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ASU professor's book explores experiences of families navigating social systems

'Trapped in a Maze: How Social Control Institutions Drive Family Poverty and Inequality' goes beyond the data, earns American Sociological Association award


ASU sociology Professor Leslie Paik holding up a copy of her book "Trapped in a Maze: How Social Control Institutions Drive Family Poverty and Inequality"

ASU sociology Professor Leslie Paik

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July 18, 2022

According to government data, approximately 11.4% of U.S. citizens were living in poverty in 2020, up 1% from the previous year. Policymakers use this data to steer strategies, direct funds and create programs intended to help the country’s poorest citizens.

But while statistics help legislators understand the financial health of the U.S. as a whole, the numbers don’t paint a full picture of the situations that contribute to perpetuating poverty.  

Leslie Paik, a sociology professor at Arizona State University's T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, has studied the well-being of youth and families in society for years. Authoring articles in criminology, mental health and juvenile well-being, Paik is fascinated by social systems and how they impact families. This research has culminated in one of the professor’s most extensive projects yet, a book that sheds light on the experiences of families struggling with poverty.

Paik’s book, "Trapped in a Maze: How Social Control Institutions Drive Family Poverty and Inequality," opens with an account of the Hernandez family, a multi-generational household of seven sharing a small New York City apartment. Paik chronicles the messy processes the family has to work through, from misinformed medical administrators to complicated paperwork.

Paik illustrates how a shortage of money and countless obligations to social institutions compile to create a domino effect of problems. Lack of money, for example, means subway transportation is difficult or sometimes impossible to afford, leading to missed appointments, unsigned paperwork and missed opportunities for help.

Similarly, lack of communication between institutions means the appointments get scheduled on the same day at different places, which wastes precious time and subway fare. With medical issues and family responsibilities added to the mix, fulfilling obligations determined by these social institutions becomes a “maze” that’s difficult to escape. 

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Using these experiences as a backdrop, Paik argues that social institutions must become easier to navigate. This involves more than just looking at data, but taking into account the experiences people go through in navigating the complex systems intended to help them. Backed by demographic and case data from her research, Paik makes the point that if social institutions are to help people, they need to restructure their processes.

“I would say two changes would be crucial to help families. One: a recognition that more interventions or coordinated approaches between institutions are not necessarily the best options, especially if they lead to more punitive consequences for families. And two: shifting the focus from monitoring the families’ ability to meet institutional expectations to the institutions’ ability to meet the needs of families,” Paik said. 

Paik’s publication earned the 2022 William J. Goode Book Award from the American Sociological Association Family Section, an award named after a sociologist known for his research on families and relationships. 

“This award is so meaningful to me because it recognizes the book’s unique approach to study family poverty and its clear and accessible depiction of the complexity to that kind of poverty,” Paik said. “I hope that readers come away with a greater understanding of poor families’ herculean efforts to provide for their children and of the expected and unexpected ways that institutions often keep them from moving forward.”

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