Doing family while poor: agentic hopelessness as lived knowledge

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  • 1 Open University of Israel, , Israel
  • | 2 Ben Gurion University of the Negev, , Israel
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What does ‘doing family while poor’ teach us about agency, resilience and care under COVID-19? Set against a dual backdrop of increasing economic hardships and expanding inequalities, and in light of a shifting perspective in poverty and family studies, we employ David Morgan’s family practices approach to study the lived realities of family life through the perspective of everyday relationships. Our research, led by a team comprised of academics and activists who themselves endure poverty, is set to allow people experiencing poverty to document their everyday lives. In their journals we identify a form of social awareness to the politics of poverty, which consist of negative emotions emanating from one’s daily struggles against the harsh reality of inequality, yet do not lead to paralysis and inaction. We dub this state agentic hopelessness.

Abstract

What does ‘doing family while poor’ teach us about agency, resilience and care under COVID-19? Set against a dual backdrop of increasing economic hardships and expanding inequalities, and in light of a shifting perspective in poverty and family studies, we employ David Morgan’s family practices approach to study the lived realities of family life through the perspective of everyday relationships. Our research, led by a team comprised of academics and activists who themselves endure poverty, is set to allow people experiencing poverty to document their everyday lives. In their journals we identify a form of social awareness to the politics of poverty, which consist of negative emotions emanating from one’s daily struggles against the harsh reality of inequality, yet do not lead to paralysis and inaction. We dub this state agentic hopelessness.

Introduction

How do families who experience persistent poverty make do? What does ‘doing family while poor’ teach us about agency, resilience and care under COVID-19? Set against a dual backdrop of increasing economic hardships and expanding inequalities, some of which are pandemic related and some are not, and in light of a shifting perspective in poverty and family studies, this article focuses on everyday practices of families in poverty. With the outbreak of COVID-19, and particularly following the imposition of a series of lockdowns, the home and family life had become the primary arena where those who live imperilled lives were required to cope with the new emergency. In this article, we rely on the self-documenting journals of people who are living in poverty to shed light on family life at times of extreme emergency. Specifically, we ask how this forced enclosure at home affected the habitual manoeuvring and managing of material and immaterial resources and their accrual and redistribution within the family.

Poverty studies have seen conceptual, epistemological and methodological turns leading to debates over what defines poverty and how should it be measured and treated (Grusky and Weeden, 2013; Daly and Kelly, 2015). As of late, poverty is seen not just as a political problem that must be conceptualised holistically, nor as a mere violation of human rights that is simultaneously structural, subjective and experiential (Gupta, 2011; Lister, 2021). Increasingly, poverty is understood as a relational condition, constantly made and reproduced in everyday reiterations via media and public discourses and the multiple interactions between social agents and state officials, such as social workers and school teachers, and with family members (Daly and Kelly, 2015; Hall, 2019; Krumer-Nevo, 2020; Lubbers et al, 2020; Lister, 2021).

As poverty studies seek to account for these interactions and for the interrelationships in which those who experience poverty are embedded, we discern in recent decades a genuine effort to foreground the ‘voice of the poor’, and so to develop poverty-aware social policies that take into consideration their everyday experiences and their points of view on their predicament (Lister, 2002; 2021; Chambers, 2013; Daly and Kelly, 2015; Boone et al, 2019; Krumer-Nevo, 2020; Beresford and Degerickx, 2021). Such participatory frameworks have helped develop a mezzo-level conceptualisation of poverty that is neither economistic nor cultural, but rather, is practice-based, interactive and, as suggested, relational (Hall, 2019). A practice-based, relational conceptualisation of poverty is attentive to ‘changing processes, practices and relationships around the accrual and use of resources’ as they occur mundanely (Daly, 2018: 566). Our project stems from this latter line of inquiry, paying particular attention to the struggles of ‘doing family while poor’.

Studying poverty from a family practice orientation is more than simply looking at how families in poverty function. The family, as Mary Daly (2018: 566) contends, should be conceived of as being concomitantly structural and relationship‐based. It is thus ‘an economic and structural arrangement and a normative institution’ and ‘a set of relationships and practices’ (Daly, 2018: 566). Insofar as family members share a household, a term that draws apt criticism (Morgan, 1996: 22; Daly, 2018: 566–7), they are engaged in relationships that sum up to ‘doing family’ (Morgan, 1996; 2019). Indeed, ‘[e]very time someone does something – offers care or advice, sends a text, cooks a meal – for someone else who is identified as being related in family terms, then we see that particular family configuration being reconstructed and reaffirmed’ (Morgan, 2019: 2231). These enactments of family life, ‘family practices’ in Morgan’s term, are not configured solely by relationships within the family. When it comes to the agency of people in poverty who struggle to make ends meet, who must calculate and manage their resources while caring for their families’ welfare and wellbeing, it is difficult not to see how, not only does poverty affect the family, but, as Daly (2018) aptly claims, family practices affect poverty (also Jenvey, 2013: 196).

