RESEARCH

PRIVACY, POVERTY, AND PUNISHMENT

In my first book manuscript, tentatively titled Privacy, Poverty, and Punishment, I use the lens of privacy to examine the consequences for poor African American mothers of engaging with safety net institutions that are increasingly surveillance-centered and punitive in their delivery of assistance. Based on ethnographic observation in social service outreach programs between 2013 and 2016, in-depth interviews with a group of low-income African American women in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Houston, Texas, and additional interviews with caseworkers, administrators, and service providers, Privacy, Poverty and Punishment is a deep sociological examination of how these mothers negotiate privacy given the surveillance they face when they seek help. The empirical chapters trace this process in three key domains: the home, the self, and intimate family relationships-- all spaces where privacy is widely considered to be salient, and also spaces where state surveillance is pervasive in these mothers' lives. 

Privacy, Poverty, and Punishment shows that mothers make difficult decisions in the context of Texas’s austere and punitive welfare system, which offers low benefits and levies high sanctions for noncompliance with its stringent set of rules and requirements. They face complicated trade-offs in their efforts to provide for their families—sometimes giving up privacy to get the help they seek and at times foregoing available assistance when they conclude that the material and symbolic costs of losing privacy outweigh the benefits of getting short-term relief. Privacy, Poverty and Punishment reveals that, far from passive recipients, mothers use strategies to survive and also to resist what they perceive as an unjust system. It shows how they carve out pockets of privacy in the face of invasive surveillance and how they work to maintain fragile support systems when loved ones they rely upon are jeopardized by the entanglement of the welfare system with the criminal justice system. This book also traces how in the non-profit setting, mothers resort to informally surveilling themselves to adjudicate their own deservingness and that of others in their own community—efforts that can weaken existing social ties.

Viewed through the lens of privacy, mothers’ accounts bring a new perspective to the body of literature that has documented African American women’s uniquely fraught relationship with welfare, one shaped by both gender and race. Privacy, Poverty and Punishment also reveals the multi-dimensional consequences for mothers of their families being ensnared by the state surveillance apparatus because of their poverty. Privacy, Poverty and Punishment 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 to poor African American families. Ultimately, Privacy, Poverty and Punishment argues that the systematic surveillance and denial of privacy to these families exacerbate and reproduce inequality by further punishing an already marginalized group, effectively denying them full social citizenship.