When the Powerful Parasitize the Poor

One of the quiet assaults on the poor is the criminalization of being poor. This is one reason why many lower-income people are leery of gentrification: policies claimed to make neighborhoods nicer are used to move the lower-income residents out (or to jail). That many in positions of authority and power view making a neighborhood ‘nicer’ as equivalent to moving out lower-income people, especially the Unlovely Poor, goes unsaid (except, perhaps, in Mitt Romney’s ‘quiet rooms.’ Or the NRO website). Barbara Ehrenreich describes how this is done (boldface mine):

In 2009, a year into the Great Recession, I first started hearing complaints from community organizers about ever more aggressive levels of law enforcement in low-income areas. Flick a cigarette butt and get arrested for littering; empty your pockets for an officer conducting a stop-and-frisk operation and get cuffed for a few flakes of marijuana. Each of these offenses can result, at a minimum, in a three-figure fine.

And the number of possible criminal offenses leading to jail and/or fines has been multiplying recklessly. All across the country — from California and Texas to Pennsylvania — counties and municipalities have been toughening laws against truancy and ratcheting up enforcement, sometimes going so far as to handcuff children found on the streets during school hours….

Being poor itself is not yet a crime, but in at least a third of the states, being in debt can now land you in jail. If a creditor like a landlord or credit card company has a court summons issued for you and you fail to show up on your appointed court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. And it is easy enough to miss a court summons, which may have been delivered to the wrong address or, in the case of some bottom-feeding bill collectors, simply tossed in the garbage — a practice so common that the industry even has a term for it: “sewer service.” In a sequence that National Public Radio reports is “increasingly common,” a person is stopped for some minor traffic offense — having a noisy muffler, say, or broken brake light — at which point the officer discovers the warrant and the unwitting offender is whisked off to jail….

Attempts to collect from the already-poor can be vicious and often, one would think, self-defeating. Most states confiscate the drivers’ licenses of people owing child support, virtually guaranteeing that they will not be able to work. Michigan just started suspending the drivers’ licenses of people who owe money for parking tickets. Las Cruces, New Mexico, just passed a law that punishes people who owe overdue traffic fines by cutting off their water, gas, and sewage…

The predatory activities of local governments give new meaning to that tired phrase “the cycle of poverty.” Poor people are more far more likely than the affluent to get into trouble with the law, either by failing to pay parking fines or by incurring the wrath of a private-sector creditor like a landlord or a hospital.

Once you have been deemed a criminal, you can pretty much kiss your remaining assets goodbye. Not only will you face the aforementioned court costs, but you’ll have a hard time ever finding a job again once you’ve acquired a criminal record. And then of course, the poorer you become, the more likely you are to get in fresh trouble with the law, making this less like a “cycle” and more like the waterslide to hell. The further you descend, the faster you fall — until you eventually end up on the streets and get busted for an offense like urinating in public or sleeping on a sidewalk.

This is not accidental or ‘unintended consequences.’ This is designed to remove undesirable people. You know, people who are loud. Bad for business. Not quite the right sort. Ghetto. Of course, what happens to those people…well, out of sight, out of mind.

This is not how we make cities better. As much as I dislike how cities have been turned into warehouses for the poor due to suburban zoning laws–and those laws need to be changed (why can’t libertarians do something useful that helps a poor person for once?)–ultimately, we need to decrease unemployment and raise wages. We can’t keep shuffling people from place to place, especially if one of those places is jail.

Ehrenreich concludes:

No one should be incarcerated for debt or squeezed for money they have no chance of getting their hands on. These are no-brainers, and should take precedence over any long term talk about generating jobs or strengthening the safety net. Before we can “do something” for the poor, there are some things we need to stop doing to them.

This assumes people want to help the poor: many people don’t, as their own sense of self-worth is tied up in having someone lower down the totem pole than they are. Others just see business opportunities and rising property values.

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5 Responses to When the Powerful Parasitize the Poor

  1. Min says:

    My sociology prof used to like to say that when you control for class, race drops out. IOW, in the studies he was talking about, class was in some sense a better explanation than race. He wasn’t actually denying racism, and I largely blew what he said off, though obviously I never forgot it. 😉

    But in recent years I have come to realize the strength of prejudice against poor people. It is combined with racism, of course, but that only makes things worse. What Ehrenreich is talking about is real class warfare.

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  3. Pingback: A Case Study in How the Poor Are Prosecuted for Being Poor | Mike the Mad Biologist

  4. thanks for posting this, a lot of helpful class related info all in one place.

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