Indeed, our study initially was not set to search for family practices but rather to document the experience of living in poverty as it was affected by the pandemic, and in particular by the condition of lockdown. We quickly learnt that this forced ‘curfew’ has been at once a continuation of an ‘ordinary’ crisis of poverty (Gupta, 2011) and the unsettling of the routine practices of making do (Levy et al, 2021). This new emergency and the particular challenges of ‘doing family’ has forcefully emerged from the personal journals of the women and men who shared their everyday experiences with us.

This article unfolds in three steps. We begin with what we know about poverty and family in general and in Israel in particular. We pay particular attention to the epistemological question of how to investigate families living in poverty in ways that neither merely describe their ontological reality nor fall into either economistic or culturalist explanations. In many respects poverty is still discursively construed as either a weak access to economic resources, or an individual’s cultural deficiency (Lyon-Callo and Hyatt, 2003; Salamon, 2010; Jenvey, 2013: 193; Shildrick and MacDonald, 2013; Santiago, 2015; Feldman, 2020). Instead, we have turned to David Morgan’s family practices approach. By accentuating the active, simultaneous and interactional nature of doing family, this approach lends itself to conceptualising poverty in a non-causal way, thereby offsetting explanations that still tend to blame the victim, to focus on intergenerational reproduction of poverty and to ignore the potential agency of the disenfranchised.

In the next step, we explore our specific methodology, which aims at mitigating the inherent alienation and power relations in poverty studies. To this end, two research strategies were employed: a self-documentation tool, by which our volunteering participants created the data; and having a team comprising both academics and political activists who themselves experience poverty. By these means our trust in the tacit, lived knowledge when analysing the data was ensured. Our findings on doing family are organised according to the recurring themes that emerged from the volunteers’ journals (and supplementary interviews).

Finally, we discuss our findings and present a concluding argument for an understanding of family life in poverty beyond the prevalent binaries of either complacency or resistance, or survival versus resilience. Rather, we argue, family practices are organised around an affective logic that we dub agentic hopelessness, which, we propose, is the ability to feel negative emotions and express them, yet without falling into passivity or inoperativeness.

Family life and poverty

Family, as Morgan claimed, is a quality, or a process, which is constantly being done and redone (Morgan, 1996: 186; 2011; also Daly and Kelly, 2015; Knapp and Wurm, 2019: 218–19). The doing family approach ‘emphasizes interactional work and activities that create and sustain family ties, define family boundaries, as well as specify appropriate behaviours for different family members’ (Sarkisian, 2006: 804). Daly (2018: 573) has proposed to adopt this dynamic approach to families in order to better understand how family practices influence poverty, and hence to understand poverty better.

Poverty is a political phenomenon, a structural violation of human rights sustained by a collective misrecognition (Gupta, 2011; Selwyn, 2015; Brando and Schwieger, 2019). Indeed, poverty studies have expanded and evolved from the 1960s when they were focused on either statistical or cultural descriptors to explain poverty or its causes. While the former dominated economistic approaches, which perceived poverty as the lack of access to generating income resources, the cultural approach, which has re-emerged in recent decades, asked what is it about ‘the poor’ and their cultural repertoires that makes them ‘deficient’ (Daly, 2018: 567; McDermott and Vossoughi, 2020). Both approaches place poverty at the individual level. However, while these two approaches refer to the settings in which individuals are embedded, both fail to conceptualise the relationships between those settings and the respective individuals. In other words, they both disregard the family as the ontological context of poverty. The economistic approach thus refers to the household as the unit of analysis, assuming it to be an (ir)rational unitary agent (Daly, 2018). Yet, ‘household’ is a term that emphasises resources, typically material ones, and their accrual and distribution. As Morgan (1996: 28) contended, this leaves the issue of ‘how economic inequalities and disadvantages are mediated through domestic relations’ controversial. Indeed, using household terminology tends to obscure other resources that are accrued as part of family life: namely, ongoing relationships, affective investments and intricate power dynamics, as well as agentic practices of family members (Daly, 2018: 570).

Conversely, while culture of poverty explanations do take into account family arrangements, these explanations perceive the family as a cause for ‘a weak psychological base for building idealized middle class values and careers’ within the individual (McDermott and Vossoughi, 2020: 62). If from an economistic point of view families are irrelevant, culturalists regard them as a cause rather than a symptom of the condition of poverty (Daly, 2018). Arguably, then, in both explanations families remain secondary, and the agency of family members and their own understandings of their life predicament are overlooked.

Responding to these lacunae, we propose that the need to research poverty from a family practices perspective is not a mere ontological choice, namely, recognising that there are families that experience poverty and that this calls for studying them. Rather, researching families in poverty amounts to an epistemological imperative. Simply put, it is not enough to study families in poverty per se, since how we study the relationship between family and poverty makes a difference. Following Daly and Kelly (2015) we too focus on the interactions and practices within and without family members, adopting a Morganian doing family approach. This helps us to better theorise and account for ‘activities and factors that generate or degenerate resource levels for the unit as a whole [as well as] the normative and other practices associated with resource disbursal within the family setting’ (Daly, 2018: 573). Moreover, as Daly aptly argues, from an epistemological point of view, a family practice approach transcends the abovementioned distinction between economic and cultural factors. Instead of focusing on individuals, and more significantly, rather than espousing causal explanations of poverty, a family practice approach politicises poverty by shedding light on the everyday routine of family life and on family members’ own understandings of their life world.

