Agents and Agency: Securing Assistance in the Brokered State

Jennifer Bouek, Brown University

Existing research describes the social safety net as simultaneously fragmented and coordinated. Drawing on three years of relational fieldwork, I explain the contradiction as resulting from the co-production of multi-layered networks. Informed by policies of prioritization and compelled by an underfunded social safety net, some mothers and their children are triaged directly into childcare arrangements via networks of state agents and contracted providers – networks of agents. Agents’ coordination has implications for the functionality of the entire system and for mothers’ agentic decision-making over their children’s care – agency in networks. While the prioritized find themselves deprived of ownership over decisions related to their children’s care, their placement directly into available slots simultaneously functions to restrict non-prioritized families’ access to care. These families must instead capitalize on their own social ties, sometimes with perverse consequences as mothers navigate the relational requirements of the state. Findings here draw needed attention to the role of networks in shaping access to public resources and the possible spillover effects of tiered prioritization schemas amid fiscal austerity.

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 Presented in Session 55. Capitalism, Patriarchy, and the Multi-Layered State