My friend Tonya, a woman in her late thirties who has lived in poverty for decades, called me today. “I feel like a sponge,” she said. “Everyone’s problems trickle down onto me and I absorb them all.”

Tonya was referring to the term “trickle-down economics.” While she didn’t have the exact definition of trickle-down economic theory in mind (trickle-down economics is the idea that tax breaks and other economic benefits provided to businesses and upper income levels “trickle down” to benefit all members of society), she clearly understood that trickle-down economic policies have not worked for her over the decades in which the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically.

Trickle-down prosperity is at best “voodoo economics” and at worst a cruel trick played on the majority of the American people. But trickle-down poverty is all-too-true at the level of families and households. Eighty percent of Americans do not have sufficient savings to weather a two month loss of income. For these millions of people, an illness or job loss affecting one member of a household trickles down and out to networks of friends and family shouldering the responsibility to help pay for basic housing and subsistence food.

Poverty also trickles down from generation to generation. Children who experience poverty are more likely than other children to grow up to be poor. Tonya is already keenly aware of this fact. As a young mother, she could not afford housing. She and her daughter lived in shelters, parks, friends’ living rooms, and – for a time – in the stairwells of local universities. Tonya eventually lost custody of her daughter on the grounds of not providing a safe environment for her. Her daughter did not thrive in the years she lived with relatives, a foster family and in institutional settings. Now in her early twenties, she does not have a high school diploma, struggles with reading and writing, and has never held a job. She does, however, have a baby. And just like when she herself was a young child, she is dependent upon other people offering her a place to stay.

Everyone –extended family and social workers alike – expects that Tonya will take the grandbaby. But Tonya, who finally has a stable place to live, is raising a young son of her own and barely scraping by on a few hundred dollars a month of welfare payments. (Full disclosure: I have known her son since the day he was born and can vouch for Tonya’s dedicated parenting and for her son’s unbelievable cuteness!) For a variety of reasons – lack of education, health challenges, bias against out-spoken Black women – she has not been able to keep a steady job. Most recently she was hired to work at a local supermarket for wages that she describes as “high school kid wages” but was fired after a few weeks when she had to call in sick with a throat infection, despite showing her boss a note from her doctor attesting to her infectious health status.

For the past six months Tonya has been stretching her welfare check to help support her daughter, grandchild and a brother who has mental health problems as well as a criminal record that essentially makes him unemployable. She is terrified that the expenses of taking on another person will take away resources that her son needs. There are days when she does not have the money for bus fare so she cannot take her son to school – a sort of trickle-down educational deficit issue that gravely worries her. She also is behind in her rent and in danger of losing her housing, which would likely mean that her son would be taken from her.

I asked her, “Can’t anyone help you out? Can your mother help? Your son’s father?” “No one has any money,” she replied. “We’re all in the same boat. And I’m the one who’s been keeping it going for everyone but there are days when my head is bobbing up and down to get air. I’m near the snapping point; my hair is falling out and I am having nightmares every night. I don’t know why I can’t get ahead. I can’t even catch up. I see people who have the life I want – a job and a house. There’s something wrong with me that I can’t have those things.”

“Tonya,” I told her. “There’s nothing wrong with you that a good dose of fair and rational economic policies wouldn’t cure.”

explaintrickledowneconomicssmall

You can read more about Tonya here: Sex, race and prison’s violent double standard: Incarcerating men hurts women, too

feature image from Steven Brisson

Maureen Norton-Hawk, co-author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, recently learned that  a participant in our project with poor and criminalized  women has been murdered. Linda’s remains were found  a few days ago in a wooded area near Boston. In light of this sad news, I’ve published a bit of the pertinent article from the local news station, WCVB, followed by Maureen’s heartfelt eulogy. We only wish that as much effort had been put into finding her a home while she was alive as has now been put into identifying her bones.


BROCKTON, Mass. Jan. 7, 2015 —The second set of human remains found in a wooded area in Brockton have been identified, Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said Wednesday. Cruz said the remains were that of Linda Schufeldt, 51, of Quincy.

Eulogy for Linda

by Maureen Norton-Hawk

You could hear her before she ever arrived at my office door. She was always talking rapidly at least one or two octaves above normal. Plopping down on the office chair she would reach into her rolling suitcase that was her constant companion and pull out a package of orange frosted Hostess cupcakes. With a grin she would hand the confectionary to me as she knew that I had a soft spot for them. I never asked how she, as a poor and often homeless woman, could and would give so generously. But that was Linda.