Understanding poverty as a political phenomenon, we find three main reasons for adopting a family practice approach. First, while individuals experience poverty, their experiences are not isolated from their interrelationships. Second, while statistics measure poverty on the individual level, state policies place families before individuals. Finally, and as has already been established (Daly and Kelly, 2015; Daly, 2018; Hall, 2019), family practices, and their typical power and care dynamics, affect poverty: that is, how families cope with poverty. Before moving ahead, let us expand on this.

Under the neoliberal political economy, state policies are not merely responsible for reproducing persistent poverty. They equally create the very discursive mechanisms that misrecognise poverty as a matter of individual choice or misfortune (Lister, 2015; Kane, 2018; Helman, 2019; Feldman, 2020; Benjamin, 2020a). Thus, for example, by seeing welfare-reliant women as potential entrepreneurs, what matters for policy making is the necessity to either re-acculturate them as self-reliant individuals or to improve their access to economic resources (Helman, 2019). All other relationships must be put aside to allow them to become efficient breadwinners. Yet, while state statistics keep on measuring poverty in individual terms, its policies place families ahead of individuals, especially by demanding ‘failing’ individuals to seek refuge in a ‘well-functioning’ family. As Melinda Cooper (2020) showed in her apt exploration of the neoliberal concern with the protection of family values, neoliberals jumped on the idea of conserving the traditional family as a means to relegate the welfare state into the dustbin of history, driving American society back to the 19th-century poor laws tradition.

Yet, while neoliberals reverted to the family in order to place the burden of poverty on the shoulders of individuals, Daly and Hall, to cite two recent salient examples, do so in order to better account for the experience of being poor. People who are living in poverty do not do that alone or on their own. Most of them live in a house in kinship relations. And when they do so, they are routinely engaged in interactions and interrelationships, within and without, which constitute the family. And while all individuals experience numerous troubles in the course of their lives, these troubles occur mostly in the context of specific relationships, of which family relationships may be the most significant (Morgan, 2019: 2225–6).

Poverty, we propose, is one major ‘family trouble’. According to Morgan (2019: 2226), ‘[t]rouble refers to the ways in which [a] problem both disrupts the normal expectations of the full set of relevant family members, but which can also be seen as part of everyday family life’. In this context, it is particularly important to understand how those who live the ‘poverty trouble’ understand its constraints and what meanings they are giving to this trouble (Daly, 2018: 575). And when this trouble coincides with the ‘COVID-19 trouble’, it becomes even more pertinent to understand how doing family is experienced and seen from the perspective of those who manage themselves within the family setting in order to maintain it economically and mentally.

Families and poverty in Israel

On poverty and families

War against Poverty was the chosen title of a 2013 government-appointed committee that convened to set goals to reduce the level of poverty. Yet, it is difficult to claim that the ensuing policies tackled poverty heads on (Krumer-Nevo, 2020: 3–5). Research consistently shows that Israel fares worse than capitalist democracies in Europe in social investment, and it fails to reduce the incidence of poverty. In 2017, Israel was ranked third among OECD countries with 12.9 per cent of workers earning income below the poverty line (a little less than double that figure in the UK, for instance; OECD, 2020: 5). In terms of disposable income, Israel’s poverty figure is the highest among the OECD countries at 18 per cent of the population (compared to the average of 12 per cent; CBS, 2020). The poverty rate in Israel after taxes and transfers drops by a mere 3.3 per cent and remains high compared to other OECD economies (OECD, 2020: 48). The average Israeli family consists of 3.71 members and 12 per cent of families with children under 17 years are single-parent families, a figure that has remained unchanged in recent decades (CBS, 2020). Mothers are the heads of 86 per cent of the single-parent families, of whom 18 per cent are unmarried.2 Significantly, only 15 per cent of single parents are unemployed; nonetheless, employment does not guarantee stable family life. In fact, single-parent families comprise one third of the households that experience poverty, which is one in every four single-parent families (CBS, 2020). Given the increasing share of the ‘working poor’3, it is mostly women in single-parent households who fail to make ends meet by paid employment. Consequently, and given the stricter barriers to social benefits combined with a shrinking stock of public housing, these families are destined to a constant struggle for a decent life (Levy and Kohan-Benlulu, 2019; Benjamin, 2020a: 1442–3).

Researching families and poverty in Israel

It was not surprising that the documentation of their everyday lives led our interlocutors to provide us with rich data on family practices, without giving it a name. As Morgan (1996: 193) proposed, ‘family practices do seem to provide particularly strong links between self and society’. ‘Autobiographical accounts’, he goes on, ‘may provide vivid portraits of the routines and the pleasures and terrors of everyday domestic life while also describing the wider society in which these domestic events take place’ (1996: 193). Yet, in Israel, everyday life and routine family practices have received little scholarly attention, particularly in poverty-focused research.

Israel is a distinctively family-oriented society, as evidenced by a vast literature that encompasses various aspects of family life: from marriage to single-parenthood, from the family as a national symbol to questions of tradition and ethnicity, from motherhood to gender and more (Lavee and Katz, 2003; Herbst, 2013; Donath, 2015; Gavriel-Fried and Shilo, 2017; Hashiloni-Dolev, 2018; Margalit, 2021; Strier and Perez-Vaisvidovsky, 2021). In this scholarship, there is only rare reference to family practices or to doing family (Forte, 2003; Lahad et al, 2018).4 When it comes to families in poverty, family practices are neither theorised nor analysed, and the main focus is on strategies of survival.

