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Visibly Fragile America

Etienne C. Toussaint, Of American Fragility: Public Rituals, Human Rights, and The End of Invisible Man, 52 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2021).

Focusing on Black American lives during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, UDC Law Professor Etienne C. Toussaint’s latest article is a tour de force, which provocatively yet persuasively argues that U.S. history, law, and society iteratively reconstitute socioeconomic inequality through “collective rituals of white supremacy that both create and reconstitute anti-Black racism and redeem white privilege.” (P. 5.) For Toussaint, the catastrophe of pandemic illuminates the fragility of U.S. democracy in two significant ways: not only has the pandemic unmasked “the adverse impact of decades of inequitable laws and public policies in low-income Black communities across the United States[,]” but it has also spotlighted “America’s racially biased, violent, and supervisory policing culture[.]” (P. 3.)

These themes are well-known to scholars of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and poverty law in the United States. Toussaint’s contribution feels exciting and noteworthy because of his skillful synthesis of multiple literatures within legal scholarship and across the disciplines, including inter alia, anthropological theory on rituals; critiques of rights-based discourse (domestic and international) for reifying abstract liberal ideologies of equality, liberty, and universalism; and an adroit evaluation of Martha Fineman’s theory of human vulnerability (and Amartya Sen’s theory of development as freedom) in light of the collective experience of Black Americans under white supremacy.

I particularly enjoyed Toussaint’s review of Critical Legal Studies scholarship that deconstructed domestic “rights-based discourse as a tool to dismantle social and economic inequality” (P. 26) and CRT scholarship that demonstrated “the importance of rights to the freedom struggles of oppressed and marginalized populations, including the plight of Black Americans from chattel slavery to Jim Crow segregation to mass incarceration.” (P. 28.) I also appreciated his argument for advocates to draw upon a reconstructed human rights discourse—tempered by the social struggles of Black Americans—to challenge the normative underpinnings of contemporary U.S. public policy and articulate an emancipatory vision of democracy.

Toussaint’s most important theoretical contribution, however, is his dreadful yet cogent analysis of the ideology of white supremacy. Tousaint uses the lens of the late religious studies scholar Catherine Bell’s theorization of “the ritual, in materialist terms, as a bridge between tradition and an ever-changing social world, a structural mechanism that navigates the tensions between the internal moral self and the external sociopolitical order” (P. 9). He then elaborates:

The historic and ongoing subjugation of Black people in America is forged by discrete “ceremonies” of racial ritualization that use race to construct notions of “domination and resistance within the arena of the social body.” In so doing, rituals of white supremacy create “white sacred time” by enabling historic anti-Black ideas to be “born again,” interrupting modern sociopolitical life with racist traditions that “renew, regenerate, and re-energize their participants, infusing the present with holy meaning.” (P. 10.)

One has only to recall photographs and similar representations of past instances of openly anti-Black racism (e.g., lynching and other practices of racialized and sexualized violence against Black Americans before and after Emancipation) and then compare them to one’s experience or memory of today’s (barely concealed) anti-Black racism (e.g., the incessant killing of Black Americans by police or vigilantes) to feel sick at how apt Toussaint is to identify that public (and private) anti-Black violence recreates “white sacred time,” infuses the present with an unholy meaning, and thereby redeems the ideology of white supremacy for the twenty-first century.

Informed by, and valuing, Black American lives, and their literary distillations like Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, Toussaint discerns and fills a lacuna in U.S. political and sociolegal theory—sacrifice—in particular “the power of institutional arrangements to erase aspects of humanity from our view entirely, such as the involuntary sacrifices that sustain racial hierarchy, and the everyday rituals of white supremacy.” (Pp. 44-45.) With these historical and contemporary realities in mind, Toussaint concludes by urging Americans to engage in “a radical (re)imagination of American democracy, one that wrestles with the erasure of Black sacrifice from the American consciousness and overcomes the ubiquity of racial ritualization that produces invisible citizens.” (Pp. 24-25.)

