By: Stephanie J. Nawyn
Refugee resettlement in the US is designed to achieve individual self-sufficiency through employment, with the assumption that those refugees who cannot work (such as children) will be cared for through the employed caretakers. Unlike in other countries where acculturation is the primary goal, US resettlement assistance is directed almost entirely at facilitating refugees’ employment and ending their government cash assistance as quickly as possible (usually within 1-6 months, depending on the state in which refugees are resettled).
Holding individual self-sufficiency as a goal makes the same false assumption about family life that feminists have long criticized, that productive workers have free reproductive labor available at home to free them up for economic activity. This antiquated understanding of family formation is especially damaging for poor and working class families, including most refugee families, whose employment prospects are unlikely to provide wages sufficient to cover quality childcare or care for elderly or disabled relatives. For refugees who already face intense acculturative stress (not to mention any pre-arrival trauma), the need to acquire a job while also having caretaking responsibilities is exhausting and frustrating.
Because most everything that is necessary for survival and what we might call a life of dignity (food, water, safe housing, etc.) must be purchased, having an income is critical for survival in the US. With the decline of the welfare state and increased privatization, things that most Americans would consider rights are in fact not rights per se, but resources only available through purchase. Rights afforded by fair housing laws and rental contracts can only be accessed if people can afford to take property owners to court. The right to clean water can only be accessed if people can afford their water bill or can purchase bottled water. So challenges to earning a living become challenges to accessing the basic rights we associate with living in the US. Janine Brodie called the limiting of rights to those who can afford to purchase those rights “market citizenship”. Market citizenship limits the ability of refugees to access the basic rights they are told will be afforded to them in the US (i.e. things necessary for a safe life), as they often come with little or no financial resources or human capital that is valued by US employers.
But refugees are, by definition, survivors, and they seek out creative ways to access the labor market and their rights as new US residents. Demonstrating that rights are not just things given by the state but sometimes need to be agentively pursued, refugee households reorganize themselves to ensure that as many households as possible have the resources needed to secure their rights. My research with colleague Breanne Grace and Betty Okwako-Riekkola on Burundian families demonstrates how refugees can use creative reorganization of family households to spread out resources that provide access to market citizenship rights.
The most common strategy we found was for refugees to redistribute family members across different households, so that every household had the human resources they needed to engage in paid employment and to access translation necessary to interact with English-only speakers. First, it was common for people to move to households that had too few earners and too many dependents. Teenagers, pre-teens, and older adults who could not easily find employment outside the home would provide childcare to families with younger children so that the adults in the family could be employed. Single adults moved in with siblings who had children in order to maximize the number of earners in a household. While this type of extended family household is common in Burundi and had been more prevalent in the US at different historical periods, it represents a departure from the definition of family propagated by the US Department of State, which would not allow some of these family members to be resettled as the same household (and in fact, many Burundians in our study had adult siblings and elderly parents back in refugee camps who had not been given refugee visas to the US).
Another limit to rights that refugees commonly experience is the inability to exercise rights because they are not English fluent. For example, in our study a Burundian family could not seek help with a basement flooded with sewage because they could not even ask anyone who to contact when the landlord failed to address it. So, Burundians redistributed household members in order to provide sufficient interpretation and translation assistance. Older children (who often learned English much faster than adults) would live with other families who were linguistically isolated (defined as having no one in the household who was English fluent). Without English speakers to interpret for free, these families would need to pay a professional interpreter.
These reformulations of family households changed the ratio of producers to dependents. We call this ratio the “neoliberal citizenship ratio”, as it represents the ratio of people who can access market citizenship under neoliberalism to people who cannot; essentially a “work to need” ratio. For families living on the margins of the economy, a high neoliberal citizenship ratio can determine how well a given household and its members will survive.
The reorganization of households was a strategy used by refugees who had extended family in the area. But for those households without extended family, co-ethnic ties were not sufficiently strong to give them access to free labor from other households. These families still received food and clothing donations from other Burundians that supplemented the meager assistance received from the state. But it did not provide the same access to basic rights that extended kin networks provided.
Our research (available in the Journal of Refugee Studies) highlights the particular ways in which the neoliberal shift from government provision to private provision hurts vulnerable people in the US, and puts additional burdens on already stressed families to make up for shortfalls in state support. It also demonstrates how the metric of success for resettlement – individual employment – erases the reproduction of family poverty inherent in the resettlement system.
Stephanie J. Nawyn is the Co-Director for Academic Programs at the Center for Gender in Global Context (GenCen) and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology with expertise in gender and migration. Her work has primarily focused on refugee resettlement and protection, as well as the economic advancement of African voluntary migrants in the U.S. She was a Fulbright Fellow at Istanbul University for the 2013-14 academic year, studying the treatment of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Her most recent work is forthcoming in Journal of Refugees Studies and Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies. And she is currently on the editorial board for Gender & Society.