Sociology Researcher’s New Book Explores Social Connections That Help Battle Poverty in Philadelphia

By Tom McLaughlin

As Joan Maya Mazelis explains, researchers have long agreed that social ties matter.

Studies document two common realities for the poor – either they rely on a dense network of closely connected and supportive kin or, in the absence of such a network, establish fleeting, disposable ties with strangers, says the assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University–Camden.

However, Mazelis argues, she has found evidence of yet another “in-between” category of support through social ties, a type of non-kin social tie with greater longevity than disposable ties. These bonds are based on a mutual understanding of support, often take on familial roles, and function according to set norms of reciprocity.

Her new book, Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor (NYU Press), explores the nature and depth of these sustainable ties through a comprehensive study on the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), an organization based in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington.

The Writers House at Rutgers University–Camden will host a launch of Mazelis’ book at 12:15 p.m. Monday, Jan. 23. She will also lead a presentation of her research at Rutgers–Camden’s Center for Urban Research and Education at 12:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3.

“While others have found non-kin ties arising from connections to neighborhood institutions, I found lasting social ties in a situation of dire poverty that might have enabled disposable ties, if not for the role of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union,” says the Rutgers–Camden researcher.

As Mazelis describes, KWRU’s activist members openly discuss their poverty and criticize the sources. Comprised mostly of women, the group founded an organization called the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign with which KWRU has merged. The group travels throughout the world speaking out against poverty. On the local front, members engage in protests to secure housing for homeless members and offer informational and practical support to those in need.

Mazelis observed and conducted in-depth interviews with 25 members of KWRU. The participants ranged in age from 21 to 59 and were divided almost evenly among the racial/ethnic groups of the organization’s members – nine participants were African American, eight were Latina, and eight were Caucasian. She also interviewed 25 women who were not in KWRU (with the same racial/ethnic composition).

Among her findings, Mazelis says that norms of reciprocity, the notion that people who have been helped are obligated to help others, function as a form of dues for the organization. KWRU relies on members to offer their time and resources. Leaders expect members to participate in various ways, whether it is helping out in the office or attending rallies or demonstrations.

According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, members develop sustainable ties based on a mutual agreement to help one another. In some instances, these relationships have extended beyond the framework of the organization and taken on familial roles. For example, one participant reported having another member help her with the laundry, while another participant said she had authorized more people—most of them members of the group—than any other parent in her school to pick up her child if she couldn’t.

Joan Mazelis

Conversely, Mazelis notes, members who choose to leave the group have shown the negative effects of losing these sustainable ties. For instance, she describes one former member living in some of the worst conditions that she observed. “Helen,” Mazelis explains, thought that the group demanded more of her than what she had gotten in return and decided that she was better off dealing with her problems on her own. But rather than improve, her living conditions had worsened since leaving the group.

“I can only speculate that her life might be better if she had maintained KWRU membership and the access to social capital it offered,” Mazelis writes.

Similarly, Mazelis explains, the organization “takes reciprocity norms seriously,” denying assistance and severing ties to those members who don’t fulfill these norms. She maintains that, although losing the connection to KWRU prevents such cast-off members from maintaining sustainable ties, enforcing these norms preserves their importance as a vital form of social capital within the organization.

Mazelis emphasizes that, although KWRU is instrumental in forging and strengthening bonds among strangers, lasting ties are also with the organization itself. Consequently, when members leave, they are replaced by new members with whom others forge these bonds.

She cites prior research showing that many institutions created to support the poor, such as welfare offices and food pantries, are sites where disposable ties may be formed. However, because KWRU “requires something of its members, rather than simply providing services to them,” she writes, “it creates social ties in which it is embedded as an organization, thereby strengthening the tenuous bonds between new acquaintances.”

Mazelis concludes that social ties will continue to have an impact on the poor’s ability to survive, and her book, Surviving Poverty, provides a range of policy proposals to increase their power and to use them to broaden the reach of social service agencies. As she maintains, the potential of KWRU/PPEHRC’s model of creating sustainable social ties may be more important than ever in a changing world.

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