Many people were concerned in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump. But for Khiara Bridges, a legal scholar and anthropologist who has focused her career on the conditions facing poor mothers in the U.S., that concern was acute.
“To say that I wasn’t optimistic is an understatement,” Bridges told Colorlines. “With respect to all the issues that I care about—race, class, gender and equality more generally—there was no expectation of anything positive happening in the next four years.” One year post-election, Bridges still feels that level of concern. In that time, the proposed 2018 budget sought to cut Medicaid in half, and the Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said that poverty is a “state of mind,” two clear examples to Bridges of what is at stake regarding the safety net on which poor mother’s rely.
Bridges has written two books based on her fieldwork at an obstetrics clinic in a New York City public hospital. Her first book, 2008’s “Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization,” was an anthropological take on how race and class shape pregnancy. Her latest, “The Poverty of Privacy Rights,” published in June, argues that state programs governing poor mothers strip them of their right to privacy. In it, Bridges describes the extensive assessments required for women seeking Medicaid, regarding everything from their intimate relationships to housing to mental health. In the introduction to the book, she states:
If we understand certain information about ourselves as private—like details about our marriages or romantic relationships, the healthiness of our eating habits, the frequency with which we exercise (or not), and our success at remaining gainfully employed (or not)—then these programs invade poor women’s privacy inasmuch as they require women to divulge that information and inasmuch as they share that information, once collected, with third parties.
These kind of invasions of privacy aren’t limited to Medicaid, they also occur with programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and when agencies such as Child Protective Services (CPS) are engaged. Bridges puts the situation plainly: “To be poor is to be subject to invasions of privacy that the economically self-sufficient would perceive as gross demonstrations of the danger of governmental power without limits.”
Bridges also believes that while major cuts to the safety net programs are more likely than increases under the current administration, that doesn’t mean low-income women won’t continue to be surveilled. “I expect families to be surveilled, regulated and punished through [CPS],” she says. “Simply because the welfare state retracts does not mean that other arms of a punitive state will retract.”
Colorlines spoke to Bridges by phone to discuss the landscape facing low-income mothers’ privacy in today’s political climate. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you become interested in the topic of pregnancy, race and class?
My uncle was one of the first Black obstetricians in South Florida who practiced licensed medicine post-segregation. He always encouraged me to go to medical school, but I wanted to study pregnancy from a different angle. [At Columbia University], that all came together for me [through] studying the relationship between law, race and medical discourse.
When did access to government programs begin limiting lower-income mothers’ right to privacy?
We can tell stories about the Elizabethan Poor Laws and talk about the government criminalizing poverty [in England]. We can come over to the U.S., and talk about how welfare officials would go into people’s homes looking for a man in the house. The poor have always had to endure surveillance. The difference [with Elizabethan England] is that we have a Constitution that purports to provide protection against this surveillance. [But our laws and policies have] created these gaps, spaces where the Constitution just doesn’t apply. Mothering while poor is one of those spaces.
Do think the system created by the requirements for government programs like Medicaid, TANF and Women, Infants & Children (WIC) have been shaped by race?
Yes. The idea that people are poor because they have a moral or ethical behavioral deficiency [underlies these systems]. People of color disproportionately bare the burdens of poverty. [This nation believes that people of color are] lazy, promiscuous and criminal. It’s an odd coincidence that we [also] think that those are the things that cause poverty.
If [poor, White women] are being surveilled, [it is because] they are living under a system that has been designed for women of color.
Why did you choose to focus your latest book on legal analysis?
I have become increasingly frustrated with the way that the law is thought about and taught—including the disconnect between law in theory and law on the ground. It seems as if the law is not describing what is actually happening in the real world. Law students are taught that in the United States of America, we all have equal rights—[although] some people may have stronger rights than other folks or some might not be able to excerise their rights. I don’t think that acurately describes what’s going on in the world. We’re dealing with dramatic inequality.
Is that inequality written into the Constitution?
The Constitution is an incredibly vague document. It’s also incredibly short. We have to interpret the Constitution. The point of my book is to say that it’s perfectly coherent within all the rules we’ve created on rights enfranchisement, all the rules we have erected, to say that poor mothers specifically do not have [privacy] rights. We’ve interpreted the Constitution [through rulings like the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Wyman v. James that upheld suspicionless searches of the homes of mothers receiving welfare] so as to disenfranchise a certain group of mothers who are poor.
You argue in the book that poor mothers are damned if they do, damned if they don’t when it comes to surveillance. Can you explain this dynamic?
People say that poor mothers exchange their privacy rights for benefits. If they didn’t take public assistance, they would have still have privacy. [But] if a parent is unable to provide their child with food, housing or health care, that’s textbook child neglect and a perfect storm for intervention by Child Protective Services.
Is the situation facing poor mothers getting worse given today’s political climate?
It can always get worse. It can always become even more intense in [terms of] surveillance or become more punitive or regulatory. I would expect the refusal to fund TANF, cuts in food stamps or WIC and cuts in funding for public housing. When people are abandoned to the market, and when the market doesn’t contain jobs that pay a liveable wage, that’s when CPS steps in and says you are neglecting your child.
Do you think the case of the Trump Administration trying to deny an undocumented teen access to a legal abortion foreshadows what could happen?
Yes, I think that case represents what the administration would like to do to every pregnant person desiring an abortion. [They] would love to make abortion inaccessible to everyone. [They] would love to make motherhood compulsory. However, as long as Roe v. Wade remains good law, the administration only has the power to compel motherhood for the most vulnerable and disempowered—those incapacitated in state institutions, the poor, minors, etc. We should be mindful that the exercise of state power demonstrated there illustrates how state power would be exercised in every case if the Trump Administration gets its way.
The legal system and the courts have been a huge part of the progressive movement’s pushback on the Trump Administration, including in the situation we just discussed. What do you think of that approach?
Using law and justice in this particular moment might be effective because what this administration is doing flies in the face of what we hold to be true about what the law requires, and what broad swaths of the population hold to be true. What the administration is doing seems to be so patently illegal.
Do you think legal analysis will have any role in changing or improving the conditions for poor mothers?
I do. I don’t think things are going to appreciably change just because someone makes a super clever argument to the Court. I think this is a question of activism and social movement. [My hope is that] describing [poor mothers] as not having rights is the engine behind a social movement. If that organizing is going to change the narrative that we tell about poverty and motherhood and poor motherhood, then that in turn can change the law.