Typically, in Israeli sociology, research on poverty tends to take a bird’s-eye view on the particularity of the ‘poor populations’: namely, the ‘unemployed people, individuals with a low level of education, large and single parent families, immigrants, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Bedouins’ (Haron, 2013: 251).5 Yet, these efforts to demographically characterise poverty tend to overemphasise culture as the explanatory factor of the various groups’ predicaments (although, critical scholars are careful to also offer more political and structural explanations). Micro level research however, has mostly taken a gender perspective.

Research on families in poverty offers either policy-oriented or critical feminist perspectives (for example, Krumer-Nevo, 2006; Motzafi-Haller, 2018; Lavee, 2021). In both cases, the focus is primarily on women, rather than families: their individual ways of coping with poverty, and (regarding lone mothers in particular) the effects of welfare reforms (Krumer-Nevo, 2005; Herbst, 2013; Helman 2019; Lavee, 2021; Benjamin, 2020a; Margalit, 2021). While the scholarship spans various disciplines – from social work to sociology and gender studies – the main questions revolve around access to resources and the burden of caring, which habitually rests on women. Thus, feminist analyses focus mostly on the failure of the state to address the particular needs of mothers, whereas policy-oriented works are inclined to see poverty through the lens of ethnicity and cultural differences. By and large, the research overlooks the place of the family in mediating the effects of poverty. In the following, we propose to correct this discrepancy by offering an investigation of family practices during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Before turning to our methods, we will briefly describe how Israel responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other countries, Israel had begun imposing travel and movement restrictions in March 2020, and by early April lockdown was imposed in anticipation to the upcoming Passover family gatherings. According to a survey that was conducted in July 2020, while a quarter of the respondents reported the loss of a job or a furlough, lower-income households and those who live in rental accommodation were hit harder by job loss or layoff (Kondratjeva et al, 2020). The hardships, it was found, exacerbated pre-existing material differences among vulnerable groups, to which the government partly responded by providing universal cash grants, on top of extended unemployment benefits (Kondratjeva et al, 2020). Another comparative survey showed that people in poverty suffered more in economic and employment terms as well as suffering more mental distress (Krumer-Nevo and Refaeli, 2021: 429). Notably, those who were employed in non-permanent, informal jobs lost even this meagre and unsteady income at the end of the lockdowns. Lastly, as elsewhere, the pandemic has exposed the critical share of the ‘working poor’ in essential jobs, from supermarkets to refuse collection and more (Blau et al, 2021). At least in Israel, the government had not offer specific intervention measures to alleviate the hardship that this inflicted on the ability of these workers to conduct normal routine when the children are confined in the home.

Research procedure and methodology

This research originated when Israeli society was put, as many societies across the globe, into quarantine. As activists and researchers who were already engaged in research on life in poverty, we sought to follow in real-time how families coped with this new emergency. Being familiar with the field, on the one hand, and also aware of the tendency, especially in social work studies, to interview recipients of social benefits through the social services, we decided to reach out directly to families who are living in poverty. We also agreed, as we further explain below, that we would not use one-off interviews, but rather seek to have a continuous documentation of the families’ lives.

In March 2020 we publicised a call for volunteers on Facebook, which serves as a major arena for people who live in poverty to network and seek help or mobilise for political action. Rejecting the arbitrariness of ‘objective measures’ (Tzameret-Kretcher, 2013), we had left it to the volunteers to self-identify either as being poor or as experiencing poverty. By early April, nine women, some of whom had prior acquaintance with members from our team, agreed to take part in this self-documentation project. Yet, while each volunteer chose how and when to document her routine, we assigned each of them a team member to maintain regular contact throughout the documentation process. This one-on-one contact proved to be important as it created another channel for the participants to share their feelings and thoughts or to vent their frustrations. Sometimes, these were moments of ‘quiet politics’, whereby decisions and actions were inaudible but still politically meaningful (Hall, 2019: 144). Similarly to Hall’s ethnography of everyday life in austerity, we asked our volunteers to be their own ethnographers, to narrate their daily family routines and render their private lives public. This, we contend, and following Morgan (1996) who himself relied on C. Wright Mills, is where the autobiographical meets the social, and where the practice of doing family matters both within and without the home. Our methods, however, require further elaboration.

Composition of the research team

While scholars might lend little explicit support to culture of poverty arguments, they implicitly reproduce them by routine scholarly practices and a general lack of reflexivity regarding research practice. Such practices include the selection of one‐sided research questions, missing or false comparator groups or biased interpretations of research findings. (Daly, 2018: 568)

It is no longer innovative to suggest that the subjective knowledge of those who are living in poverty must be heard if we wish to not reproduce ‘culture of poverty arguments’ (Lister, 2021; Krumer-Nevo, 2006, 2020; Salamon, 2010; Schweiger and Graf, 2014; Daly and Kelly, 2015; Benjamin, 2020a; Beresford and Farr, 2021). Yet, how should one listen to, and not just hear, the voices of the researched? And how should the gap between the researcher and the researched be navigated?