In closing, I come away from Of American Fragility musing over how to perform different rituals—capable of infusing the present with the sacred significance of interracial justice and other dimensions of intergroup justice and social solidarity.

This is serious scholarship and well worth reading.

Rest in Power

Amadou Diallo (Sept. 2, 1975 – Feb. 4, 1999)
Sean Bell (May 18, 1983 – Nov. 25, 2006)
Oscar Grant (Feb. 27, 1986 – Jan. 1, 2009)
Trayvon Martin (Feb. 5, 1995 – Feb. 26, 2012)
Rekia Boyd (Nov. 5, 1989 – Mar. 21, 2012)
Shantel Davis (May 26, 1989 – Jun. 14, 2012)
Eric Garner (Sept. 15, 1970 – Jul. 17, 2014)
Michael Brown Jr. (May 20, 1996 – Aug. 9, 2014)
Laquan McDonald (Sept. 25, 1997 – Oct. 20, 2014)
Akai Kareem Gurley (Nov. 12, 1986 – Nov. 20, 2014)
Tamir Rice (Jun. 25, 2002 – Nov. 23, 2014)
Natasha McKenna (Jan. 9, 1978 – Feb. 8, 2015)
Walter Lamar Scott (Feb. 9, 1965 ­­– Apr. 4, 2015)
Freddie Gray Jr. (Aug. 16, 1989 – Apr. 19, 2015)
Clementa C. Pinckney (Jul. 30, 1975 – Jun. 17, 2015)
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (Jun. 21, 1960 – Jun. 17, 2015)
Susie Jackson (Jan. 28, 1928 – Jun. 17, 2015)
Ethel Lee Lance (Aug. 30, 1944 – Jun. 17, 2015)
Depayne Middleton-Doctor (Dec. 15, 1965 – Jun. 17, 2015)
Tywanza Sanders (Jul. 23, 1988 – Jun. 17, 2015)
Daniel L. Simmons (Jul. 16, 1940 – Jun. 17, 2015)
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (Sep. 24, 1969 – Jun. 17, 2015)
Myra Thompson (Dec. 5, 1955 – Jun. 17, 2015)
Sandra Bland (Feb. 7, 1987 – Jul. 13, 2015)
Alton Sterling (Jun. 14, 1979 – Jul. 5, 2016)
Philando Castile (Jul. 16, 1983 – Jul. 6, 2016)
Keith Lamont Scott (Feb. 3, 1973 – Sept. 20, 2016)
Stephon Clarke (Aug. 10, 1995 – Mar. 18, 2018)
Botham Shem Jean (Sept. 29, 1991 – Sept. 6, 2018)
Breonna Taylor (Jun. 5, 1993 – Mar. 13, 2020)
George Floyd (Oct. 14, 1973 – May 25, 2020)

And countless other Black Americans whose lives matter.

Cite as: Marc-Tizoc González, Visibly Fragile America, JOTWELL (January 4, 2021) (reviewing Etienne C. Toussaint, Of American Fragility: Public Rituals, Human Rights, and The End of Invisible Man, 52 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2021)), https://lex.jotwell.com/visibly-fragile-america/.

White Parents Searching for White Public Schools

Erika K. Wilson, The New White Flight, 14 Duke J. Const. L. & Pub. Pol’y 233 (2019).

The New White Flight makes two significant contributions to our understanding of race and education. First, it argues that white parents chose to send their children to segregated, disproportionately white schools. This choice is reflected in white residential preferences for areas where “pricing-out mechanisms” ensure that the local school is disproportionately white. (P. 254.) This racially-motivated choice holds “even when school quality is controlled for, meaning that whites tend to choose predominately white schools even when presented with the choice of a more integrated school that is of good academic quality.” (P. 236.) Second, it shows how charter schools give white parents a way to act on their preference for majority white schools even within school districts where only minority of students are white. Charter schools and other school choice programs, by enabling white parents to act on their general preference to avoid schools that are predominantly Black or Latino, facilitate the creation and maintenance of “white charter school enclaves” within larger diverse school districts. (P. 262.)

