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By Amy Miller |  YRJ Executive Director

The government deprives poor women of their privacy rights.  In her well-researched book, The Poverty of Privacy Rights, Khiara M. Bridges explains how the moral constructions of indigent motherhood have empowered society—and, in particular the courts—to override poor women’s privacy rights.  As a result, poor mothers are treated with distrust and suspicion, are more frequently caught up in the web of an overreaching child welfare system, are denied access to reproductive care, and face significant health risks. The book examines the legal and moral framework of family privacy rights, reproductive privacy rights, and information privacy rights of poor mothers and concludes that poor mothers functionally do not possess these privacy rights.  According to Bridges, only through cultural transformation will privacy rights of poor and wealthier mothers be construed equally.

Family Privacy

Bridges begins with a discussion of the family privacy right and  Supreme Court jurisprudence establishing a right to family privacy.1 The right to family privacy—which we understand as  the parents’ right to care for their children and direct their upbringing—is not absolute.  For example, in cases of child abuse and neglect, the state has the ability to intervene in the family, even to the point of dissolving it altogether.  However, Bridges describes a number of “interventions” that subject poor mothers to intensive screenings designed to determine which mothers are more likely to maltreat their children.  For example, poor pregnant women in many states must have an assessment of “psychosocial functioning” and answer questions about their social support system and their financial resources as well as questions about whether their pregnancy was planned as part of accessing Medicaid-subsidized prenatal care.2 These screenings are unique to poor mothers; women with class privilege and access to private health care would find them outrageous.

Reproductive Privacy

Procreative liberty, the ability to decide whether to have a child without being subject to government power to compel the individual to act in alignment with government’s desire, is less available to women in poverty.  “And when poor women are denied proactive liberty, they are denied the ability to be fully autonomous, self-creating directors of the lives.”3 Bridges goes on to discuss the many constraints that deny poor women procreative liberty including Medicaid abortion funding restrictions and Temporary Assistance for Needy families (TANF) family caps that are the norm in many states.  Taken together, the family cap policies and abortion funding restrictions reflect the ambivalence about the value of children born form poor mothers.4

Informational Privacy

Bridges explores the patchwork of information privacy rights recognized either through law or by the Supreme Court and concludes that, in some cases, both the wealthy and poor are subject to privacy invasions.5  However, the impact of such invasions is disproportionally felt by poor people.6 For example, poor mothers are subject to price discrimination and higher interest rates for credit because of the ease of access to personal information. Bridges also examines the link between informational privacy and social control, suggesting that a reason to protect informational privacy is because society wants to encourage alternative pursuits and thoughts.7 In short, this experimentation is a social good.  Poor mothers, however, experience reduced informational privacy.  For example, poor mothers must submit to consultations with social workers when they receive state benefits and their food purchases are tracked through Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards distributed as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. According to Bridges, reduced privacy protections for poor mothers are indicative of reduced societal value in poor mothers.8

A theme underpinning the entire book is the moral construction of poverty:  that poverty results from one’s moral failings rather than through focuses outside of the control of individuals.9 Society’s present narrative, that poverty results from deficient character, informs many of the laws, rules, and policies that are cited throughout the book.  According to Bridges, Supreme Court Jurisprudence reflects the majority’s sense that “the poor mothers are not to be trusted with their children, their families, their intimate information, and their lives.”10 Only cultural change will reframe this narrative so that poor mothers are able to enjoy privacy rights in any meaningful sense.  The moral construction of poverty must be unsettled in order to make this happen.



1 See p 102-105  for a discussion of Supreme Court jurisprudence: Meyer v. Nebraska (262 US 390 (1923)), Pierce v Society of Sisters (268 US 510 (1925)), Griswold v Connecticut (390 US 939(1965)), and Troxel v Granville (530 US 57 (2000)).

2 Bridges, 111-112.

3 Bridges at 181.

4 Bridges at 196.

5 Bridges, 139-141.

6 Id.

7 Bridges, 149-150.

8 Bridges at 154.

9 Bridges at 209.

10 Bridges at 210.