Barbara Ehrenreich on the Criminalization of Poverty

From Counterpunch, Ehrenreich, who, along with Jonathan Kozol and the late Joe Bageant and a vanishingly few others, tells the true story of American poverty more clearly than anyone else explores how we punish the poor::

The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, leading to the arrests of several middle-aged white vegans.

One anti-sharing law was just overturned in Orlando, but the war on illicit generosity continues. Orlando is appealing the decision, and Middletown, Connecticut, is in the midst of a crackdown. More recently, Gainesville, Florida, began enforcing a rule limiting the number of meals that soup kitchens may serve to 130 people in one day, and Phoenix, Arizona, has been using zoning laws to stop a local church from serving breakfast to homeless people.

For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization, and one is debt. Anyone can fall into debt, and although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors' prison, in at least one state, Texas, people who can't pay fines for things like expired inspection stickers may be made to "sit out their tickets" in jail.

More commonly, the path to prison begins when one of your creditors has a court summons issued for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or another, such as that your address has changed and you never received it. Okay, now you're in "contempt of the court."

Or suppose you miss a payment and your car insurance lapses, and then you're stopped for something like a broken headlight (about $130 for the bulb alone). Now, depending on the state, you may have your car impounded and/or face a steep fine -- again, exposing you to a possible court summons. "There's just no end to it once the cycle starts," says Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. "It just keeps accelerating."

The second -- and by far the most reliable -- way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong color skin. Indignation runs high when a celebrity professor succumbs to racial profiling, but whole communities are effectively "profiled" for the suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor. Flick a cigarette and you're "littering"; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you're displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect. And don't get grumpy about it or you could be "resisting arrest."

In what has become a familiar pattern, the government defunds services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Generate no public-sector jobs, then penalize people for falling into debt. The experience of the poor, and especially poor people of color, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks. And if you should try to escape this nightmare reality into a brief, drug-induced high, it's "gotcha" all over again, because that of course is illegal too.

One result is our staggering level of incarceration, the highest in the world. Today, exactly the same number of Americans -- 2.3 million -- reside in prison as in public housing. And what public housing remains has become ever more prison-like, with random police sweeps and, in a growing number of cities, proposed drug tests for residents. The safety net, or what remains of it, has been transformed into a dragnet.

It is not clear whether economic hard times will finally force us to break the mad cycle of poverty and punishment. With even the official level of poverty increasing -- to over 14% in 2010 -- some states are beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty, using alternative sentencing methods, shortening probation, and reducing the number of people locked up for technical violations like missing court appointments. But others, diabolically enough, are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of "crimes," but charging prisoners for their room and board, guaranteeing they'll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.

Here's the question - as more of us become poor, do we fight the criminalization of poverty, or do we accept it?

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Thanks! That was interesting. Here's my simplistic explanation:

Every single one of those poor people is a slap in the face of Capitalism, which is in turn an affront to the very FOUNDATION OF OUR SOCIETY. Since we need to INCENTIVIZE these errant citizens (and it's illegal to kill them), the only solution is to charge them for being poor. Eventually, they'll get the idea.

The great thing about criminalization is that it gives those who are dirt poor but still outside of The System someone to look down on. This is a time-tested way to keep them invested in the order that exploits them.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 09 Aug 2011 #permalink

A very unhappy subject you've chosen here. I'm afraid the history of the treatment of the poor in this country- Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath being an excellent primer for any not already aware- is just one horror after another.

I'm afraid I don't see it changing. And there is a corollary which I've just identified: while the poor are indeed criminal; the rich are, by definition, not criminal.

Have you noticed? There are no penalties for crashing the economy, driving hundreds to suicide, into bankruptcy, into homelessness. No penalties, at all. I'm afraid that's the historical norm, also. If you are wealthy- nothing you do is criminal.

Fact. Look it up.

The riots in London and the UK are going to provide a lot of lessons for us on this subject.

"So many people had been detained, the police said, that all of Londonâs police cells were full, and prisoners were being taken to precincts outside the capital." NYT.

Somehow, since 6,000 police were not enough last night, tonight the authorities are promising an additional 10,000; for 16K total. Really? Where from? Trained? paid? "volunteer", i.e. vigilante? That's a very scary situation, likely to get much worse before better.

My ex husband happens to deal with that very car issue. He had a broken tail light, couldn't afford to pay for it to get fixed ($150), then got a speeding ticket, missed the court date because he couldn't drive to the court house, ticket went up in price, warrant out for his arrest for failing to miss court, cannot get car insurance and it becomes a never ending cycle.

Once you are in the cycle it is VERY hard to get out. From what I have found, the only way out is to work with a community/family that is out of poverty to help pull you out. These are things not taught in schools, it is very frustrating to live on the poverty line and to be criminalized for it, even harder.