It would be tempting to write off both contributions with a yawn. A cynic might ask what is new about white parents wanting white schools and school choice enabling educational segregation? That, after all, is the story of how white parents reacted to Brown v. Board of Education. But by forcefully insisting that segregated education today is a result of white parents choosing to avoid predominantly Black schools, Professor Wilson challenges race-neutral explanations for why whites prefer disproportionately white schools. And by laying out the ways charter schools, through their regulatory framework as well as their educational philosophies, cater to white parents seeking to send their kids to disproportionately white schools, Professor Wilson shows the negative consequences of educational choice programs. Ultimately, the article is an eye-opening and sobering look at how the choices of white families further educational inequality at a societal level and even within school districts. It is a valuable read for anyone interested in poverty law, education policy, and property law, but the audience that could most benefit from the article arguably are well-educated urban white parents.

What is most powerful about The New White Flight is that it pulls no punches. Even though the article gives a long list of reasons why white parents might opt to send their kids to predominantly white schools, none of these ultimately excuse those parents. Connecting Milton Friedman’s theoretical justifications from 1955 for a market- or choice-based approach to education to the desire of whites to avoid desegregation, Professor Wilson emphasizes that when white parents “exclude by failing to choose to associate with students of color, the consequence is a form of segregation that is palpable and harmful to students of color.” (P. 251.) Choice is inseparable from exclusion given the racial dynamics of cities and of public education.

Similarly, though it is tempting to categorize educational segregation as merely a consequence of residential settlement patterns along race and class lines, in other words to treat it as a natural result of where people live, Professor Wilson does not buy this distinction. Whites cannot claim refuge in the argument that the local school just happens to be whiter than other schools in the larger urban area. Instead, The New White Flight recognizes that the residential and educational choices of white families together are part of the same story: “whites as a collective are choosing racially segregated schools . . . whites are choosing school segregation.” (P. 253.)

The charter school phenomenon that the article focuses on are those charter schools that are notably whiter than the demographics of the school district overall. Professor Wilson breaks charter schools into four different types. Two types–traditional charter schools that focus on rigorous, back-to-basics education and conversion charter schools that are basically failed public schools flipped into a charter school arraignment–tend to have more students of color and low-income students. The other two types–prestige charter schools that offer progressive or project-based educational approaches and neighborhood preference charter schools–tend to have whiter and wealthier student populations. As Professor Wilson argues that these last two types of charter schools “insulate white students from large numbers of students of color and allow whites to engage in white flight without residential mobility.” (P. 273.)

One example of how this works detailed by Professor Wilson that is particularly troubling is in Georgia, where the charter school legislation states that charter schools must give preference to kids within the proposed school’s attendance zone but allows those proposing the school to define their own attendance zone. (P. 272.) White parents or charter schools serving them can, as a consequence, create charter schools that target predominantly white neighborhoods and that by design will have a mostly white student population. If all Professor Wilson’s article did was call out Georgia’s legislation, it would have been a contribution and a sign of how far whites continue to go to use the tools of the state to self-segregate.

Professor Wilson is not writing in a vacuum. There are other important works that look at how the choices of whites, especially white parents, contribute, directly and indirectly, to racial subordination. What makes The New White Flight worth reading even for those people well versed in matters of educational inequality and the reproduction of racial hierarchy is how unflinching it is. It gives no quarter to white parents whose kids are in predominantly white schools. Speaking as a white parent married to a Latina, it can therefore be uncomfortable to read, in part because the choices made while parenting–including where to live and what school to attend–can feel like the most personal and most individual. But as the article shows, the choices white parents make collectively can have tremendous negative impacts on students of color and lower-income students.

Cite as: Ezra Rosser, White Parents Searching for White Public Schools, JOTWELL (November 27, 2020) (reviewing Erika K. Wilson, The New White Flight, 14 Duke J. Const. L. & Pub. Pol’y 233 (2019)), https://lex.jotwell.com/white-parents-searching-for-white-public-schools/.

