In this dissertation, I examine how poor African American mothers negotiate privacy given the surveillance they face in seeking help from the social safety net. Whether to establish eligibility for benefits and services or to monitor adherence to program conditions, those seeking public assistance must disclose extensive personal information, submit to unannounced home inspections, and in effect surrender aspects of privacy in exchange for assistance. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 67 poor mothers in a high-poverty neighborhood in Houston, Texas and supplemental ethnographic observation over a three-year period, I explore how these mothers interpret and respond to this surveillance in three domains of life where privacy is thought to be paramount: the home, personal information and intimate family relationships. In each domain, I explain how and why mothers perceive their privacy to be compromised and reveal the strategies they use to carve out pockets of privacy and resist state involvement in these areas of their lives. I show that in making decisions about if and when to engage with the surveilling safety net, mothers face difficult moral trade-offs in balancing the material needs of their families against their own desires not only for privacy, but also for dignity, respect, and autonomy. I find that in some cases mothers, including those in deep poverty, choose privacy over public assistance. Some turn instead to secular or faith-based non-profits to seek help despite their own disadvantages. Others omit or misrepresent information they wish to keep private or use concealment tactics to resist requirements they experience as emblematic of an unjust and invasive system. Yet given the punitive nature of welfare delivery, these strategies incur consequences for mothers’ ability to care for their families and for their self-understanding as mothers and as citizens. I argue that the deprivation of privacy is one overlooked way in which poor mothers are punished for their poverty and denied full social citizenship.




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