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American Scandal & Disgrace: the Criminalization of Poverty

The dark side of the  American Dream narrative is a propensity to blame the poor for their poverty. It is the  illusion  and delusion that the United States of America is a meritocracy where everyone is treated fairly and anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps if he just tries hard enough.  Thus, the poor get separated into two categories – the deserving and the undeserving poor. Who are the deserving poor? victims of natural disasters like Katrina or Mississippi floods- we approach these victims first with compassion because, as a society, we recognize they are both suffering and innocent – they are deserving of our compassion.  The undeserving poor, on the otherhand, are branded as lazy, weak and to blame for their situation. The “Great Recession” complicates this dominant narrative a bit – on the one hand, the suffering and unemployment is widespread and national poverty rate is on the rise. There is a collective experience of suffering; however, it is won through narrowing our focus – to those in the middle class falling into poverty. The masses of long term working poor and those who were homeless before the recession remain on the margins, outside the grasp of public compassion and under attack.

In her well known book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich examines the struggles of America’s working poor in a time of national boom and economic prosperity. A decade after its publicaiton, Ehrenreich has written a new introduction (an excerpt of which is available on Salon.com). She notes:

At the time I wrote “Nickel and Dimed,” I wasn’t sure how many people it directly applied to — only that the official definition of poverty was way off the mark, since it defined an individual earning $7 an hour, as I did on average, as well out of poverty. But three months after the book was published, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., issued a report entitled “Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families,” which found an astounding 29 percent of American families living in what could be more reasonably defined as poverty, meaning that they earned less than a barebones budget covering housing, child care, health care, food, transportation, and taxes — though not, it should be noted, any entertainment, meals out, cable TV, Internet service, vacations, or holiday gifts. 29 percent is a minority, but not a reassuringly small one, and other studies in the early 2000s came up with similar figures.

All of this was, as she notes, during “the best of times.” Historical evidence has shown the popular adage ”a rising tide raises all boats” is simply false.  Grand increases in wealth among the rich, do not “trickle down” to everyone in society – the last twenty years has produced record and increasing inequality.

Not only are the poor still struggling to survive (and largely absent from the public debate,  with the exception of organizaitons like Circle of Protection), they are under attack. In “How America Turned Poverty into a Crime,” details the horrifying criminalization of poverty in this country. 

Most cities, for example, have ordinances designed to drive the destitute off the streets by outlawing such necessary activities of daily life as sitting, loitering, sleeping, or lying down. Urban officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about such laws: “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a St. Petersburg, Florida, city attorney stated in June 2009, 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 intensified as the weakened economy generates ever more poverty. So concludes a recent study from the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness, which finds that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with the harassment of the poor for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering, or carrying an open container.

The report lists America’s ten “meanest” cities — the largest of which include Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Orlando — but new contestants are springing up every day. In Colorado, Grand Junction’s city council is considering a ban on begging; Tempe, Arizona, carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent at the end of June. And how do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “an indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely Al Szekeley at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington, D.C. — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Phu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972.

He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until December 2008, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants. It turned out that Szekeley, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs, or cuss in front of ladies, did indeed have one — for “criminal trespassing,” as sleeping on the streets is sometimes defined by the law. So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail.

“Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Szekeley. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless?”

Mr. Szekeley’s story is akin to many who suffer from persistent homelessness, who live on the margins and are treated with disdain as criminals. Some cities have gone so far as to criminalize not only poverty; but also to criminalize sharing food with the poor. 

Far more insidious and institutionalized are the ways in which poverty has been criminalized for the not yet homeless.  As  Ehrenreich explains,

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.”

The criminalization of poverty is an example of structural or social sin. The very structures of how our society examines, counts, and responds to poverty are unjustly structured to blame the poor for their situtation and deny their full human dignity.  Not only is the criminalization of poverty highlighted by Ehrenreich an attack on the full dignity of the poor, the criminalizaiton of “sharing” is at once the criminalizaiton of Christian discipleship.  Capping the number of meals a soup kitchen can serve and making it illegal to hand out free food to “indigents,” is a direct assault on the mission of the Christian church. ( When a similar attempt was made concerning immigration in 2006, Cardinal Roger Mahoney emphatically came out against it and made clear, the Diocese of Los Angeles would not abide by such laws.)

Now, lest I be misunderstood, I am arguing that we have a responsibility to maintain and create a real, dignified safety net. We have a responsibility to create structures that respond to human need and reform structures that violate human dignity and reinforce an unjust social order. The distinction becomes clearer by looking at two key aspects of the social saftey net meant to provide assistance to those in poverty: one that does provide assitance and one which often treats the poor as criminals.

