Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Poor Mothers and Habits of Hiding: Participatory Methods in Poverty Research

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Poor Mothers and Habits of Hiding: Participatory Methods in Poverty Research

Article excerpt

Poor mothers have long-standing habits of hiding their lives in response to punitive authorities and stigma. We identify practices of hiding daily life, and we describe participatory research approaches for and ethical concerns in learning more about poor women's critical insights and survival strategies.

Key Words: participatory research, poor women, poverty, stigma.

Poor families have long been studied in the United States and even more so recently during the era of welfare reform. Yet, gaining accurate representations of life and learning from people's knowledge in poor or marginalized communities can be challenging because low-income and otherwise vulnerable people hesitate to share their worlds. Experiences with stigmatization (Goffman, 1963), concerns about regulatory scrutiny and abuse (Dodson, 1998; Soss, Schram, Vartanian, & O'Brien, 2001), and experience with punitive authorities (Scott, 1990) all contribute to habits of hiding daily life.

In this article, we frame a theoretical discussion about poor women and habits of hiding that examines how othered people exercise caution in speaking about their lives. We identify the context in which poor mothers withhold information that may affect reliability in social research and even preserve distorted images of low-income people, in particular, people of color. We use brief excerpts from our studies to identify particular habits of hiding that we have come to see as endemic in low-income communities. Using scholarship on participative research, we detail our methods in three stages of the inquiry process that include the development of the research design, conducting field research, and interpreting data toward gaining a deeper understanding of family life in contemporary low-income America. We conclude with a discussion about ethical considerations and the difficulties and importance of these research methods.


Poor women have long been called upon to provide detailed information about their families and themselves as they seek income support, access to health care, subsidized food, housing, jobs, and child care (Abromovitz, 1996; Dodson, 2005; Edin & Lein, 1996). Immigrant and undocumented women are often called upon to prove their citizenship status as they seek jobs, education for their children, health care, and income supports to manage their families' daily needs (Chavez, 1998; Coutin, 2000; Schmalzbauer, in press). Beyond interviews with officials in public welfare institutions and employers, mothers, who generally oversee children's everyday needs, are largely responsible for communicating with teachers and school personnel, health care providers, social workers, and others whose focus is the status of children (Arendell, 2000).

For poor people, these public accountings of family matters are never neutral. Low-income mothers, who are disproportionately women of color and immigrant women, enter public interactions haunted by "controlling images" and accusations of childbearing for welfare (Chang, 2000; Collins, 1998). They carry with them histories molded by being known as suspect people, unworthy of public aid, and undeserving of opportunities reserved for true legal or social citizens (Neubeck & Cazenave, 2001; Soss et al., 2001). Still, these treks into suspicious, sometimes hostile, terrain cannot be avoided. Encounters with public assistance officials, immigration authorities, social workers, school administrators, and potential employers are mandatory and may well determine whether poor families will remain intact and be able to manage daily life. Forced to interact with biased authorities to survive, poor women have developed complex and protective strategies. Some scholarship suggests that poor women are "shut up and shut out" (Reid, 1993) or are socialized not to voice their insights and troubles. Yet, withholding information may be a conscious act of self-protection.

Bourdieu (1990) described common strategy to manage everyday life as adaptation to the particular game of the moment that may or may not mean adherence to the rules. …

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