Private Debt and Public Violence

At the time that I am writing this Jot, in late May 2020, the unemployment rate has climbed above 14%; COVID-19 has once again exposed persistent racial health disparities, and in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor,  communities across the U.S. are rising in protest. Real too is that our country’s small (and largely regressive) provision of economic support, to those whose tentative hold on security was ripped out from under them this Spring, has all but dissolved. Given this searing new reality, one might think that counsel from scholars about the absurdity and cruelty of placing the burden of economic desperation on poor communities themselves would no longer be needed.  Who would think, today, that the very communities of color reeling the most should shoulder the cost of their economic survival? Surely we are thinking more radically and more generously than that. But history does not counsel optimism.  We know that neoliberal inequality functions through a pernicious combination of potent racialized myths and vigorous punitive and extractive legal systems.

So in this jot, written at this particular moment, and as one very small response to all that is unfolding around us, I want to highlight two pieces of scholarship that lay bare the viciousness of one aspect of those neoliberal systems: Tonya Brito’s The Child Support Debt Bubble and Abbye Atkinson’s Rethinking Credit as Social Provision. Both pieces critique social welfare policy that puts the burden of economic security onto the shoulders of those least able to sustain it. Without question, both pieces are exquisitely well done, and if this were normal times, my jot would focus entirely on what these papers argue and their undeniable strengths. And certainly all that is in order, but what I want to focus on, after summary and praise, is the relationship between private debt and public violence.

Brito’s The Child Support Bubble builds on years of qualitative research on the reality of child support collection from poor, predominantly Black men. Brito merges qualitative and quantitative evidence with rich legal knowledge and incisive analysis to easily convince her reader that our systems levy absurd amounts of debt onto the shoulders of poor Black men who will never be able to satisfy that debt. Policies that charge exorbitant interest rates and refuse to lower child support amounts, even when fathers are incarcerated, lead to an absurd and inescapable debt. This leads—much like criminal system debt—to constant involvement of punitive agencies in the lives of these men. It leads also to the further privatization of social welfare support in the form of rules that transfer child support payments not to the mothers of these men’s children but to the government agencies that provide meager amounts of welfare support. In the final section Brito runs a simulation, marshalling the numbers and rules to convince us that the whole thing is rigged to make sure that these fathers will never, ever escape. Brito’s melding of story, legal analysis, structural unpacking and quantitative data leaves her reader convinced that our child support system is nothing more than a trap—both for the poor fathers who will never escape the debt and for the poor mothers and children who will never get the economic support they need. And not only is it a trap, but it is a distraction, one that “obscure[s] the fact that our social welfare system does not sufficiently meet the needs of poor families.” (P. 987.)

Atkinson’s Rethinking Credit as Social Provision, reveals another false and distracting trap. Like the very best of critical scholarship, Atkinson makes visible that which is somehow both totally obvious and somehow hidden. She delivers several of these insights. First for credit to work, a borrower has to borrow from her wealthier future self. Second, credit as social welfare policy assumes that the giving of credit will result in that richer future self. Third, the possibility of higher future income depends not really on the mythic bootstrap-pulling capacity of the borrower but instead on the overall strength of the economic opportunities available to that particular borrower. Fourth, viewing credit as social welfare policy is unrealistic “for low-income Americans in light of wage stagnation and persistent insecurity with respect to employment, income and expenses.” (P. 1148.) And finally, when borrowers default the system acts extractively – pulling whatever wealth exists out of poor communities and into the hands of higher income lenders. Race, of course, has everything to do with this. Extractive debt systems target poor African American and Latinex communities. Despite all this, however, policy makers, both on the right and the left, have come to focus on credit as a significant tool in what Atkinson labels a privatized form of social welfare provision, but Atkinson ultimately views that as a harmful distraction. She urges that “it is time for credit to leave the conversation around social provision for low-income Americans . . .  and [to] redirect our collective focus toward the fundamental, persistent, and underlying challenge of ever-increasing economic, and consequently social, inequality.” (P. 1162.)