The initiative to embark on this research came after we, the team members, had already been working together in various formations. It was therefore obvious to us, the researchers and activists, that we should team up to carry out this research, and that by its mere composition, this team would establish a reflexive and participatory procedure that ‘disrupts the interviewer-interviewee dynamic commonly used in qualitative interviewing’ (Simpson Reeves et al, 2020: 447; also Hall, 2019). In this way, extracting the ‘lived knowledge’ (Krumer-Nevo, 2005) of those who live in poverty was not a mere goal. Rather, it was a foundational component of the research design brought about by the two activist-researchers who themselves experience poverty. This collaborative team allows us, similarly to Hall’s (2019: 159–63) method of ‘co-presence’, to achieve two goals. One was to be constantly informed by two sources of knowledge, the academic and the experiential; and the other, to create trustful relations with our interlocutors and to allow them to safely share not only their routines but also their deeper thoughts and emotions. This brings us to the main method of this research, an online self-documenting tool, designed by us specifically for this project.

How, then, does one give voice without Othering those who live in persistent poverty (Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin, 2010: 706)? To avoid alienation we approached our volunteers primarily using the networks of our activist-researchers and, hence, making the political goals of such research clear. The activist-researchers conducted introductory interviews with the volunteers, explaining the research purpose and methods and interviewing them about their lives and current predicaments. Whether it was the prior acquaintance between the interviewer and the interviewee, or the activist-researchers’ public profiles, or simply because of their mutual life experiences as people living in poverty, this method allowed easy access, and circumvented the power relations and the risk of exploitation that is inherent in similar research circumstances (Krumer-Nevo and Benjamin, 2010; Santiago, 2015; Daly, 2018). Once the volunteers could identify with the activist-researchers, they saw their own participation in the research as a political act. Yet, the place of the activist-researchers was paramount in another way.

The intrinsic knowledge of the activist-researchers had been valuable not just for setting the initial guidelines for the interviews and the parameters for the research. It was critical for our analysis of the data. The data are unique as it was created by the volunteers at their own discretion, and not in a one-off interview or even through participatory ethnography. The volunteers were using an online tool, accessible on a mobile phone or a computer, to document everyday events and their thoughts at will (Herron et al, 2019; Karadzhov, 2020). In analysing these journal entries, we were actually reconstructing in our imaginations the everyday of our interlocutors. Having a mixed team of academics and activists proved to be essential as we were using the journals as a segue to the interlocutors’ lived experiences, which allowed us to go beyond ‘listening to life-knowledge’ to provide room for their perspectives and narratives (Patrick, 2020).

The participants and self-documentation

I thought it would be right that occasionally you ask me some questions, but it’s not. It makes everything difficult for me. It forces me to confront all the feelings/thoughts, some of which I suppress in order to survive. (Elinor, 22.4.2020)

Documenting one’s life is not a straightforward task, let alone if your life is already rough. While all the volunteers saw this documentation as a worthy political act, mainly to give life in poverty a name and presence, each one of them confronted it differently. Elinor – a lone mother to one who successfully fought social services to have her child returned to her – could not bear the burden and decided to quit. Conversely, Ronit, a mother of five who struggled to keep her family intact after suffering abuse and drug addiction in the past, saw the documentation as almost therapeutic. Both, like the other participants, entrusted us with their stories. For obvious reasons, most of them did not document their everyday systematically, so we conducted one-on-one follow-up calls to fill the gaps. While most of our data are based on the first lockdown that lasted from March to May 2020, we continued the documentation throughout the pandemic. Around August 2020, after a short hiatus and after some volunteers dropped out, we recruited new ones to join the research. By then, we had also constructed a designated website in Hebrew and Arabic (whilepoor.com), which served as a digital space for documentation accessible on either a smartphone or a computer.

Data analysis

We first divided the journals and the transcribed interviews among us to allow each of us to identify emerging themes. We then discussed the separate themes and codes and grouped them into several recurring themes. For the purposes of this article, we extracted utterances that pertain to family practices and relationships, either directly – searching for keywords such as ‘family’, ‘my kids’, ‘dinner time’, and so on, or indirectly – usually when utterances were laden with emotions, taking into consideration the context of the utterance (see, Crean, 2018). Three themes were paramount in the challenge of ‘doing family’: lack of money, maintaining the children’s routine, and coping with social services and with civil society non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In what follows we use the journal entries on the mundane and the habitual to portray the practices of ‘doing family’ in families that experience poverty.

Doing family: the journals

Material struggles, lack of money, buying things for the children

I get up early in the morning to wake the kids up for school. The two elders are in high school. The twins are in junior high. They go twice a week. My partner goes out to work and is being paid under the table because we live off income guarantee allowance. He had meningitis but he’s not eligible for an allowance. I also am not eligible for disability allowance for all the traumas that I’d been through. So we went for a while to the industrial zone where he has a small shed and he fixes and paints stuff there … whatever he can to provide food for the kids. Most of the time, the twins do go on [school] zoom. It’s difficult for them, and I no longer argue with them. (Ronit, 3.1.2021)

Ronit is one of our consistent contributors, documenting her daily life since the first lockdown in March 2020 to this very day, with only a short hiatus in between the lockdowns. For her, documenting the daily routine at her own discretion is an opportunity not just to contribute to our research (which she highly values), or to narrate her story to the world. It is a way to offload the burden of the everyday and to politicise it. In contrast, Elinor, whom we mentioned earlier, decided to discontinue her self-documentation, despite her identification with the project, because she could not bear the burden of facing her own reflections. This duality was apparent in the ways different participants chose to share and be a part of this project.

