From the Long Arm of the State to Eyes on the Street: How Poor African American Mothers Navigate Surveillance in the Social Safety Net


By bhadmin February 2, 2021

Drawing on interviews and ethnographic observation, this article examines how poor African American mothers in Houston, Texas, experience seeking help from the safety net, focusing on mothers’ perceptions and interpretation of the application process. Compared to welfare, seeking help from nonprofits and churches involved little formal surveillance and there was no punitive mechanism involved if mothers did not adhere to the minimal conditions required for participation. Mothers framed this as a preferable option to welfare, which they characterized as intrusive and punitive. However, the absence of formal surveillance practices in nonprofits did not mitigate the need to discern between the deserving and undeserving poor, nor did it ameliorate women’s sense of stigma around seeking help. Mothers were thus ambivalent about utilizing these resources. Further, it was mothers, not welfare caseworkers, who sometimes took on a surveilling role in these settings, scrutinizing themselves and other women and distancing themselves from those they deemed as undeserving. By taking up the same cultural logics of deservingness produced through welfare surveillance and applying them elsewhere, mothers were able to shore up their own sense of personhood and moral worthiness in an environment that threatened both. Yet, the strategies mothers used to distance themselves from others they cast as undeserving may unintentionally reproduce the notion that poor people must be scrutinized when seeking assistance. This logic reinforces the rationale for the surveillance mothers lament and resist in the welfare system.

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