Ultimately both Brito and Atkinson share a similar message. A social welfare policy that wields myths of individual rights and responsibilities to mask the ways in which structural racism limits opportunity; a social welfare policy that pulls families apart; a social welfare policy that has more to do with punishment than support, and a social welfare policy that maintains and strengthens inequality by pulling wealth out of those communities – is no social welfare policy at all. We need instead, as both counsel, social welfare policy that directly addresses economic inequality. But we need to remember this is not just about ineffective social welfare policy. It is about racial subordination, maintained by violence. How? Because when racialized myths and distraction fail to maintain inequality, neoliberalism turns to state violence. To see this link clearly we only need remember Walter Scott, an African American man killed by a white police officer in April of 2015 in South Carolina. Scott had been jailed multiple times for failure to pay child support. On that day, once again, there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. We cannot know what was in Scott’s mind as he ran from the officer that day, but he no doubt knew that for him, the best-case scenario was jail and the worst was his death at the hands of the state. And that death can all too easily be traced back to debt.

Wendy Anne Bach, Private Debt and Public Violence, JOTWELL (July 10, 2020) (reviewing Abbye Atkinson, Rethinking Credit as Social Provision, 71 Stan. L. Rev. 2093 (2019) and Tonya Brito, The Child Support Debt Bubble, 9 UC Irvine L. Rev 953 (2019)), https://lex.jotwell.com/private-debt-and-public-violence.

Reclaiming Place-Based Development Incentive

Michelle D. Layser, The Pro-Gentrification Origins of Place-Based Investment Tax Incentives and a Path Toward Community Oriented Reform, __ Wisc. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2019), available at SSRN.

Professor Michelle Layser’s forthcoming article is an attack on the current form of place-based tax incentive programs. Layser argues that while rhetorically such programs are said to help the poor, by design they support gentrification in ways that harm the poor. The article ends with a call to reform place-based incentive programs so that the poor in selected areas actually benefit.

The Pro-Gentrification Origins of Place-Based Investment Tax Incentives and a Path Toward Community Oriented Reform speaks to a number of academic audiences. For tax folks, the article contributes to the expanding universe of critical tax scholarship. For property and local government people, the article does a valuable job connecting tax incentives with both urban redevelopment and place. And for poverty law scholars, Layser takes down an entire program type that might otherwise be seen as a rare bright spot when it comes to how the nation responds to poverty.

Opportunity Zones were created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, arguably the Trump administration’s signature legislative accomplishment. Ostensibly designed to encourage greater investment and siting of businesses in distressed areas, Opportunity Zones offer investors significant long-term tax advantages for siting businesses and investing in designated areas. The Opportunity Zones program is but the latest iteration of a series of place-based tax incentives such as enterprise zones, empowerment zones, and the New Markets Tax Credit Program. Like the programs that preceded it, Opportunity Zones enjoy bipartisan support: Democrats are happy to see money directed at poor communities and Republicans appreciate the business subsidies. Like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the other major antipoverty program that has been politically popular on both sides of the aisle over the last two decades, the Opportunity Zones program is a market affirming approach to dealing with poverty.

Yet, Layser insightfully observes that place-based incentive programs fit awkwardly alongside the simultaneous move in other antipoverty areas towards people-based strategies. For example, even as housing programs switch from place-based public housing to less geographically restricted vouchers, place-based tax incentive programs are all about designated areas. There is of course a risk of over-extending this contrast, but part of what makes place-based incentive programs attractive is that they seem to respond to the fact that place and poverty are linked. Layser does a tremendous job laying out, in a concise yet rich way, the importance of place and the adverse effects of concentrated poverty.

