Sociological studies of poverty governance investigate how state actors manage marginalized populations, regulate their participation in social institutions, and reform their behavior through systems of punishment and rewards. Research in this area considers a range of institutions involved in managing poverty, but it has largely ignored an institution omnipresent in the lives of the poor—public housing agencies (PHAs). Focusing on the Housing Choice Voucher program, the largest rental assistance program in the country, I examine discretionary choices made by PHAs that affect who gets access to rental assistance, how long clients have to wait, and what they must do to maintain their benefits. I ask how these administrative decisions create successive opportunities for state agencies to govern the poor. Drawing on interviews with agency officials, I describe a tripartite process of selecting market-ready households, engaging them in rituals of market formation, and utilizing market nudges to remind them of their responsibilities as market actors. This framework deepens sociological understandings of how local state agencies utilize discretionary choices in a resource-scarce, highly decentralized policy environment to evaluate, reform, and discipline the poor.
Ready to Rent: Administrative Decisions and Poverty Governance in the Housing Choice Voucher Program
American Sociological Review