If you are wealthy- nothing you do is criminal.

Greenpa, that's simply not true. It's still a misdemeanor to sleep under bridges, even for the rich.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 09 Aug 2011 #permalink

It is a very scary situation. Several years ago my wife and I were leaving our state's major city and heading to our dusty little town. We were stopped and our vehicle impounded on the spot for lack of registration (sticker applied to wrong vehicle). It was 11 pm or so, and we were in our mid-50's - a couple of quiet grandparents but left on the sidewalk, in the night, with the contents of the truck cab and bed. Luckily we were able to call our daughter and borrowed her extra car, and drive home. You don't realize how easy it is to get on the wrong side of a policeman (she was about 22 and looked like it was her first night....still, she had a gun as was authorized to use deadly force.) We have never looked at government authority in the same light, after that experience.

I thought Food Not Bombs was primarily banned because they were feeding people food they had removed from dumpsters. There are legal ways to get food that is no longer wanted from stores, but food not bombs lifted "trash" from dumpsters instead.

By Robert S. (not verified) on 09 Aug 2011 #permalink

Do you have a source on that Robert? The only link I found on google to a primary source was redirected to a picture of a tennis player, with no search for the terms Dumpster pulling up any story from the website.

By Left_Wing_Fox (not verified) on 09 Aug 2011 #permalink

I'll tell you how we fight, we take up arms. It's why the founding fathers wrote that little 2nd Amendment. They knew that over time governments become more despotic and need to be nipped in the bud before it gets to be too much.

There will be blood spilled over this until things are set right again.

Tony, violence is exactly the worst course of action. Think a bunch of people with pistols are going to come out ahead against tanks? That doesn't mean simply cowing to the organized violence against the poor, but non-violent passive resistance has a pretty damn good track record.

"...we take up arms."


No money for car registration.
No money for fines.
No money for bail.

Even if you could afford to buy bullets, do you really think this is wise?

"Doggone it Martha pass me my stick! I think that old wasp nest needs a good whackin'!"

Left_Wing_Fox: look up the freegan movement, Food not Bombs is, or at least was, part of it.

The source was from years ago when they and the rest of the freegan movement were making news in the San Francisco area.

By Robert S. (not verified) on 09 Aug 2011 #permalink

I agree that it is both wrong and ridiculous to arrest people for feeding too many people. Even if that food is coming out of dumpsters, which I believe freegans do as some kind of a statement about all of the good food that is thrown away.

But I'm confused about the headlight/taillight thing- I replaced a burnt out headlight recently and I think that the pack of bulbs was under $10? I had it done at a shop the last time I needed the car inspected, and it was about $30. I don't know where this $130/$150 is coming from- the article says specifically "just the bulb." Maybe this is a very fancy car that the author is driving?

The frightening thing about the riots in London, is that England still HAS fallback systems for the poor compared to the US.

If someone does organise something bigger than your average gang, and isn't afraid to get shot at then a few America cities are going to get a nasty shock as the numbers swell.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 10 Aug 2011 #permalink

Don't worry about Tony; guys like him like to talk tough but do nothing. Well, usually, anyway; a few end up like Randy Weaver, discovering just how much their popguns are worth against the full force of authority. Forget it: anything that could be useful against the government has already been taken away from you.

I mean, if Tony really believed what he says, he should have taken action long ago: our rights have been under constant erosion for years, but all we get from the gun crowd is angry fist waving and retreat into their turtle shells. Their guns have been totally useless!

I mean, if Tony really believed what he says, he should have taken action long ago

Why should he complain? He still has his gun, so therefore he still has his freedom. Isn't that how it works?

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 10 Aug 2011 #permalink

Where are these $150 taillights sold? I remember last time mine went out, I got a pack of two new ones at Autozone for about $10. It could have been as much as $20, but there's no way it was over a hundred dollars, and they even helped me put it in for free (but even if they didn't it's not really that difficult).

Greenpa @#4, I believe the extra police officers drafted in will be what's called "specials", that is, already-trained part-time volunteers who already do regular shifts as police officers.

I've been poor and worked in low level jobs for most of my life, and didn't own a car until I was 30. I'm here to tell you that having little or no money is no excuse for not taking responsibility for yourself. In none of the instances cited above is poverty criminalized. Noncompliance with (various) laws is criminalized, only sometimes unfairly. But every example given above as 'the criminalization of poverty' is instead a lapse in judgement or, most often, responsibility. Let your car insurance lapse and get a ticket for that bad taillight - poor baby! Good thing you didn't have a wreck and total some other poor person's ride to work. Didn't show up in court because you couldn't use your car? Take a bus! Call a buddy! Start walking! As for not receiving notice of a lien or a court summons because you moved, a post office change-of-address notice is free to file and renew.And as others have pointed out, some of these examples are ridiculous- a $150 taillight? What's he driving, a DeLorean?

