Philanthropy, Voluntary Organizations, and the Production of the Uneven Landscape of Austerity-Induced Precarity

Authors: Melissa Heil*, University of Illinois
Topics: Urban Geography, Social Geography, Geography and Urban Health
Keywords: welfare, philanthropy, water, austerity, urban, voluntary, precarity, austerity urbanism, privatization, privatisation
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Maryland C, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Recent austerity policies have produced uneven geographies of precarity (between cities, regions, and across various aspects of social difference) by reducing funds for social service institutions and spurring new rounds of privatization of collective resources. The austerity urbanism literature has yet to explore adequately the role of voluntary and philanthropic institutions in the creation of this uneven landscape of precarity. In the context of such welfare restructuring, voluntary sector organizations are sites where austerity is translated from a budgetary practice to embodied experiences. They are places where criteria about which individuals can gain access to care, shelter, or other resources are negotiated. In this paper, I examine how voluntary and philanthropic organizations determine the distribution of aid under austere conditions, drawing on the related cases of the lead contamination of Flint, Michigan’s water supply and Detroit, Michigan’s water shut-off campaign. In these cities, a new array of voluntary sector funds and organizations has emerged to facilitate water access, effectively privatizing water to the voluntary sector for certain populations. These cases together suggest that the uneven landscape of austerity-induced precarity is not simply a result of state withdrawal. Rather, it is simultaneously produced by contested and evolving notions in the voluntary/philanthropic sector of how to define a subject worthy of care – modern re-negotiations of the age-old social accounting effort in Anglo-American charity to constitute and delineate the deserving and undeserving poor.

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