Most of the participants in our research are mothers, whether with a spouse or lone mothers, and therefore a major difficulty that had arisen since the first days of the lockdown was how to care for the children when the schools were closed and when their means to provide for the family were limited. Elinor, a lone mother to one, lives in a private rental: ‘I didn’t buy a thing. My boy knows that there’s no money so he doesn’t ask. The bills arrive for sure, I get one approximately every other day.’ (Elinor, 19.4.2020). Surviving through the lockdown and the pandemic was also a major concern for Rosa whose previous plans to better herself and her son were shattered. She writes during the first weeks of the lockdown:

On the way to the grocery store my son asked if I could buy him something. So he got two Royal Stars figures. The National Insurance (Institute) is still highly busy and you can’t get a hold of them. I hope it will be sorted out soon and I shall be able to reach them.

There wasn’t much we could do about money. Yet the thoughts about the coming months, what shall I do financially when we’re out [of the quarantine] keep coming. My salary dropped, no one knows what’s coming for their workplace […]. Even if there shall be a redundancy in my workplace, I know I shall eventually find a job. I will prepare myself for every scenario [since] I’m the more recent employee [...] In any event, I am thinking about what I am going to do with the flat [in terms of paying the rent] and how to manage my income. (Rosa, 14.4.2020)

Beyond both steady income that pays the rent and bills and enough food to put on the table, what Rosa’s kid urgently needed, like the children of other participants, was a way to take part in online schooling. A report prepared by independent experts during the pandemic pointed out the deep disparities in access to educational technological means. Accordingly, the grave inequalities that characterise the Israeli education system were aggravated when school students were required to participate in online learning. Almost one in four households with children do not have access to the internet, and one in six households do not own a computer (Dahan et al, 2022).

Thus, mothers were not only concerned by the lack of money, but because of their incapacity to ensure that their kids could study properly. Sonia approached both the municipality’s department of education and the mayor’s office about a donation of computers and internet access. In that same entry she also wrote: I was disappointed that her [daughter’s] home class teacher was calling to ask why she doesn’t participate in the classes. How many times can I say over and again that I am waiting for a computer and internet’ (Sonia, 21.4.2020). Still, Sonia knows that this problem is not hers alone. On 27.4.2020 she wrote: ‘I was busy helping some 50 kids, including my own daughter, [to get] computers and internet for distant learning.’ This act, for which Sonia was commended in her hometown local newspaper a while later, demonstrated the linkage between home and society, and how practices of caring are enmeshed in wider society (Morgan, 1996: 193).

During the pandemic, family practices were geared towards more than just survival. Ostensibly, they were also about relationships, care and love. Ronit was concerned with her daughter’s 16th birthday: ‘we’ll try to make this day special for her, with a cake and balloons and good atmosphere’ (Ronit’s journal, 22.4.2020), or having a joyful Passover dinner with the family:

Last night we had a shortened version of the Seder [Passover dinner] for the kids, so they would feel the holiday. It was really nice, all of us together, seated at the table. We hadn’t sat like that in a long time. There was fun and laughter. It was joyful for me to see the kids so unified. (Ronit, 9.4.2020)

Sonia was also thinking about her own state of mind: ‘I try to maintain my balance, it doesn’t always work. My dream is to buy myself a treat.’ (Sonia’s journal, 1.5.2020). Naima, in contrast, could not feel joy: ‘nothing makes me happy and it can’t make me happy when life in poverty is a routine. Every day you wake up to a grey reality.’ (Naima’s journal, 21.4.2020). Danielle, on the other hand, is thrilled:

Today I expect a delivery of a gift for my youngest daughter and I’m excited. I ordered a tablet which costs me NIS249 [£57] including delivery – for two years I couldn’t buy her [anything] and now I can, so I’m very excited. (Danielle, 13.4.2020)

Maintaining routines

During the first lockdown, one could hear from all over how people and families were seeking ways to cope with the ‘new normal’ of being at home with the family around the clock. While major media outlets were reporting mainly on middle-class families that were indulging in this moment of ‘inward looking’ and of the rekindling of a familial sense and the reconnecting with one’s children (Easterbrook-Smith, 2020), our participants were documenting their struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy at home with the kids. Rosa has written extensively:

My son sleeps in, he wakes up with a smile on his face seeing the treats [I bought for him]. He likes to wake up late. It’s one of the things he likes about the coronavirus. He would have preferred to go early to school and meet with friends, but he also likes to wake up late and to remain lazy in bed. This is fun [for him]. Today he had a full breakfast, he woke up real hungry. He signed a contract with me today: he chose three classes that he wants to do with me. He hates to study and I need to teach him how to study. […]

Today he played with a friend, my friend’s son, on the computer through Skype. These are the moments that lighten up his day. He longs to talk to his friends, the problem is that there are none, for some reason they are all gone, they are hard to reach. It drives me mad. Also my [extended] family, where are they all? Why do we call and no one answers, no one calls him? It’s really sad, I don’t know what the others are going through. (Rosa, 14.4.2020).