By nancy brownlee (not verified) on 10 Aug 2011 #permalink

Xenon HID 6000k bulbs cost about $150.00 -- but I sure don't drive a BMW 600i that needs them.

I agree with Nancy. There's a genuine issue here, but Ehrenreich is not making a good case for it with examples of personal irresponsibility. Sensationalizing the issue in order to sell some 10th anniversary editions diminishes the credibility of the problem.

Robert S: Don't know what Food Not Bombs EXPERIENCE you have, but in my EXPERIENCE, Food Not Bombs uses food legitimately DONATED by licensed restaurants and grocery stores (as in they are legitimate business like Safeway, Whole Foods, and so on). I'm afraid your comment is simply more of the same BS used to criminalize folks trying to help the poor.

Can't remember the author for sure, but it might have been John Stuart Mills who said "the law in it's infinite justice punishes the rich and the poor alike for stealing bread and sleeping under bridges."

The point is what we as a society choose to make a crime. Begging is a crime, but insurance policies that are deliberately designed to deny payment to ill children are not criminal. Sitting on the sidewalk is a crime, but waterboarding isn't. Public urination will land you in jail, but not selling deceptive mortgages and junk bonds.

Aimee, the quote is actually from Anatole France. It says (first the original French, then the English translation):

"La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain."

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."


Didn't take long for the "personal responsibility" "f-you-I've-got-mine" types to show up. Privileged little cupcakes like them need to shut up while the adults are talking.

By The Panic Man (not verified) on 10 Aug 2011 #permalink

Panic Man, that's a real reach there and a fairly juvenile statement in and of itself.

Sharon and I have known each other for years now and as such, I myself am a fairly regular commentator here.

While I agree that society needs to keep its safety nets in place, especially as we all grow poorer in the face of Peak Oil, climate change, and so on, it is way off the mark to think that the "personal responsibility" types are simply wrong.

People on the Left, or Progressive, side of things should look closer at people and families that seem to be on the political Right. The latter aren't all cold, f-you-I-have-mine types by any means and alienating the latter runs a real risk of making things worse. Should I, for example, just leave the work I do because I get some political flack from time to time?

Indeed, the work that Sharon herself has proposed through her advocacy writings over the past several years has been about things we can all do for ourselves and family just as much as they've been about helping and supporting others. Indeed, helping ourselves and families in times of crisis lifts a burden off of govt. and other social assistance organizations that allows scarce resources in times of severe need to go further.

Going forward, improving all of our lots in life is going to take responsibility. You do a great disfavor when you toss out the tired stereotype of everybody being either in the "help" camp or the "f-you-I've-got-mine" one. That's a gross oversimplification. It's divisive, and destructive to the social good in and of itself.

I work with poor kids from families that live in at-risk areas. I know all about the need for social safety nets. But I also know that generating and fostering the urge in such families for *self-help* is an area that could stand some real improvement, rather than the present attitude I see that all too often is one of resignation and govt. dependency. I and society have failed when a child, coming up on his 18th birthday, figures that he'll simply keep taking his psychotropic meds, regardless of whether the meds really help him, all so that he can continue to qualify for and live off of SSI to take but one recent example I am familiar with.

As a person who *does* advocate for more personal and private responsibility, but who also works in a social service setting, largely dependent on govt. contracts, I take a lot of heat for sometimes advocating the more Right-leaning positions. (In reality, I'm not so much on the Right as the center. It's usually that my critics are so far Left themselves.) Sometimes, however, that's what it takes.

What I see all too often is people on the political extremes yelling at each other. This has especially been the case over the past few years, as the economic landscape has deteriorated. Granted, the lopsided wealth distribution we have in this society is a real, growing, trouble spot, created by govt. bailouts of the rich, along with the effects of high technology, and we have to turn that trend around. Still, I ask you, if calling people names and labeling them as "types" really helps effect the change you want to see?

I didn't think so :-)

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 11 Aug 2011 #permalink

As a Citizen Patrol Officer I see the other side of this. People who park anywhere they want and feel they have a right to do so. They park in Handicapped spots just for a minute to run in and get a donut/cigarettes/booze. No thought for the person that really might need that spot to do their shopping. But let them have a wreck and need some help and we are the first ones to be called. We answer all the calls, both good and bad. If we can help we will do so. Help us by thinking about what you do and being civil to one-another.

By Bob Owens (not verified) on 11 Aug 2011 #permalink