Penalizing the Poor for Being Poor

-Guest Chat-

Caroline Heider ’15

As a Social Work major it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to many that I’ve been exposed to a variety of articles, videos, and books concerning the sad reality of poverty.  Much of what I’ve read or watched has certainly been eye-opening, disheartening, and more than a little upsetting; yet one article entitled “Is It Now a Crime To Be Poor?” disturbed me more than all the others. It is one that I have not since forgotten.

In her article on the criminalization of poverty, Barbara Ehrenreich discusses how the enforcement of certain laws and ordinances serve to push already impoverished people further into poverty.  The examples are endless: a homeless man who is fined for sleeping on a park bench, a kid who is fined for being on the streets when he should be in school, people in public housing who are subjected to frequent drug tests.

City laws and ordinances that ban sleeping in public areas such as subways, parks, and sidewalks punish people for not having a home and then push them further into poverty by making them pay fines with money they cannot afford to lose.  When a public overcrowded bus drives past children without stopping, kids are left on the street and risk being fined for truancy (failure to attend school).  This, then, discourages parents from even sending their children to school in the first place, and education, understandably, becomes less important than surviving—and so the cycle of uneducated children continues.

Laws that arrest and fine impoverished people for doing things and being in situations that they cannot avoid are catalysts in the cycle of poverty.  These laws are not helping to eradicate poverty; they’re helping it thrive.  These established laws do not take into account a person’s situation or story.  They leave no room for moral consideration.

In her article, Ehrenreich says, “Poor people have become a source of revenue for recession starved cities.”  A sad irony lies in this statement.  City laws and ordinances squeeze a lot of money out of the people in our society who have the least of it, and then the government makes it a crime when the poor cannot pay their fines. I stumbled across a quote by Malcolm X in another social work book I read, which summed up Ehrenreich’s article and the situation of poverty in America.  It read, “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”  How can our society ignore people who have fallen down and then punish them for trying to get back on their feet?

If Americans truly want to work toward ending poverty, the laws regarding the issue need to be reevaluated.  Lawmakers need to keep first in mind the inherent dignity of all human beings and the common humanity everyone shares, and then remember that justice cannot be completely served without a little bit of mercy.  Until these two things are remembered and woven into the system, the cycle of poverty has no other choice but to keep turning.

Caroline Heider is a sophomore social work major. The referenced article was published in the New York Times on 8/8/09


2 thoughts on “Penalizing the Poor for Being Poor

  1. It’s often a little too easy to side with the underdog, and with the particular argument that this article takes up, we need to consider a fuller, more objective picture of what the government does for its people, and what its people do for it. Laws that fine people for sleeping on benches or not being in school certainly seem harsh in a vacuum. However, many people who bear the burden of heavily progressive taxation (about 65% of Americans) would disagree with your claim that ours is not a society that respects basic human dignity and holds people up. A middle class family struggling to put 4 kids through college and seeing nearly 40 cents of every dollar they make going to the federal and state governments, primarily to fund programs to help less privileged people will meet the argument made in this article with resentment. Where is the ‘mercy’ for the people who have gotten up for work every day at a mediocre job that barely pays the bills but are somehow still expected to ‘help out’? The fact is, our society certainly does not ignore the people who have fallen down. In fact, 65% of the population extends a hand to help them up, and it is often a matter of personal choice of whether or not the helping hand is taken.

  2. Pingback: Come Think With Us. | Friarside Chats

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