Book Project: "They're Stealing My Opportunity to Be a Father": The Child Support System and State Intervention in the Family

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Abstract: My book project uses ethnographic data from a system in Virginia to examine the implications of child support system involvement for parenthood and family. I conducted observations of 300 support hearings and 75+ hours in child support related sites. I also conducted 50 formal and informal interviews with parents and individuals working in the system (i.e. judges, mediators, attorneys, and enforcement staff), as well as an analysis of a diverse collection of cultural artifacts (i.e. federal, state, and municipal statutes; news articles and video clips; and political rhetoric). I use a cognitive sociological framework to analyze the data, focusing on symbolic systems of meaning, cultural norms, (in)attention, and filters of perception and relevance. My findings illuminate the ways that shame and stigma are pervasive in social interactions, how parents both resist and reinforce the system’s bureaucratic apparatus, and the collateral consequences of enforcement. Ultimately, I demonstrate that the child support system functions as a neoliberal construct at the intersection of the welfare and criminal justice systems, and reinforces cultural messages about deservingness, morality, responsibility, and the desirability of traditional family structures.



Battle, Brittany Pearl. 2019. "'They Look at You Like You're Nothing': Stigma and Shame in the Child Support System." Symbolic Interaction

Abstract: More than 22 million or 1 in 4 children in the United States are currently served by the child support program. This program, the third largest used to address childhood poverty, regulates non‐custodial parents' financial support of their children through federal, state, and municipal legislation and policies. The collateral consequences, particularly those related to economic stability and criminal justice involvement, associated with child support system participation have been widely studied. However, many of the interpersonal interactions between those who have cases in the system and those who work in the system have been largely ignored. In this article, I use courtroom observations, in‐depth interviews, and cultural artifacts to explore the practices of stigmatization and shaming in this important legal and bureaucratic process. I explore stigma and shame in three thematic areas: (1) shame in social interactions, (2) shame as a tool of social control, and (3) the social consequences of shame. I ultimately suggest that stigma and shame in the child support system, resembling that in the welfare and criminal justice systems, reinforces cognitive boundaries between parents perceived as “responsible” and those perceived as “deadbeats.”



Battle, Brittany Pearl. 2019. "War Widows and Welfare Queens: The Semiotics of Deservingness in the American Welfare System." Pp. 583-603 in The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Sociology. Eds. Wayne H. Brekhus and Gabe Ignatow. PDF.

Abstract: The social issue of poverty has been a persistent source of debate in the American system of policy development, influenced by conceptual distinctions between the “haves” and “have-nots,” “working moms” and “unemployed dads,” and the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor.” Although there is a wealth of literature discussing the ideological underpinnings of stratification systems, these discussions often focus on categorical distinctions between the poor and the non-poor, with much less discussion of distinctions made within the poor. Moreover, while scholars of culture and policy have long referenced the importance of cultural categories of worthiness in policy development, the theoretical significance of these distinctions has been largely understudied. I expand the discourse on the relationship between cultural representations of worth and social welfare policy by exploring how these categories are conceptualized. Drawing on analytical tools from a sociology of perception framework, I create a model that examines deservingness along continuums of morality and eligibility to highlight the taken-for-granted cultural subtleties that shape perceptions of the poor. I focus on social filters created by norms of poverty, welfare, and the family to explore how the deserving are differentiated from the undeserving.



Battle, Brittany Pearl. 2018. "Deservingness, Deadbeat Dads, and Responsible Fatherhood: Child Support Policy and Rhetorical Conceptualizations of Poverty, Welfare, and the Family." Symbolic Interaction.

Abstract: Since 1974, the U.S. federal government has passed more than 30 pieces of legislation related to child support. Such policies have significant implications for children and their custodial and noncustodial parents. I examine the evolution of these policies since the 1970s through cultural conceptualizations of poverty, welfare, and the family in presidential rhetoric. Using written and oral presidential statements from 1970 to 2011 as a symbolic representation of the nation’s collective attention, I identify three themes—deservingness, deadbeat dads, and responsible fatherhood. These themes correspond with major shifts in child support policy through periods of welfare reform, the criminalization of the noncustodial father, and the strengthening of families, and helped to legitimize substantial shifts in child support policy over time.