Given her history, one might expect an angry bitter vengeful woman who had been beaten up by life one time too many. Instead of anger, she was an unusually happy, smiling and trusting person who, because of these traits, often found herself exploited or abused. Each time she was victimized she would pick herself up and start again.

It appears that she was brutally murdered. She did not deserve to die this way. As importantly, she did not deserve to live the way that she had to live. In addition to fighting her own personal struggles, she was faced with well-intentioned agencies that always fell short of what she needed. So she would start down the long road to recovery, fail when support was withdrawn or when she did not live up to the formal regulations and then have to start again. At least you don’t have to struggle anymore Linda. Rest in peace.

This is the second “Reader’s Guide to Updates” on the women of Can’t Catch a Break. (Click here for the previous update.) Not all of the conversations, observations and anecdotes that I’ve posted here are profound, but I post them to help all of us (my readers as well as myself) remember that these women are real, multi-faceted people who, like us, face challenges both trivial and great, and who, like us, respond to those challenges in a variety of (often inconsistent) ways.

This post centers on their experiences around the Christmas 2014 holiday season. For many Americans, holidays present economic and interpersonal challenges. For poor, marginalized, ill, criminalized and homeless Americans those challenges are magnified. How can one afford to buy gifts when living on a monthly $700 SSI check? How can one put on the kind of family Christmas celebrations that television and movies show (incessantly!) when one doesn’t even have a home, or when one has lost custody of her children, or even worse – when one is sitting in jail or in a closed rehab facility?

But it’s not all bad news. The holidays can also bring out the best in people. Several women of Can’t Catch a Break received donations of toys to give their children — toys donated by generous strangers. One woman celebrated with her children for the first time in a decade. And one woman cooked her first Christmas dinner ever with a group of new friends. Continue reading

My colleague Maureen Norton-Hawk and I recently had an opportunity to speak about our book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the the Limits of Personal Responsibility at a book launch at Suffolk University.

This link will take you to a four minute segment on our struggles to find an appropriate way to describe the criminalized and marginalized women whose stories we tell in Can’t Catch a Break. In this video we explain why we rejected “criminal” “homeless” and a few other descriptors, and why we decided to go simply with “women.”

This link will take you to the full forty-five minute video that includes a brief reading from the book and well as a few of our funny and not-so-funny experiences as researchers.

This was a hard week. Threatened with a 60 year prison sentence for firing a warning shot in the presence of her chronically abusive husband, Marissa Alexander agreed to a plea “bargain.” She’ll spend another 65 days in jail, on top of the 1,030 days she’s already been locked up.

Two days earlier, my friend Elizabeth was murdered by a man against whom she had taken out a restraining order. Francesca, a mutual friend, commented when she heard about Elizabeth: “The courts don’t realize that a piece of paper doesn’t save you. It’s exactly what it is — a piece of paper.”

Elizabeth (a pseudonym) was one a group of women I first met more than six years ago as part of a long-term project aimed at understanding the daily lives of Boston-area women who have been criminalized, marginalized and abused. Not always easy to be around, Elizabeth frequently wept from the pain in her life – the death of her sister and of her boyfriend, ten years of homelessness, numerous assaults, rape, struggles with alcohol and depression, a broken collarbone and shoulder that had not healed properly. But at unexpected moments she’d look up from her wad of tissues and, cracking a grin, poke fun at her own propensity to break into tears not only when sad but also when someone did something nice for her. Like buying her a cup of coffee. Or saying “Happy Birthday.” Or remembering that she once won a beauty contest. Or praising her generosity in sharing a cigarette or a dollar with someone who had even less than she had. Or giving her the mass transit pass to which she was entitled for participating in the project. “You are so nice to me and I don’t deserve it. I’m a whack job,” Elizabeth would tell me on a regular basis. Continue reading

The publication of Can’t Catch a Break is not the end of the stories of the women whose life experiences are described in the book. We continue to spend time with some of the women and as we do we learn more about their lives – both the challenges they face and the strategies they use to address those challenges. It is important for us to convey to readers that these women are not “objects of inquiry” but real human beings who, like all of us, change their attitudes and their circumstances over periods of years, months and even days.

This page is a “Reader’s Guide to Updates” on the women whom you have come to know through the book. In some instances we’ve written full-fledged blog entries about issues that their experiences illuminate. In other cases we’ve simply added a few sentences under their names. All names are pseudonyms.

Please check back – we will continue to post updates!

