California Press)

In my first book manuscript, tentatively titled Privacy, Poverty, and Punishment (under contract at the University of California Press), I examine how the provision of poverty assistance has become increasingly surveillance-centered in its approach. As a consequence, despite the sharp rise of privacy concerns among Americans more broadly, poor people of color are continuously monitored and tracked as they seek help—effectively being forced to trade privacy for public assistance. This book argues that this routine denial of privacy is in fact a central, undertheorized aspect of the punitive turn in poverty governance. Drawing on ethnographic observation in social service outreach programs in the Sunnyside neighborhood in Houston, Texas, and in-depth interviews I conducted with 67 low-income African American mothers plus caseworkers, administrators, and service providers, Privacy, Poverty, and Punishment reveals the multi-dimensional costs of being constantly monitored in the process of seeking help.

The empirical chapters trace the symbolic and material consequences of losing privacy in three key domains: the home, the self, and intimate family relationships—all spaces where privacy is highly valued, and also spaces where state surveillance is pervasive in low-income Black mothers’ everyday lives. In each domain, I build the case for conceptualizing surveillance as a mechanism through which inequality is reproduced, and demonstrate that the systematic denial of privacy both reinforces symbolic marginalization and exacerbates material poverty. For example, being intensively surveilled at home through random inspections and surveillance cameras creates an environment devoid of privacy that mothers liken to being in prison, reinforcing racialized symbolic notions of presumptive Black criminality. But being constantly monitored at home also makes it more likely that mothers will be exposed breaking a rule—rendering them more vulnerable to the accrual of fees and ultimately eviction, exacerbating poverty. Far from passive recipients, mothers develop strategies to navigate and to resist what they perceive as an unjust system, including pushing back and advocating for their rights, performing cooperation in order to avoid confrontation with caseworkers, and selectively concealing information. I show that these strategies help mothers carve out pockets of privacy in the face of surveillance practices; however, some strategies also expose them to punitive sanctions, including the loss of critical benefits.

Welfare and urban poverty scholarship has shown how access to public assistance has long been racialized in ways that uniquely disadvantage and punish African American women. However, Privacy, Poverty and Punishment reveals the analytically distinct roles surveillance and privacy play in this process, and advances our understanding of the often invisible impacts of welfare policies. This book brings rich empirical data to bear on timely questions about how the poor make decisions about utilizing the social safety net, what privacy (and its loss) means for some of the most vulnerable members of society, and the consequences of the carceral logics infused into the delivery of public assistance. Ultimately, I argue that the denial of privacy to poor mothers of color in repeated interactions with representatives of the state results in diminished social citizenship for an already marginalized group. Privacy, Poverty, and Punishment pushes sociologists to take seriously what privacy—and its loss—means for those who are uniquely vulnerable to the state’s expression of power.