Each year, U.S. child protection authorities investigate millions of families, disproportionately poor families and families of color. These investigations involve multiple home visits to collect information across numerous personal domains. How does the state gain such widespread entrée into the intimate, domestic lives of marginalized families? Predominant theories of surveillance offer little insight into this process and its implications. Analyzing observations of child maltreatment investigations in Connecticut and interviews with professionals reporting maltreatment, state investigators, and investigated mothers, this article argues that coupling assistance with coercive authority—a hallmark of contemporary poverty governance—generates an expansive surveillance of U.S. families by attracting referrals from adjacent systems. Educational, medical, and other professionals invite investigations of families far beyond those ultimately deemed maltreating, with the hope that child protection authorities’ dual therapeutic and coercive capacities can rehabilitate families, especially marginalized families. Yet even when investigations close, this arrangement, in which service systems channel families to an entity with coercive power, fosters apprehension among families and thwarts their institutional engagement. These findings demonstrate how, in an era of welfare retrenchment, rehabilitative poverty governance renders marginalized populations hyper-visible to the state in ways that may reinforce inequality and marginality.
Previous research, primarily using survey data, highlights preferences about neighborhood racial composition as a potential contributor to residential segregation. However, we know little about how individuals, especially parents, understand neighborhood racial composition. We examine this question using in‐depth interview data from a racially diverse sample of 156 parents of young children in two metropolitan areas. Prior scholarship on neighborhood racial preferences has mostly been animated by expectations about in‐group attraction, out‐group avoidance, the influence of stereotypes, and perceived associations between race and status. However, we find that a substantial subset of parents expressed a desire for racially and ethnically mixed neighborhoods—a residential preference at odds with racial segregation. Parents across race conceptualized neighborhood diversity as beneficial for children's development. They expressed shared logics, reasoning that neighborhood diversity cultivates skills and comfort interacting with racial others; teaches tolerance; and provides cultural enrichment. However, these ideas intersected with racial segregation and stratification to shape parents’ understandings of diversity and hinder the realization of parents’ aspirations. Beliefs about the benefits of neighborhood diversity were rarely a primary motivation for residential choices. Nonetheless, parents’ perceptions of the advantages of neighborhood racial mixing reveal the reach of discourse on the value of diversity and suggest a potential opportunity to advance residential desegregation.
Residential selection is central in determining children’s housing, neighborhood, and school contexts, and an extensive literature considers the social processes that shape residential searches and attainment. While this literature typically frames the residential search as a uniform process oriented around finding residential options with desired characteristics, we examine whether individuals may differentially conceive of these searches in ways that sustain inequality in residential attainment. Drawing on repeated, in-depth interviews with a stratified random sample of 156 households with young children in two metropolitan counties, we find that parents exhibit distinct residential search logics, informed by the constraints they face. Higher-income families usually engage in purposive searches oriented around their residential preferences. They search for “forever homes” that will meet their families’ needs for years to come. In contrast, low-income parents typically draw on a logic of deferral. While they hope to eventually search for a home with the unit, neighborhood, and school characteristics they desire, aspirations for homeownership lead them to conceive of their (rental) moves as “temporary stops,” which justifies accepting homes that are inconsistent with their long-term preferences. In addition, because they are often “pushed” to move by negative circumstances, they focus on their immediate housing needs and, in the most extreme cases, adopt an “anywhere but here” approach. These logics constitute an unexamined mechanism through which economic resources shape residential searches and ultimate attainment.
A rich literature examines how information spreads through social networks to influence life opportunities. However, receiving information does not guarantee its use in decision making. This article analyzes information evaluation as a fundamental component of social network mobilization. The case of school choice, where the value of information may be more uncertain, brings this evaluative dimension to the forefront. Interviews with 55 parents in Boston show how parents selecting schools assess their social network ties as information sources, privileging information from those they perceive to have affinity and authority. These evaluative criteria map onto disparate networks to engender unequal mobilization of this information. The findings illuminate mechanisms sustaining inequality in social network mobilization and reorient scholars to consider processes underlying information use alongside information diffusion to attain a more complete understanding of how network resources are mobilized in action.
Background: Prior research documents spatial concentration in the incidence of child maltreatment reported to and confirmed by Child Protective Services (CPS), but without estimates of the prevalence of such reports, the extent of CPS contact in different communities is unknown.
