The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Crime of Poverty

And Don’t Forget It’s Cohort – The Crime of Sickness

All this [wealth] excludes but one evil – poverty.
~ Samuel Johnson to Boswell

I recently posted about groups of sex offenders forced to squat under bridges because a Florida law meant to protect children was so strict as to effectively render them homeless. When their numbers grew too large, Florida officials simply made it illegal for them to squat under bridges as well. A city attorney in Saint Petersburg defended ordinances that appeared to be targeting the homeless, saying, “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance.”

This sort of callous rationalization is increasingly becoming the norm in this country, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, a sociologist, political activist, and author, who discusses the issue in this past Sunday’s New York Times.

A new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty finds the number of ordinances against living in public poverty has been rising since 2006. The president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers testified before Congress in June about persistently stiffer penalties for crimes that are not a risk to public safety, such as vagrancy, jaywalking, and littering.

Ehrenreich also documents several cities that have outlawed charitable groups distributing food to the indigent in public places. Other communities have begun charging those arrested for homelessness for room and board while in prison, thereby resulting in un-remittable debt upon their release.

The pattern, says Ehrenreich, is obvious. “Curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement.”

It is easy for the poor to run afoul of the law with a system skewed against them. For example, loss of income or excessive debt forces a poor person to miss paying their auto insurance premium. A subsequent accident or routine traffic stop may cause a suspension of their license to impounding of their car. Unable to drive, they cannot get to work on time and lose their jobs. They also miss a court date on their ticket and are now in contempt of court.

“There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” says Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”

And have no doubt – the system is skewed. Despite all our benefits, the U.S. continues to commit a greater proportion of our citizens to prison than any other civilized country. A significant percent of these people are living at or below poverty. We imprison them at much higher rates and execute them for capital crimes more often than any other group. They are almost the exclusive recipients of the death penalty.

Nathan Brown, a social psychologist from Miami University at Oxford Ohio notes that while general crime rates do not increase with poverty rates, the poor do commit a greater portion of the crimes against person and property. He notes that many experts attribute increased aggression among the poor resulting in crime largely to the “gross inequalities between the very rich and the very poor.”

The tendency to criminalize poverty is precisely a conscious attempt to ease the guilt of the rest of society over their treatment and justify their marginalization. A poor man haranguing the affluent or the authorities over an unfair system is an object of potential sympathy and even admiration. A criminal doing so is an object of distrust and disdain.

Carl Holmes of the Orange County Public Defenders Office, says, “I believe because we have sufficiently isolated the poor, who are not like ‘us,’ and sufficiently demeaned them, that we have become indifferent to their plight. It is a matter of insensitivity and arrogance. It is our arrogance. We are more concerned about our status, our houses, our cars and our vacations than we are about taking care of each other.”

Likewise, Alex Schiraldi, Director of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, is cynical but only too accurate when he observes, “If four in ten young white men [from affluent, upper-class families] were under the control of the criminal justice system, we would not be passing ‘three strikes’ laws or building more prisons. We would be funding education, jobs, and drug treatment.”

Even back in 1885, the American political economist Henry George understood the inherent dangers in sufficient concentration of wealth creating distinct and widely separated social classes.

“Talk about abolishing slavery – we have not abolished slavery; we have only abolished one rude form of it, chattel slavery. There is a deeper and a more insidious form, a more cursed form yet before us to abolish in this industrial slavery that makes a man a virtual slave, while taunting him and mocking him with the name of freedom . . . Therefore I hold that poverty is a crime – not an individual crime, but a social crime, a crime for which we all, poor as well as rich, are responsible.”

Note that the Community Safety & Crime Prevention Council defines poverty as more than a mere lack of financial resources. “Poverty manifests itself in a lack of educational opportunities, lack of meaningful employment options, poor housing, lack of hope, and the prejudice against persons living in poverty.”

The poor suffer significantly more violence than the affluent do. In addition, they suffer higher disease rates, death rates and lack of healthcare.

In the current debate over healthcare reform, we face a choice over what is most important. There are those who believe our chief goal should be universal coverage, such that a minimum level of reasonable healthcare is available to all who desire it. Then there are those who believe that goal should be ensuring the same high levels of healthcare (or better) for those already insured at a cheaper price. Those predicting national collapse exhort on the latter, attempting to justify selfishness as a twisted form of patriotism.

What we ultimately choose as most important about healthcare reform will say a lot about us as a society and a nation. It is more than simply a moral decision, although it is certainly that as well. It is more than just a “nice to have.” We have marginalized those living in poverty to the point of criminalization. Now we must decide if being sick is a great enough offense as to rival the crime of being poor.

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