How US state institutions seek to control socially marginalised women


Faculty: Assistant Professor, Dr Amanda Sheely, Department of Social Policy
Phelan US Centre Research Assistant: Sarah Ang, Department of Social Policy

Sarah

Author

Sarah Ang

Department of Social Policy

For me, the most valuable part of the programme was the opportunity to work closely with faculty and in doing so learn how to conceptualise and develop a research project at a higher level. The programme has also offered me new opportunities to engage with research as I attended conferences and submitted a pitch for the Student Idea Showcase.

Introduction  

I have been working with Dr Amanda Sheely on a project that examines how US state institutions govern socially marginalised women. We have focused on the development of the criminal justice, welfare and child welfare institutions and how they have worked together to regulate and control the behaviour of women.  Our findings so far reveal a mixed picture of women’s supervision: while there is some overlap between the systems in terms of their target populations, there are also divergences in the implementation as they place the competing demands of work and care on poor parents, particularly mothers.  

Methods

I first started with conducting a literature review on the criminal justice, welfare, and child welfare systems in the United States. I researched and summarised studies on the historical development of and current treatment of women in each of these three systems. This was done the goal of mapping out the links between them as well as their approaches to supervision. I then researched data sources for caseload and expenditures for the systems. I found and compiled census and survey data in order to create a quantitive dataset which would allow us to analyse long-term trends at both the state and national level. 

Building on the research that I have been conducting with Dr Sheely, I also submitted an award-winning written pitch to the LSE Student Ideas Showcase titled ‘Unseating the welfare queen? COVID-19 and reform in American state institutions’. I argued that the US government’s response to the pandemic, as seen in the sweeping CARES ACT, shows the state has the potential to move beyond punitive responses to poverty and can instead work to address the needs of marginalised groups. 

In addition, I also attended the LSE Single Parents Conference, which involved both a public event titled ‘Where are all the Welfare Queens?’ as well as a two-day conference. The conference explored a range of topics such as the economic impact of single parenthood, the effectiveness of income support, and the experiences of single fathers. For this conference I created an annotated bibliography summarising the participants’ work on lone parents.  

Research and Findings  

From my literature review, I found that developments in state level systems following the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA) have tended to move in the same direction. More punitive regimes which have lower unemployment benefits and higher criminal justice caseloads tend to have increased intervention in child welfare. There are also gendered and racial dimensions to the links between these systems. The same ethnic minority communities which are frequently subject to child welfare intervention are also those which are heavily policed. In addition, parents — particularly single mothers —often face contradictory expectations of work and care from the welfare and child welfare systems respectively. More generally, American social policy discourse is driven by the myth of the welfare queen who is “a never-married single mother who is dependent on public assistance and refuses to work”.  

In seeking to explore the development of women’s supervision, our research has sought to bring together caseload and expenditure data on the criminal justice, welfare and child welfare systems. We also aimed to explore the extent of coordination or divergence across race and gender.  However, this broad scope has also made sourcing and creating an adequate dataset from which we could examine long-term trends difficult. Even as I was able to create a dataset for the child welfare system using National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) data and another dataset for the welfare system using Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) data, I faced challenges in creating a long-run data set for the criminal justice system due state-level differences in the classification of community supervision. Hence, Dr Sheely and I unfortunately concluded that the current data was unsuitable for analysis long-run trends at the state-level.  

Figure 1 - National caseloads for US criminal justice, child welfare and welfare systems

Image

Still, preliminary findings reveal that in the past ten years, the numbers of women on probation and parole have decreased slightly and the numbers of women receiving TANF support have also decreased, albeit much more sharply. At the same time, child welfare caseloads have remained relatively stable. However, given state-level differences in the nature of supervision, more research needs to be done in order to determine if these trends indicate co-ordination or divergence between the systems as a whole.  

I also had the opportunity to be involved with Dr Sheely’s work on single parents. The LSE Single Parents Conference was a valuable opportunity to learn more about the related social policy challenges that they face and the role of policy in better supporting lone-parent families. A key takeaway I had from the conference was the diversity of lone parenthood, which stands in stark contrast to the homogenising myth of the welfare queen. The presentations also highlighted the unequal economic challenges that lone parents face in societies which are premised on a model of dual-income earners. The marginality of lone parents was also a theme that had surfaced in my work with Dr Sheely as this group often finds themselves bearing the brunt of the state’s attempts to regulate and control behaviour through the criminal justice, child welfare and welfare systems. 

Personal Reflections 

I am very grateful to be able work closely with Dr Sheely and have had an immensely enjoyable and enriching experience. I also would like to thank the Phelan US Centre for the opportunity and Ade, Eileen and Isini for their support in running this programme. As a Social Policy student, the research assistantship has allowed me to explore my interest in state institutions and examine in detail the effects of policy on marginalised groups. It has also provided me with valuable research skills and experience which I will put to good use in the course of my graduate studies.

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