By Leslie Paik, author of Trapped in a Maze: How Social Control Institutions Drive Family Poverty and Inequality

The pandemic has exposed so clearly how families everywhere in this country struggle to manage the competing demands of work, childcare, education and health. With this awareness comes an opportunity — a chance to aim bigger and reimagine a government that better responds to families’ needs.

Instead, the Democrats’ frenzied efforts to pass the Build Back Better Act over the past weeks have focused on typical questions about the costs instead of the long-term benefits and returns of individual policies or support for only middle- and working-class families. This kind of narrative perpetuates the longstanding pathologizing trope of the “deserving” and “undeserving.”

As I explore in my new book, Trapped in a Maze: How Social Control Institutions Drive Family Poverty and Inequality, these typical questions will only lead us down the same path of ineffective responses to social problems such as poverty, unaffordable housing, and underemployment. My research finds that various government agencies like courts, schools, child welfare and public assistance recognize those larger problems but can only focus on the one aspect that falls within their institutional mandate. This piece-meal approach does not ultimately address families’ multi-faceted issues and disproportionately affects poor and BIPOC families, many of whom risk falling deeper into poverty.

How can government interventions— even so-called “helpful” ones— lead to the exacerbation of poverty?  Here are just a few examples of the challenges that participants in my study experienced when trying to access institutional support.

  • A mother is not able to keep her son’s disability benefits because she cannot get the necessary documentation from three institutions that do not adhere to the same timeframes or guidelines related to her son’s condition.
  • A teenager ends up not applying for a city-funded summer internship because she cannot afford the subway fares to go to the different institutions across the city to get the required information.
  • A mother cannot attend a job training program because she is spending most of her time on public transportation shuffling between appointments in different neighborhoods for her son’ probation case, her other son’s mental health treatment and her public assistance case.

The fact that none of these families was able to resolve the barriers to participation in “supportive” government programs, is not a matter of their lack of effort or willingness to work hard. Rather it is the multi-institutional maze that traps them in a web of paperwork, constant demands to verify eligibility, and conflicting institutional rules, over which they have little control.

These situations, along with many others I detail in the book, convey the complexity and challenges that poor and BIPOC families face, which others do not. Many middle-class and white families do not get as stuck in the multi-institutional maze for two main reasons: they have the resources to seek services elsewhere if necessary, and they are believed more by the bureaucrats compared to poor and BIPOC families in similar situations. The families in my study regularly attempted to use the same strategies as more affluent and white families, yet described being treated by bureaucrats with suspicion. In some cases, they were subjected to additional institutional surveillance for the same actions that other families took.

It would be naïve to believe there could be one unified institution able to holistically address the needs of marginalized families— much less a more coordinated approach among existing institutions. However, preventing the institutional and bureaucratic stigmatization of certain families over others could go a long way toward real change. Poor and BIPOC families did not create the structural conditions related to growing income inequality, tax policies favoring corporations, and institutional racism.  Current policy debates ignore the institutions, processes and policies that have truly exacerbated inequality for families living in poverty. Moving forward, we need to focus the conversation on the common ground that all families share in this post-Covid world. That is the way to create environments that allow all of us as a nation to build back better for all.