While Rosa sought support from her parents during the pandemic, Jamal had seen this relationship of support between parents and children from a different angle. Jamal is a 60-year-old Arab-Palestinian citizen, who lives with his disabled wife, and a father to three adult children. They have been living in poverty for some seven years and can hardly finance their medications, let alone purchase proper food. Their hardships are exacerbated by their distant relationships with their children. While most times parents who experience poverty lament their incapacity to provide for their children, Jamal is frustrated by the opposite situation. His children do not help him and his wife. His appeals to the welfare bureau are not being properly addressed and he feels ashamed to approach the public for help. He describes this sense of helplessness in his journal as a familial issue, with strong negative emotions:

Recently, we had a lot of rows at home, some ended badly and some ended well. I’ll start with the good part, that me and my wife returned to our routine and to an understanding that it can’t go on, she can’t bear the situation, the economic and social stress, and we almost divorced despite all our love to each other. We thought of committing suicide. [...] We had some relief from the landlord who decided to lower the rent due to our situation, and now we are back to the routine, fighting for our existence together. (Jamal, 28.3.2021)

Jamal is trying to hold fast to his marriage because he understands that if his own children cannot support him and his wife, and if the state fails them over and again, maintaining the family is a source of strength and resilience in the face of all hardships. A few weeks later, he wrote again about his depressed mood and dire economic situation. He and his wife are trying to manage for the holy month of Ramadan: ‘no one has visited us for a month. We gave up some of the medications to survive, unsuccessfully. We have nowhere to go because this requires expenses that we can’t afford’ (Jamal’s journal, 4.5.2021). Being together with his wife, as a family unit, seems to be the one thing that sustains both of them.

Coping with the welfare services and NGOs

Life in poverty is driven by a constant need to confront the state’s institutions. Even though, prior to the pandemic, welfare state benefits in Israel were already meagre, the new condition of social distancing and staying at home further intensified the hardships of obtaining support for the family’s needs from the state. Like Rosa (earlier), most mothers found themselves wasting much time and energy trying to get hold of the welfare services or the National Insurance Institute, seeking a response to their needs, but in vain. The state instructed the public services to retain only 30 per cent of the workforce, sending the rest home on furlough, but without preparing for providing a host of necessary services for the citizens. For those who rely on welfare this was devastating. ‘Closed’, ‘There’s no one in these days’, ‘Not working’ – these are only a few of the journal entries under the rubric of ‘Institutions: with which institutions were you in touch today? Why? Did you need any specific institution today? Have you been helped?’ Ronit (13.4.2020) wrote: ‘I wish everyone not be in need for the National Insurance and the welfare bureaus because these are bureaucratic institutions that will torture your soul if you miss a single form or something.’ In a similar vein, in the introductory interview which was conducted well into the pandemic, Lilach (19.10.2020) talked about how this situation had given her some relief: “When there’s lockdown, it gives me some kind of reassurance. I don’t know how to explain this. It gives me peace of mind that everything is closed and I know that no one can come here.” More specifically, what Lilach was actually alluding to, and what she specified in the interview, was her constant fear that the welfare services would take away her children. The partial shutdown of the welfare services due to COVID-19 was a relief. Barbara was even more explicit and adamant about them:

‘I took an oath; even if I haven’t a place to go to or have no food to eat, I’m not ever to approach them. Because it’s their job to help and support [us] and I don’t ask for money [but] there are many ways to help. But guess what? Everything they do is just so wrong. They don’t do much, just sitting on their arses and doing whatever they can to place the kids outside of their homes. And I won’t let this happen, and thank god, I’m under their radar; they don’t know of me and I don’t want them to know me.’ (Barbara interview, 2.10.2020)

Thus, if for Barbara the condition of emergency only reinforced her stance of safeguarding her family by laying low and never approaching the social services in order to protect her children, others were expressing a more ambivalent stance. While the failure of the state to provide for these families with their basic needs did not come as a surprise to them – after all, it is their constant experience with the welfare services – they kept on trying to get some help. The need to find new solutions for caring for their families became even more pertinent because some of the NGOs that had taken over the state in recent decades were also limiting their provisions. Hence, in order to be able to put food on their tables or pay the electricity bills, the women had taken their plight to social media where they sought relief through the network of activists – some of them, like two of our team members, were struggling to make ends meet.

A year into the pandemic, what seemed at first as temporary – the pandemic, the lockdown, the difficulty to hold on to a steady job, the schools’ closures, and so on – has become a new ordinary. Ronit hangs on to her journal and continues to document her daily struggle. On 5 January 2021, she writes:

I got up in the morning, and my older kids went to school. I am at home with the other three. I’ve exhausted my strength to start a new day. And yet, I will cook and clean and do the laundry, with all my strength. That the kids won’t miss a thing and they will have some sort of stability.