Andrea: Andrea is settled in a studio apartment, but – much to her annoyance — her boyfriend has moved in with her. According to Andrea he is “too proud” to sign up for housing or food stamps.

Ashley: Ashley has a steady job (though she is underpaid and overworked), a nice apartment, and a lovely boyfriend. Unfortunately she was hit by a car about a year ago and is still struggling with severe back pain, as well as with doctors who too liberally prescribe pain meds for her.

Carly: Carly has lost a great deal of weight, remains involved in her church, and still cannot land a job.

Elizabeth: After ten years, Elizabeth finally has her own apartment. She feels safe for the first time in years and is trying to put her life back together. Sadly, her father passed away this year. Her brother, her closest living relative, seems to have inherited her father’s property and he has taken out a restraining order against Elizabeth. Caste Away: Mass Incarceration and the Hardening of Economic Inequality

November 2014: Elizabeth was beaten to death, on her own living room couch, by a man against whom she had taken out a restraining order. The man who killed her currently is being held on $500,000 bail.

Francesca: Over the past two years Francesca has moved in with and away from Joey several times. She returns because she needs a place to live. She leaves because Joey is verbally abusive. She remains deeply involved with her sons and her granddaughters, and posts frequent pictures of her granddaughters playing with her and their fathers. Yesterday (October 2014) I met Francesca at her new place: a one bedroom apartment she is sharing with her man [not Joey!], a friend’s daughter and the daughter’s girlfriend, and a another young woman. She is thrilled that her name is on the lease so she is not at the whim of the official tenants, but the place is really, really crowded. But the bigger news (for me!) is that I had the honor of sitting with her while she read the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Can’t Catch a Break. She is the “star” of both of these sections — and she LOVES the book and told me that “you got it.” She laughed at the changes I made to her name and certain identifying characteristics (for the sake of preserving her anonymity in the book) reminded me that we’re planning to write something together on the absurdity of young women straight out of college who work for Children’s Services being able to tell experienced moms like her what they have to do. For Francesca, reading the book was a bit of a walk down memory lane. For me, seeing and hearing her reactions are the most important validation of my work that I could ever hope to get.  White Women, Opiates and Prison

Ginger: Ginger’s beloved mother passed away several months ago. As soon as her outstanding court case is settled (see The New Price of Freedom: $40 (Bail Blog #2) | The Courtroom was a Circus: Bail Blog #3 – $190 and Counting) she will move out of state to live with her brother, his wife and their toddler.

Gloria: Sex, race and prison’s violent double standard: Incarcerating men hurts women, too

Isabella: Isabella is happily married to the man with whom she became involved after she left Reese. They are both on methadone maintenance and out of jail. Neither has a job.

Joy: Joy continues to cycle through jail, detox, psychiatric wards and the streets. She recently told me that she doesn’t expect that she’ll survive much longer. Guilty Until Proven Innocent | Suicide is Painful  | Suicide is Painful, Update

Junie: Junie’s health has severely deteriorated. The last time I saw her she was in respite care. I have not been able to contact her for several months.

Kahtia: On the outside, things look great. She and Enrique are still together, they have their own apartment, and the children are holding their own. On the inside, things are not so good. She has been severely depressed and anxious, and feels that “my life is falling apart.” Over the past year she has had half a dozen health emergencies. Today she told me that the doctor is sending her for a CT scan because “I can’t remember anything, where I put things. I can’t find my medicine. I can’t find my daughter’s shoes in the morning and so she’s late for school. She’s in the best school around here and I’m afraid they won’t let her stay in this school.”

Megan: Megan has been in and out of jail and the hospital. She is no longer able to care for her children.

Melanie: Civil Commitment: If You Build It They Will Come

Tonya: Sex, race and prison’s violent double standard: Incarcerating men hurts women, too

Vanessa: I speak to her on the phone but haven’t seen her for a while. She was living in a rooming house but her room was infested with bugs. She had to throw away all of her clothes and furniture when she moved to another rooming house.

 

9780520282780_SeredOur new book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs and the Limits of Personal Responsibility is now available through University of California Press, Amazon and other bookstores.

The book presents the work Maureen Norton-Hawk and I have been doing for the past six years following the experiences of a group of women post-incarceration in Massachusetts. Through interviews and ethnographic fieldwork we accompanied the women as they navigated a variety of programs, services and life events.Most of the book is made up of the women’s stories and how their stories evolved over time.

