This book argues that in order to understand the political engagement and identity of individuals living on the margins, we must expand our understanding of what counts as political. In mainstream political science, “politics” is tightly defined as what happens within and around government institutions. “Political” behavior and/or participation is defined as efforts to get individuals to vote, voting itself, opinions about voting/government, and organizing done by institutions, grassroots organizations, and various kinds of social networks. The problem with these definitions of politics and the political is that they limit our understanding of what constitutes meaningful civic engagement to behaviors that have been defined by individuals in the academy, as opposed to definitions based on the actual political activities of the people we are interested in studying.
My analysis is based on a year-long ethnographic study I conducted of a public housing development on the far south side of Chicago . The rate of violence in this housing project is 200 percent higher than that of the rest of the city. Currently 1 out of 10 Chicago Housing Authority residents are being placed there, and 90 percent of the residents are black women living below the poverty line. From the outset of this project I have been interested in the central question of how these women engage in political action and how they understand what is political.
Through redefining the scope of what politics is, this book offers a fuller description of political identity development and how people who live below the poverty line form political engagement practices. Narratives in the social science literature and the mainstream media present an overwhelming consensus that poor people do not participate in politics, that they don’t care about their neighborhoods, and that their only motivation for engaging with the government is to scam entitlement programs. This project pushes back against the many misconceptions about individuals living in public housing specifically and people living in poverty more broadly by complicating our notions of what counts as a meaningful political practice.