Discussion: agentic hopelessness

If family practices are those contingent, everyday interactions through which people make up their family life while allocating material and affective resources, then what do these documented experiences teach us about doing family while poor during COVID-19? Our findings confirm once more ‘that family and kinship ties have to be “worked at” if they are to be maintained and remain in any way meaningful’ (Morgan, 2011: 2.5), although this may not always be a ‘clean’ and easy process. What our findings also teach us is that families in poverty continue to be done under the conditions of ordinary crisis (Hall, 2019: 179–80). The dialectics of ordinariness and crisis in doing family is evident: for example, in Jamal’s struggle to secure his marriage and have his children support him and his wife at a time of extreme emergency. The extremity of COVID-19 has only accentuated the constant reality of doing family through parenting, which may become, not unexpectedly, disrupted, frustrating at times, but also fulfilling and providing a sense of purpose. While this in itself is not particularly new or unique, in conclusion, we propose that the lived knowledge of those who are doing family while poor is marked by a particular structure of feeling that we dub agentic hopelessness.

In her recent book, Krumer-Nevo (2020) proposes that ‘radical hope’ is an essential tool for poverty-aware social workers and policy makers. Although she is realistic enough to acknowledge that practising radical hope cannot change the deep-seated structures of inequality, she nonetheless suggests that ‘remaining hopeful is thus a moral choice [...]. It is a choice to be involved’ (Krumer-Nevo, 2020: 9). While we agree that remaining hopeful could be politically radical, we would equally argue that it is not the responsibility of those living in poverty to match the radical hope of street-level bureaucrats with their own ‘hope work’. Indeed, despite the biographical and other key differences among our participants, most of the journals were not hopeful at all. Perhaps the best way is to describe this affective way of doing family as agentic hopelessness: that is, handling between ‘doing our best’ and ‘having our hands tied’, sometimes in the course of the same day, the same event or even the same sentence. What defines these family practices, then, is feeling hopeless and doing whatever it takes to maintain family routines in the face of a health-turned-economic crisis; to shelter the children and to provide for them, but to also be aware of the broader sociopolitical forces that created this situation and sustain it.

Most of the scholarship on poverty and emotions has dealt with self-directed negative emotions, such as shame and stigma (Benjamin, 2020b). More often than not, negativity is explained psychologically rather than politically. Indeed, as Benjamin recently contended, contextual, relational and other-directed negative emotions (resentment being one example) are rarely acknowledged in critical poverty studies. Moreover, studies show that social workers and other helping professionals tend to ignore poor people’s negative narratives and insights regarding their predicament. Instead, professionals respond to feelings of hopelessness by insisting that their own hands are actually tied due to lack of resources (Krumer-Nevo, 2020; Murray and Tapia, 2021). Against a backdrop of consistent institutional uselessness, researchers look for evidence of the existence of positive self-directed, individualised emotions among those living in poverty: primarily resilience and wellbeing, and other-directed emotions such as love and compassion (Piff and Moskowitz, 2018).

Unlike such hopeful portrayals of people in poverty as being positive, resourceful, resilient and even future-oriented and entrepreneurial, our findings suggest that doing family while poor is neither about chasing away negative emotions, nor about being hopeful. Negativity, in the form of social awareness about the politics of poverty, or of negative emotions emanating from one’s daily struggles against a harsh reality of inequality, do not lead to paralysis and inaction. Our participants were frank and straightforward about their most hopeless moments, when their family situations were oftentimes really too much to bear. In this respect, agentic hopelessness cannot be reduced to a singular, fixed emotion. Rather, the family practices that unfolded in the journals helped us to identify agentic hopelessness as a key interactional affective assemblage, which reflects how the personal and the political interlace in the lives of those who, not only under the conditions of emergency, are cast as being solely responsible for their predicament.

Notes

1

Corresponding author.

2

While our research does not include Arab families, it is noteworthy that of the Israeli citizenry (which excludes Palestinian Arabs who reside in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), 79 per cent of the families are Jewish and some 18 per cent are Arabs. In general, the rate of poverty is higher among the latter compared to the Jewish society (NII, 2018).

3

‘The working poor are employed people who live in households that fall below an accepted poverty line. While poverty in the developed world is often associated with unemployment, the extreme poverty that exists throughout much of the developing world is largely a problem of employed persons in these societies. For these poor workers, the problem is typically one of employment quality.’ (ILOSTAT, n.d.)

4

For previous studies and reviews on families in Israel see, for example, Rabinowitz (1988), Al-Haj (1989), Shamgar-Handelman (1995).

5

Benjamin 2020a offers a different categorisation to which we shall not refer here, as we refrain from problematising other lines of division within the ‘poor populations’, mainly for lack of adequate data. On the uneven distribution of poverty in Israeli society, see Strier and Perez-Vaisvidovsky (2021: 6).

Funding

This work was supported by the Open University Research Authority under grant #511591.

Acknowledgements

We first wish to thank all the women and men who volunteered to participate in this research. Your time and effort – and, we should add, enthusiasm – is not taken for granted. We only hope that you will appreciate the outcome as much as we appreciate you for your endurance and willingness to share your hardships and knowledge with us. We also thank the editors of the special issue for their patience and interest in our work and for their insights and comments. We are all the more thankful to the reviewers for their meticulous reading and commenting on this article.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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