Each chapter focuses on a particular woman as she moves among  home, the streets, rehabilitation programs, correctional institutions, hospitals, clinics and shelters; among happy, sad, abusive and deeply caring relationships with friends, family and romantic partners; and among churches, Twelve Step groups, therapists and therapeutic treatment of various sorts.

We remain in touch with some of the women. You can read about their recent experiences here.

Here is an excerpt from the Introduction:

“The majority of the forty-seven of the women we first met in 2008 began their lives in working class families. Most were sexually abused as children. Nearly all witnessed their mothers’ being beat on or yelled at by husbands or boyfriends. Several women became addicts through prescribed pain or anxiety medication in the wake of an illness, injury or a botched medical procedure. In their twenties most scraped by in the unstable occupational sectors of the working poor: food service and nursing homes, and raised their young children with sporadic financial contributions of male partners and public assistance. Poor health eventually made it impossible for nearly all of the women to hold down jobs, leading to homelessness and vulnerability to violence and exploitation. Several remember pleasant childhoods with strong and positive family relations, but found their lives spiraling downward as adults when in a period of a few years their parents died and they could not afford to keep up the rent or mortgage payments. Almost all of the project participants have used drugs, in their words, “to numb myself” – particularly in the context of engaging in sex work in order to feed themselves and their children.

“All of the project women have been incarcerated, typically for a few months at a time and typically for prostitution, shoplifting (often of small cosmetic items), possession of small amounts of drugs, accessory in a crime committed by a boyfriend or husband, in several cases public drunkenness, and – most frequently – violation of the terms of probation or parole associated with a minor charge. (Only one of the forty-seven women in the project was incarcerated for a crime against another person.) Incarceration leads to loss of custody of, and often loss of contact with, their children. Coming out of prison with no money, no home, their children gone, and a criminal record that makes them unemployable, the women became dependent upon men, public services and the underground economy.”

“Over the past five years we have seen the same women sober and high, homeless and housed, employed and unemployed, in a supportive relationship and abused by a boyfriend, enthusiastically attending church and stigmatized by church members, involved on a daily basis with their children and out of the children’s lives, sick and healthy, happy and despondent. Sometimes they tell us how well things are going: perhaps they finally got housing, a kind boyfriend, sobriety, charges dropped, health care, surgery, better medication, food stamps, visits with children, a part-time job, a wonderful new caseworker, or reconciliation with estranged family members. We have learned over the years that how well things are going one month or one year is unlikely to predict how things will go later down the line. An individual sometimes will look and sound and act like a poster child for the category “working poor” as it was used during the Clinton administration: A worthy, productive, hardworking soul who with a bit of help will climb the rungs of America’s economic ladder. The same woman a year earlier or a year later will look and sound and act strung out, down and out, “shit out of luck” – the unworthy, unproductive “welfare queen” or “crack whore” who cares more about dope than about jobs or her children. That these transitions are so commonplace suggests to us that the line between scraping by and not scraping by has become exceedingly fragile in contemporary America.”

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1:

When Francesca came bursting onto the scene at the drop-in center for poor and homeless women she brought a quick spark of energy into the circle of worn-out faces and worn-down bodies slumped in armchairs, nodding off while watching the Jerry Springer show and waiting for the shelters to re-open at 4:00. Outspoken, energetic and full of plans, she declared how terrible it is that Boston’s “Mayor Menino stands by while so many people have to live on the street.” With a few tosses of her long, shiny hair, Francesca announced her dream of opening and running a facility that “welcomes everyone.” Five minutes later she swept out the door into the August heat with a promise to “buy Pepsi for everybody,” and Ginger resumed her desultory search through a pile of donated toiletries, Elizabeth carried on weeping into a handful of tissues and Vanessa went back to scratching her arm and poking around in the trash in hopes of finding a cigarette stub long enough to take outside and light up.

A week later Francesca returned to the women’s center. Flashing her brand-new bright turquoise acrylic nail extensions, she pulled a sequined mini-dress and a pair of 1960s style “go-go” boots out of a bag. With the recession of 2007 shutting down employment opportunities for undereducated and unskilled workers, she had taken one of the few jobs she could get — waitressing and dancing at a local strip club. Thrilled with the clothes and even more thrilled with the admiration from the male patrons, she was nevertheless firm that she would not have sex with the customers — she wouldn’t even let them kiss her on the cheek. But by late fall her situation became tense. At the club, she said, “the owners expect the girls to have sex for money.” As time went on, she began going out on “dates” and drinking more heavily as a way to put up with the pressures of the men at the club. “It is starting to get out of control.”

