The War on the Poor is Only Getting Worse
Peter Edelman on the One War America Seems to Be Winning
Vera Cheeks, a resident of Bainbridge, Georgia, was ticketed for rolling through a stop sign. The judge hit her with a $135 fine and ordered her to pay in full immediately. She told him she was unemployed and caring for her terminally ill father and had no money, so the judge said he would give her three months of “probation” to pay up. He sent her to a room behind the courtroom where, reports Cheeks, who is African American, “there was a real big lady. There were cells on both sides of the room and there was a parade of people paying money to the lady. They were all black. It was like the twilight zone, totally mind-boggling.”
The woman said Cheeks now owed $267—the fine plus $105 for the (for-profit) probation people and $27 for the Georgia Victims Emergency Fund. The woman put a paper in front of Cheeks and told her to sign it. Cheeks said she would not. The woman said, “I’m going to tell the judge to put you in jail for five days.” Cheeks still refused, and finally the woman demanded $50 or else Cheeks would go to jail. Cheeks’s fiancé raised the money by pawning her engagement ring and a lawn implement. That avoided jail for the moment, but Cheeks remained at risk of being locked up if she was late with even one payment.
Vera Cheeks was furious. She was “traumatized” by what she saw and just “cried to see what they do to people” there. She thought something was very wrong, but she said the people in the town didn’t seem to know it was wrong and were scared to do anything about it anyway. She started looking for a lawyer, Googling for three hours until she found Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights. Cheeks says that Geraghty was ecstatic because, the lawyer told her, she had been looking for a case like that. Geraghty not only resolved Cheeks’s problem but also brought to an end the local court’s system of making money at the expense of low-income people and people of color.
Mass incarceration has been doing its damage for decades, but Vera Cheeks personifies a newer criminalization—the criminalization of poverty. The debtors’ prison with which Cheeks was threatened is just one aspect of a larger phenomenon: in America today, it is too often a crime to be poor.
Punishing the poor is as old as the Bible. In England, almshouses showed up as early as the 10th century. The United States had almshouses, workhouses, and poorhouses from its beginning, going on to pauper auctions in the later 19th century, and followed by so-called scientific charity.
We still punish the poor, but the contemporary history is more complex. Beginning with the New Deal, federal policy began to reach the poor in positive ways. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and fair labor standards made an enormous difference, even if flawed in their coverage. The 1960s saw an explicit focus on reducing poverty, and poverty fell from 22.4 percent in 1959 to 11.1 percent in 1973. African American poverty dropped from 55.1 percent to 31.4 percent over the same period, with the historic civil rights statutes playing a significant role. Important new policies were adopted over the following decades. Without food stamps (now SNAP), housing vouchers, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Child Tax Credit, Social Security and other existing programs, more than 90 million people would be living in poverty, twice the number of people counted as poor today.
Nonetheless, a constellation of factors have held us back: tax, employment, and welfare policies that worsen inequality and poverty; deindustrialization and the consequent flood of low-wage jobs; the weakening of unions; changes in family structure that have left many women and their children alone to cope with low-paying work; the deterioration of the public education system; mass incarceration; a long-standing crisis in affordable housing; and continuing issues of discrimination.
At the same time, negative attitudes toward the poor and public policies to put those attitudes into law have intensified, especially with the Great Recession of the George W. Bush years, and now the Trump era. Anger simmered for decades as people struggled with low-wage work, and then it exploded with the recession’s sudden blow. Lower-income whites complain vehemently about slackers who they say take government handouts instead of working, and they especially allege that African Americans make use of affirmative action to take away their jobs. Never mind that welfare and affirmative action are close to defunct.
Despite the gathering forces, we reached the year 2000 with a poverty level of 11.3 percent, almost as low as the historic low in 1973. Since then, politics about poverty, and feelings about race in particular, have deteriorated. Racism is America’s original sin, and it is present in every area of criminalization. Together, poverty and racism create a toxic mixture that mocks our democratic rhetoric of equal opportunity and equal protection under the law.
Beyond mass incarceration, beginning in the 1990s we adopted a new set of criminal justice strategies that further punish poor people for their poverty. Low-income people are arrested for minor violations, held in jail to await trial when they cannot afford bail, fined excessive amounts, and hit with continuously mounting costs and fees. Failure to pay begets more jail time, more debts from accumulated interest charges, and additional fines and fees. Poor people lose their liberty and often lose their jobs, are frequently barred from a host of public benefits, may lose custody of their children, and may even lose their right to vote. Once incarcerated, impoverished inmates with no access to paid work are often charged for their room and board.