The article’s main argument is that the gentrification facilitated by these place-based tax incentive programs is not a design flaw but a design feature. Gentrification is the goal. Twenty years ago, Audrey McFarlane published one of my favorite poverty articles, Race, Space, and Place: The Geography of Economic Development,1 and in it she questioned development as an unambiguous good for poor urban areas. Though we are now in the era of Opportunity Zones and not Empowerment Zones, reading these two great works side-by-side shows the extent to which these programs continue to reflect a faith that markets, development, and investment will cure all. Promised jobs may not materialize, neighboring communities may be harmed, and even development within the designated areas can be problematic, especially if low-income residents are unable to participate in the growth or are priced out.

Given the problems with place-based tax incentive programs that she lays out so well in the article, one might have expected Layser to argue that it is time to abandon this approach. After all, Layser describes these place-based programs as inefficient and inequitable, which is the ultimate way for a tax professor to call a program “very bad.” But Layser is ultimately an optimist of sorts. She explains that her hope is that the article “helps bridge the fields of tax law and poverty law by demonstrating the untapped potential of place-based investment tax incentives as anti-poverty tools.” To get from her damning critique of place-based tax incentives as a response to poverty to the possibility that such incentives could help poor communities requires some work.

The article ends with a call to use mental mapping exercises in poor communities as a tool when designing tax incentives in order to ensure the incentives are structured to ensure the right benefits flow to those communities. “Past experience with spatially oriented investment tax incentives provides powerful evidence that the interests of poor communities, private industry, and governments will not align absent deliberate efforts to empower community stakeholders,” Layser continues, “One way to empower community stakeholders is through citizen participation.” Layser’s work fits nicely alongside other academic attempts at reviving community participation and a positive story can be told about how participation can lead to better outcomes.2 Frankly, I was not convinced by this final section of the article. It seemed too optimistic about both the politics of the moment and the likelihood regulators and investors would get behind a multiplicity of locally-tailored tax incentives. I worry that, worse-case scenario, participation will be window dressing, taking the form of tokenism. Or, best-case scenario, it will provide an effective tool for redirecting tax incentives in such a way that community needs are prioritized and gentrification is protected against, in which case investors will flee. Layser is quite right to acknowledge that her proposal is likely to face opposition by politicians and businesses.

My pessimism regarding the feasibility and workability of Layser’s idea of community-oriented tax incentives does not detract from the strength of the article. Though the EITC will continue to enjoy first position perhaps when it comes to scholarship that explores the intersection of tax and poverty,3 it is wonderful to see so much work coming out that shows how these two fields are deeply intertwined in other ways as well.4 I am not qualified to say how great a contribution this article makes to the tax literature, but it definitely makes a valuable contribution to the poverty literature. Having heard Professor Layser speak about the work before, I had high expectations and this article meets them. I encourage others to find a time and place to read this important work.

Cite as: Ezra Rosser, Reclaiming Place-Based Development Incentive, JOTWELL (October 22, 2019) (reviewing Michelle D. Layser, The Pro-Gentrification Origins of Place-Based Investment Tax Incentives and a Path Toward Community Oriented Reform, __ Wisc. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2019), available at SSRN), https://lex.jotwell.com/reclaiming-place-based-development-incentive/.

Poverty, Privacy, and Living Out of Reach

Michele Gilman &  Rebecca Green, The Surveillance Gap: The Harms of Extreme Privacy and Data Marginalization, 42 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 253 (2018).

If in general we are to understand that, in our new age of surveillance and pervasive use of data, privacy is dead, something else is happening in poor communities. In Poverty Law scholarship, privacy is framed more accurately as violently absent. Hypersurveillance, hyperregulation, criminalization, stigma, and structural racism have created a world in which, in Khiara Bridges’s words, “state intervention, coercion, and regulation”1 are the norm. Poverty Law scholars also know privacy as something that is, in its idealized liberal form, profoundly inadequate. As Dorothy Roberts argues, “merely ensuring the individuals ‘right to be let alone’—may be inadequate to protect the dignity and autonomy of the poor and oppressed.”2 Indeed a better notion of privacy “includes not only the negative proscription against government coercion, but also the affirmative duty of government to protecting the individual’s personhood from degradation and to facilitate the processes of choice and self-determination.”3

In The Surveillance Gap, Michele Gilman and Rebecca Green quite literally take all these realities and flip them over–revealing both the inevitable retreat that comes from intervention, coercion, and regulation, and the resulting lack of access to legal and institutional supports that might just support self-determination. But the flipping is just a piece of the contribution. After all, for those in the field, none of the facts are all that surprising. What is different here is what all this means for how we theorize privacy and how we create and support resistance.