Objective: To estimate the prevalence of CPS reports during early childhood and substantiated investigations during childhood for children living in different types of neighborhoods.
Participants and setting: Children who experienced CPS reports and substantiated investigations in Connecticut.
Methods: This study uses synthetic cohort life tables to estimate the cumulative risk of CPS reports before age five and substantiated CPS investigations before age 18, by neighborhood poverty rate and neighborhood racial composition.
Results: The analysis reveals substantial stratification in the prevalence of CPS contact by the demographic characteristics of children’s residential neighborhoods. For example, while 7% of children in low-poverty neighborhoods (under 10% poor) experience a substantiated CPS investigation at some point during childhood at 2014 and 2015 rates, this risk more than doubles to 17% for their peers in moderate-poverty neighborhoods (10–20% poor) and more than triples to 26% for their peers in high-poverty neighborhoods (over 20% poor). Similar trends emerge when examining CPS reports in early childhood as well as when comparing neighborhoods with different proportions of White residents.
Conclusions: CPS reports and substantiated investigations are a widespread and disproportionately experienced life event for children in poor neighborhoods and children in non-White neighborhoods.
With the expansion of state surveillance and enforcement efforts in recent decades, a growing literature examines how those vulnerable to punitive state contact strategize to evade it. This article draws on in-depth interviews with eighty-three low-income mothers to consider whether and how concerns about Child Protective Services (CPS), a widespread presence in poor communities with the power to remove children from their parents, inform poor mothers’ institutional engagement. Mothers recognized CPS reports as a risk in interactions with healthcare, educational, and social service systems legally mandated to report suspected child abuse or neglect. Departing from findings on responses to policing and immigration enforcement, I find that CPS concerns rarely prompted mothers to avoid systems wholesale. Within their system participation, however, mothers engaged in a selective or constrained visibility, concealing their hardships, home life, and parenting behavior from potential reporters. As reporting systems serve as vital sources of support for disadvantaged families, mothers’ practices of information management, while perhaps protecting them from CPS reports, may preclude opportunities for assistance and reinforce a sense of constraint in families’ institutional interactions.
School choice policies necessarily impose registration timelines, constraining access to schools of choice for students who register late. Drawing on administrative data, survey data, and interviews with 33 parents in Boston, we find that late registration is common and highly stratified: Nearly half of black kindergarteners miss the first registration deadline, a rate almost three times higher than their white peers, consigning them to the least preferred schools. Contexts of instability and bureaucratic complexity serve as barriers to registering months in advance, and parents describe disengagement from the school system following their late registration. These findings show how despite equal access in theory, bureaucratic structures such as timeline-based lotteries hinder many families, particularly those disadvantaged already, from full participation. Inequality in school choice outcomes and experiences thus results not only from families’ selections, the focus of previous research, but also the misalignment of district bureaucratic processes with family situations.
Research documents a link between poverty and child welfare involvement, but the nature of this relationship is unclear. By providing in-depth accounts of situations leading to child welfare involvement, parents' perspectives can enrich our understanding of how poverty matters for child welfare involvement. Based on in-depth interviews with 40 poor parents previously investigated for child maltreatment, I discuss contexts of poverty that provided pathways to child welfare involvement. Poverty created environments of desperation and disadvantage, combined with reliance on supports that reported parents to child welfare agencies. The vast majority of incidents parents described implicated in their involvement parental adversities related to poverty; embeddedness in disadvantaged networks or volatile personal relationships; and/or involvement in, or need for, social services. These findings suggest a research approach that interrogates this complexity and maltreatment prevention policies that broadly strengthen supports for families and communities.
Non-governmental free food assistance is available to many low-income Americans through food pantries. However, most do not use this assistance, even though it can be worth over $2,000 per year. Survey research suggests concrete barriers, such as lack of information, account for non-use. In contrast, qualitative studies focus on the role of cultural factors, such as stigma. Drawing on interviews with 53 low-income individuals in San Francisco who did not use food pantries, we reconcile these findings by illustrating how the two types of barriers are connected. Reasons for non-use such as need, information, long lines, and food quality were rooted in respondents' subjective understandings of those for whom the service was intended, those perceived to use the service, and the service's respect for the community. Increasing nonprofit service utilization requires attention to how potential users relate seemingly objective barriers to subjective interpretations.