On the positive side, Ehrenreich highlights the success of the Food Stamps program (which is treated as a right, if you qualify for foodstamps and apply, you receive foodstamps). In the current economic crisis,

The food stamp program has responded to the crisis fairly well, to the point where it now reaches about 37 million people, up about 30 percent from pre-recession levels

In contrast, “welfare” or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) as it is now titled. Using the example of Kirsten (laid off and unable to find work) and Joe Parentes (unable to work due ot injury), Ehrenreich exposes the numerous ways TANF is structured to criminalize and dehumanize the poor.

When the Parentes finally got into “the system” and began receiving food stamps and some cash assistance, they discovered why some recipients have taken to calling TANF “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.” From the start, the TANF experience was “humiliating,” Kristen says. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum. They act like every dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.”

The Parentes discovered that they were each expected to apply for 40 jobs a week, although their car was on its last legs and no money was offered for gas, tolls, or babysitting. In addition, Kristen had to drive 35 miles a day to attend “job readiness” classes offered by a private company called Arbor, which, she says, were “frankly a joke.”

Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson of the University of Connecticut Law School, “applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police.” There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting, and lengthy interrogations as to one’s children’s true paternity. The ostensible goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to turn poverty itself into a kind of crime.

Throughout the recent budget and debt debates, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and other Christian organizations have reiterated that the measure of a society is how it treats the poor.  How shall we be judged? As both a Christian and an American citizen, the only response I have is one of profound disgrace. Not only do measures aimed at criminalizing poverty appear to be on the rise, as a society we seem to have accepted as fact the need to cut spending on safety net programs a priori. I find it disheartening that there is little political will to face the increasing poverty and persistent unemployment with renewed commitment to the full dignity of every person in our communities and a call to restructure and expand the safety net.  However, that is not in the cards, as Ehrenreich herself notes.

So what is the solution to the poverty of so many of America’s working people? Ten years ago, when “Nickel and Dimed” first came out, I often responded with the standard liberal wish list — a higher minimum wage, universal health care, affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation, and all the other things we, uniquely among the developed nations, have neglected to do.

Today, the answer seems both more modest and more challenging: if we want to reduce poverty, we have to stop doing the things that make people poor and keep them that way. Stop underpaying people for the jobs they do. Stop treating working people as potential criminals and let them have the right to organize for better wages and working conditions.

Stop the institutional harassment of those who turn to the government for help or find themselves destitute in the streets. Maybe, as so many Americans seem to believe today, we can’t afford the kinds of public programs that would genuinely alleviate poverty — though I would argue otherwise. But at least we should decide, as a bare minimum principle, to stop kicking people when they’re down.

As a Catholic moral theologian, I believe  it is imperative that we unmask these unjust structures, question the role of power and privilege in the way these structures maintain the status quo (while appearing to be a safety net). Social sin is so powerful becuase it is difficult to pin down – we try and avoid naming both the sin and our own complicity and participation in it.   Blaming the poor for their poverty (the extreme of which is criminalizing poverty) is part of the narrative which allows those with priviledge to claim they “earned” or are deserving of their privilege. Dismantling this will be difficult and I agree a start would be “to stop kicking people when they’re down.” But, in my opinion, much more is required of us as both Christians and Americans.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this analysis, Meghan. I think you’re right about the problematic narrative of “undeserving poor” vs “deserving poor” who are blamed for their situation. This stigma surfaces in HIV/AIDS rhetoric as well, even when we have so much data confirming the structural injustices that shape so-called risky behaviors. There are some social service agencies who are responding to the needs of at-risk populations (although severely underfunded, as you mention).

    Here’s a really compelling CBS 60 Minutes story by Scott Pelley on homeless children:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7371392n&tag=contentMain;contentBody

    Here’s one positive recent story:

    http://www.argonautnewspaper.com/articles/2011/08/25/news_-_features/top_stories/4.txt

    These are issues we need to continue to write, pray, and think about. A lingering concern for me is that it is difficult to raise issues about privilege and to help privileged people to understand their complicity in a broken system when they are themselves hurting in this economy. How can we transform the Tea Party rhetoric into rhetoric of compassion?

  2. I don’t know how we do that…I just know that it has to start with openly naming sin and lies. Not in a hostile way – but in as clear and pastoral way possible. But, more and more I’m convinced we have to be willing to call out stereotypes, misinformation, and flat out lies. I think narrative is a powerful and crucial tool in this regard. Facts and numbers don’t seem to be persuasive, but narratives do. The 60Minutes on homeless children is a good example of this. So is a website of artist/activists:

    americanpoverty.org

    So is the CCHD video on poverty – which takes apart the poverty line (which people think is much higher than it is….)

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