This system of modern peonage came into public consciousness only in light of revelations from Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown. Right now in the United States, ten million people— representing two-thirds of all current and former offenders in the country—owe a total of $50 billion in accumulated fines, costs, fees, charges for room and board in jails and prisons, and other impositions.
Many states couple jailing with widespread suspension of driver’s licenses. Others mainly use license suspension to coerce payment of the debts, heedless of the fact that this makes it much more difficult for the working poor to get to the jobs they need to pay off their debts.Negative attitudes toward the poor and public policies to put those attitudes into law have intensified, especially with the Great Recession of the George W. Bush years, and now the Trump era.
In addition to being inhumane and destructive, locking up people who are unable to pay fines and fees is wasteful. The cost of incarcerating a person for failing to pay a fine or scheduled payment typically exceeds whatever is collected. Some jurisdictions have figured this out and now confine themselves to using driver’s license suspensions and heavy-handed collection agencies.
To understand the new impulse to make being poor a crime, one has to follow the trail of tax cuts that began in the Reagan era. Deep budget cuts ensued, and the onus of paying for our justice system—from courts to law enforcement agencies and even other arms of government—began to shift to the “users” of the courts, including those least equipped to pay.
In state after state the dismantling of the tax base crippled public education and damaged the futures of children across lines of income, hurting many more children than just those who live in poverty. The anti-tax forces also stripped down mental health services, legal services, and even law enforcement. Budget cuts led to the further deterioration of mental health and addiction treatment services, making the police the first responders and jails and prisons the de facto mental hospitals, again with a special impact on minorities and low-income people.
“Broken windows” law enforcement policy—the idea that mass arrests for minor offenses promote community order—aided the new criminalization, making the police complicit in the victimization of the poor and filling jails with poor people, especially because those arrested could not pay for bail.
Nor is the new criminalization confined to jailing low-income adults for minor offenses. Poor children, particularly in communities of color, are arrested and sent to juvenile and even adult courts for school behavior that not long ago was handled with a reprimand. The dangerous rhetoric of “superpredators” and the murders at Columbine High School led to “zero tolerance” policies and brought an enlarged police presence, called “school resource officers,” into public schools, with the ironic result that the murder of white suburban children led to punitive policies that hit poor inner-city children the hardest.
Poor women are targets of the new criminalization, too. Under “chronic nuisance” ordinances, police departments began to require landlords to evict people who were calling 911 too often. Women in some poor communities are now evicted by police order for calling 911 too often to seek protection from domestic abuse.Punishing the homeless often reflects underlying prejudice, but municipalities are now enacting even more punitive measures due to shortages of funds for housing.
Homeless people are also experiencing a new wave of punitive laws, including jail terms for public urination and sleeping outdoors. Punishing the homeless often reflects underlying prejudice, but municipalities are now enacting even more punitive measures due to shortages of funds for housing, mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment, and basic cash assistance. Low-income people are also deterred from seeking public benefits by threats of sanctions for made-up allegations of benefits fraud. As elected officials have moved to the right, laws designed to keep people from seeking assistance have grown more common.
For at least two decades, the new criminalization of poverty crept into communities large and small, driven by misbegotten law enforcement politics and the search for revenue, but with little public attention.
Ferguson opened our eyes. Organizers and some public officials are attacking mass incarceration, lawyers are challenging the constitutionality of debtors’ prisons and money bail, judicial leaders are calling for fair fines and fees, policy advocates are seeking repeal of destructive laws, more judges and local officials are applying the law justly, and journalists are covering all of it. The Obama administration’s Department of Justice stepped into the fray on a number of fronts. Ferguson was a spark that turned isolated instances of activism into a national conversation and produced numerous examples of partnerships between advocates and decision-makers.
Now we must turn all of that into a movement. The ultimate goal, of course, is the end of poverty itself. But as we pursue that goal, we must get rid of the laws and practices that unjustly incarcerate and otherwise damage the lives of millions who can’t fight back. We must fight mass incarceration and criminalization of poverty in every place where they exist, and fight poverty, too. We must organize—in neighborhoods and communities, in cities and states, and nationally. And we must empower people to advocate for themselves as the most fundamental tool for challenge. We will get more done and get it done sooner if it is grounded in the people who demand action.
We have a new consciousness, and we can see it in the people in the streets of Ferguson and in the work of people across the nation addressing poverty at the grassroots.
It drives a growing push for justice, and Bryan Stevenson reminds us why: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. It is justice.” And Deuteronomy gives us our charge: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
From a new afterword to Not a Crime to Be Poor, by Peter Edelman, reissued by The New Press.