THIS IS US

Paper Cuts

Bureaucracy’s role in poverty

Ann Marie Houghtailing
Human Parts
Published in
7 min readOct 20, 2021

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Many flying business documents isolated on black background
Photo: Demianastur/Getty Images

The new Netflix series, Maid, is the story of a young mother escaping an abusive husband to make a safe life for herself. There are many obstacles in her quest to provide for her child, but perhaps none as large and infuriating as government bureaucracy. More importantly, the government bureaucracy that’s supposed to help her. The volume of forms and the power a single piece of paper holds is astonishing. What Maid illustrates is that paperwork is not benign. It can be an impenetrable barrier to services of all kinds and function as a gatekeeper to determine who is worthy of consideration. My recent trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to procure the REAL ID reminded me of all of the ways my own single mother felt the sharp edges of those same bureaucratic barriers.

With a deep sigh of dread, I decided to get down to business and do the necessary tasks to apply for the REAL ID in California. This form of identification is mandated by a federal act and allows you to board flights and enter secure facilities by proving you are who you say you are. On the surface, it sounds reasonable and simple. And for many people, it is. But for others, this process can feel more like a barrier to entry or punishment rather than a form of security or belonging.

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Ann Marie Houghtailing
Human Parts

Ann marie Houghtailing is the co founder of Story Imprinting, a communications firm that teaches clients the art and science of storytelling.