Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Poor folks as criminals?

The longer I work and live in the inner city and the more I observe what low-income people face on a daily basis and how the "non-poor" react to them and their plight, the more convinced I become that most Americans just don't understand poverty.

Poverty results from and is sustained by ill-informed public policy. The criminalization of poverty being a case in point. The move of cities to outlaw many of the unavoidable actions of the poor only serves to deepen the poverty the poor experience. Systemic, "legal" forces serve to institutionalize poverty in urban America.

By now many readers here are rolling their eyes, thinking, "Here he goes again!"

My apologies for coming across like a broken record, but I find it necessary.

If you want to gain a better grasp of what ordinary poor people face in Dallas and the other major cities of the nation, please take the time to read insightful essay that follows.

Some will be surprised to learn how the legal system attacks the poor of all ages and life situations.

This article is worth your time, I promise.

Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?

Published: August 8, 2009

IT’S too bad so many people are falling into poverty at a time when it’s almost illegal to be poor. You won’t be arrested for shopping in a Dollar Store, but if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life — like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering. City officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about the ordinances that afflict the destitute, most of which go back to the dawn of gentrification in the ’80s and ’90s. “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a city attorney in St. Petersburg, Fla., said in June, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually been intensifying as the recession generates ever more poverty. So concludes a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which found that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol.

If poverty tends to criminalize people, it is also true that criminalization inexorably impoverishes them. Scott Lovell, another homeless man I interviewed in Washington, earned his record by committing a significant crime — by participating in the armed robbery of a steakhouse when he was 15. Although Mr. Lovell dresses and speaks more like a summer tourist from Ohio than a felon, his criminal record has made it extremely difficult for him to find a job.

Ehrenreich's article (read more here) is the third so far in a series that helps people like us come to grips with what it means to live in poverty. A Home Spun Safety Net (July 11, 2009) and Too Poor to Make the News (June 11, 2009), the first two installments of her extremely insightful series, should be read carefully by anyone who cares enough about poverty in the world's wealthiest nation to at least make the effort to understand the facts of the matter.

Reactions welcome here, as usual.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure our justice system loves the increased burden of housing the poor.

"Hey Steve, what are you in for?"
"I got caught being poor."

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading the series. Very powerful.

The worst (best) line in the 3rd article:

"The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks." - Barbara Ehrenreich

Our society can do better.

Anonymous said...

Here's another example. Texas law requires you to have insurance on your vehicle. The problem is, if you're homeless and you live in your vehicle, no insurance company will write you a policy. (I've tried it.) So you really need a permanant place to live in order to qualify to get insurance for your vehicle. But wait...there's more! In order to get a permanant place to live in Texas, you also need to have electricity 'turned on'; to get your electric, you need to have a permanant phone number; to get a permanant phone number, you need good credit; to get good credit, you need to have income; and to get income, you need transportation, which can often be a vehicle of some kind. Which takes us back to the beginning of the story...

I had to live in my vehicle for a few weeks when I moved here, in order to save up enough money - because I only get paid once a month, at the END of the month - to move into a place. Now, 7+ months after I moved here, I'm finally getting my vehicle and license transferred over to Texas stuff. It costs about $300 to do all of that, you see, and the bills didn't stop coming while I was saving up...

Praise God that He has seen me through all of this. One day at a time, one step at a time...I'm very thankful that He has not only preserved me but blessed me, over and over and over again. Thanks also to my family, who stuck with me and helped during this time. To all of my fellow travellers out there...hang in and have faith. God bless you.

Barecycles said...

Great articles and never mind about the "rolling eyes", just keep up the good work. Hopefully more people will take those rolling eyes and actually "see" the poor among us. I'm reminded of Shane Claiborne who said, "the problem isn't that wealthy Christians don't care about the poor, it's that they simply don't know the poor."