Gilman and Green identify four groups who they describe as living at privacy’s extremes, groups that are “being seen or tracked too little or too much.” (P. 255.) The four are undocumented immigrants, day laborers, homeless people, and people with felony conviction histories. The “too much” piece of the tracking of these groups is well-known and well-told, both in the article and in the literature referenced above. Certainly the details vary, but all four groups are subject to hypersurveillance and punishment. And, being rational actors all, members of these groups resist through withdrawal. They meet pervasive attempts to track, control, and punish with often-successful attempts to evade detection and to retreat into some semblance of safety and privacy.

If all the surveillance and punishment are Gilman and Green’s “too much,” the “too little” are the real harms that result from that retreat. In one chilling example, “the 1.1 million undocumented children in the United States can suffer from health deficits, because parents are scared to take them to doctors, and educational delays, because parents are scared of enrolling them in school.” (P. 264.) So those who are most marginalized and stigmatized end up not being able to access what meager support might be out there. These harms not only lessen access to traditional social supports, but they also go to the center of our democracy. In short, it is tremendously difficult to participate in any meaningful way when you are deliberately retreating into the shadows.

Gilman and Green aptly describe both the causes and the conditions of living in what they term the surveillance gap. Initially, at least, all this is very depressing. If retreat is the logical and human response to surveillance and punishment, and is in fact a viable form of resistance, the retreat may create a little bit of safety or a semblance of autonomy, but it does not do much to, in Roberts’ framing, “facilitate the processes of choice and self-determination.”4

Gilman and Green acknowledge these enormous theoretical and practical problems, and along the way they provide a comprehensive summary of a wide range of privacy theories, but they do more than that. They conclude with a promising path forward. In short, if living in the surveillance gap means you trade access to support and participation for a minimal and degraded form of safety, then the only solution is to remake the terms of the bargain. Communities need a way both to emerge on different and safer terms, and to demand support separate from stigma. And of course, for that you need power.

For examples of this reframing and emergence Gilman and Green highlight several organizing campaigns. For example, Workers Centers allow day laborers to emerge collectively and make demands on their own terms. Homeless folks in Seattle fought the terms of a surveillance system (HMIS) purportedly designed to help provide services. The organized community wanted the support but they also wanted a different bargain–a choice to access services without an assumption of pathology and without succumbing to surveillance. As Gilman and Green describe, “after lengthy mediations the city adopted an ‘opt-in’ version of HMIS that did not require individuals to receive services or require shelters to participate as a funding condition.” (P. 304.)

In these and other examples, we see communities creating “strategies that give people the autonomy to assert or shed privacy.” These strategies are “essential to their individual dignity and to fulfilling our communal democratic promise.” (P. 305.) As Gilman and Green argue, these examples “show that grassroots organizing, driven by the objectives and insights of affected groups, can be powerful in enhancing autonomy.” (P. 305.) None of this is easy and certainly there is strong resistance to these organizing campaigns, but it is nevertheless a glimmer of a path away from the harms of the surveillance gap.

This article reads like the beginning of work by these scholars on reconceptualizing both privacy theory and remedies to the surveillance gap. I, for one, am going to be paying attention as they take us down that road.

Cite as: Wendy Anne Bach, Poverty, Privacy, and Living Out of Reach, JOTWELL (September 11, 2019) (reviewing Michele Gilman &  Rebecca Green, The Surveillance Gap: The Harms of Extreme Privacy and Data Marginalization, 42 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 253 (2018)), https://lex.jotwell.com/poverty-privacy-and-living-out-of-reach/.