Just a few months later Francesca injured a ligament in her leg. Unable to go on dancing, she was fired on the spot. Initiating what would become our routine over the next five years, Francesca called us. We picked her up a block away from the club and drove her to the apartment of an old boyfriend who was willing to let her stay with him at night but would not give her a key or allow her to stay in the apartment by herself during the day. Now a regular at the women’s drop-in center, she maintained her outward tough “I don’t take crap from anyone” style but began to confide to us that she felt afraid and vulnerable. “All I do is walk around all day – I have no place to go.” Her arthritis had become increasingly painful (the joints in her fingers looked miserably swollen) and “I have a pain in my throat that my doctor thinks might be throat cancer. My father died of cancer.” Often on the verge of tears, she even considered suicide. “I just can’t catch a break anywhere.”

Here is the Table of Contents:

1. “Joey Spit on Me”: How Gender Inequality and Sexual Violence Make Women Sick
2. “Nowhere to Go”: Poverty, Homelessness, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility
3. “The Little Rock of the North”: Race, Gender, Class, and the Consequences of Mass Incarceration
4. Suffer the Women: Pain and Perfection in a Medicalized World
5. “It’s All in My Head”: Suffering, PTSD, and the Triumph of the Therapeutic
6. Higher Powers: The Unholy Alliance of Religion, Self-Help Ideology, and the State
7. “Suffer the Children”: Fostering the Caste of the Ill and Afflicted
8. Gender, Drugs, and Jail: “A System Designed for Us to Fail”
Conclusion: The Real Questions and a Blueprint for Moving Forward

Here is a review from Publisher’s Weekly:

In this passionate, deeply researched study, Suffolk University sociologists Sered and Norton-Hawk argue that prisons have “become the way that America deals with human suffering,” especially the suffering of women, who are being incarcerated at ever higher numbers. The authors, who closely studied 47 formerly incarcerated women in the Boston area for 5 years, examine both how women land in prison and how fragile their lives are after release. They discuss the inarguable connections between being abused and getting arrested. Reaganomics and welfare reform, Sered and Norton-Hawk argue, have had disastrous consequences for these women, both before and after incarceration. In particular, lack of stable housing makes women who have been imprisoned more dependent on men. In the study’s most original chapter, the authors argue that the therapeutic and mental health services available to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, rather than directing attention to how society has stacked the deck against marginal women and suggesting political solutions, teach that people’s problems are the result of their own unhealed trauma. This compelling and important book deserves to be widely read.

Here is a short article about the gorgeous painting on the cover of the book:

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Color Drenched Acts of Resistance

by Caitlin O’Hara

Can’t Catch a Break, published this month, is a brilliant book that teases out the nuanced relationship between gender, drugs, and jail in many women’s lives.

We asked coauthor Susan Starr Sered the story behind the cover image, which features an abstract image of bold colored stripes, dripping paint, and few hints as to how to contextualize what we’re seeing.

In an email, Susan describes her search in vain for appropriate images dealing with women and prison. The results depicted literal prison imagery that didn’t capture the range of experiences of the women her book profiles, or “disgustingly voyeuristic male-fantasy pornography.”

And then she came upon “this gorgeous image.” The piece is part of an installation by artist Markus Linnenbrink, at the JVA/Prison in Düsseldorf, in a 132 ft long underground tunnel that connects its security check to the visitors’ area. The artist explains that the JVA prison is considered “a model institution and has been designed to deal with security and humanity as best as possible, thus the desire for a unique approach [to its visitor entrance].” You can find more images and information about the project at this Colossal profile.

“It’s hard for me to describe why this image struck me so forcefully,” Sered writes. “Perhaps the vertical lines look like bars made out of women’s make-up and nail polish. The color dripping down from the horizontal stripes looks as if it’s weeping. The ambitious horizontal stripes decaying down into drips on the wall evoke, for me, the mess that’s come of the good intentions behind trying to cut down on crime, drug use and so on. And finally, people in prison spend so much time with nothing to do but stare at blank walls, so I love imagining those walls as color drenched acts of resistance.”

And with that, Sered cuts to the heart with precision, as she does so often throughout the book. Beyond interpretations of line, color, drip, and context, what captivates is the image’s undefinable power: inviting yet defiant; strong despite, and owing to, its imperfections. Just like the women this book profiles.

And follow this link to the “Page 99 test” discussion of Can’t Catch a Break. “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”