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Poverty as Prison, Reprise

We are a nation on lock down in more ways than we always see.

The overwhelming majority of the 47 million officially poor are there because of structure and policy, not because of flawed personal choices. (Photo: Street poverty via Shutterstock)

Before the war on drugs became our national fixation, there was a short-lived, halfheartedly implemented war on poverty. Would that the same amount of resources and political will been expended here. But hyper-individualism, rampant capitalism, and a political discourse that persistently racializes poverty and stigmatizes governmental assistance continue to stand in the way.

We are left instead with the war on the poor.

The gaps between rich and poor grow, while Congress slashes $ 1 billion from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), refuses to extend meager unemployment insurance (UI) to millions out of work, and an increase in the minimum wage (which would still fall far short of living wage) remains contentious.

Our national failure to provide any meaningful economic opportunities for tens of millions of Americans is doubly bitter when poverty and homelessness – a realm of little to no choice – is then reframed as exactly choice, the result of some failure of “personal responsibility.”

The reality of course is that the over-whelming majority of the 47 million officially poor are there because of structure and policy – low wages, lack of affordable housing, a shrinking social safety net, a decimated public education system, a host of conservative and neoliberal “reforms” – not because of flawed personal choices.

The reality is that poverty per se is a sort of prison, where choice is heavily constrained, surveillance is endless, “social services” are characterized by red-tape, condescension and increased overlap with the criminal justice system, where survival shapes daily life, and right now is the key consideration.

If this were not challenge enough, poverty itself is additionally criminalized via a host of federal, state and local laws, not that this is new – but the cumulative effect of these laws in the context of the prison industrial complex, a collapsed job market, and a government bent on “privatization” is a particularly toxic mix at this moment.

Criminalizing Welfare and Poverty

Volumes have been written about the long historical conflation of poverty and criminalization; this entails both false assumptions about who commits crimes and the reality of law enforcements tendency to focus efforts on watching, following stopping/frisking, arresting and imprisoning the poor (See Jeffrey Reiman and Walker, Spohn and DeLone). So too, there is a lengthy literature detailing the historical tendencies to subject the poor, especially those receiving any public assistance, to extensive stigmatization, surveillance, and regulation. (See Frances Fox Piven and Dorothy Roberts). It is not until the so-called “welfare reforms” of the mid – 1990s, however, that this regulation became criminalized rather than treated as a civil matter.

Of course, the conflation of crime and poverty has also been predicated on a conflation of race with both poverty and crime. In particular, Black women have been constructed as the archetypical welfare recipient, a long standing stereotype embodied in contemporary times in Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen.” Gendered racism then underlies much of the current effort to criminalize poverty, which reflects a pattern that can be seen in child welfare/foster care systems as well in the criminalization of education via the school-to-prison pipeline.

Dorothy Roberts, in Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers observes:

Stereotypes about black female criminality and irresponsibility legitimate the massive disruption that both systems inflict on black families and communities. A popular mythology promoted over centuries portrays black women as unfit to bear and raise children. The sexually licentious Jezebel, the family-demolishing Matriarch, the devious Welfare Queen, the depraved pregnant crack addict accompanied by her equally monstrous crack baby-all paint a picture of a dangerous motherhood that must be regulated and punished. Unmarried black women represent the ultimate irresponsible mothers-women who raises their children without the supervision of a man.

These stereotypes do not simply percolate in some disembodied white psyche. They are reinforced and recreated by foster care and prison, which leave the impression that black women are naturally prone to commit crimes and abuse their children. Stereotypes of maternal irresponsibility created and enforced by the child welfare system’s disproportionate supervision of black children help to sustain mass incarceration, and stereotypes of black female criminality help to sustain foster care. As Angela Davis observes, the prison-industrial complex “relies on racialized assumptions of criminality-such as images of black welfare mothers reproducing criminal children-and on racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns.

Social welfare and poverty services have become deeply entwined with criminal justice in ways that render them nearly indistinguishable. And this is true, not only in the public imagining of “welfare queens” and “food stamp presidentsbut also in the practical day to day procedural overlap of the systems. Poverty is quite literally synonymous with criminality now. As Gustafson observes in The Criminalization of Poverty:

… many of the policies written into the federal and state welfare reform laws assumed a latent criminality among the poor. The welfare reform measures were aimed at excluding welfare recipients who had engaged in illicit behavior (such as drug use or possession) in the past, and were aimed at imposing harsh penalties on welfare recipients who engaged in illicit behavior while receiving government benefits. These policies engaged the get-tough-on-crime approach used by the criminal justice system.

…criminalizing practices involved the growing intersection between the welfare system and the criminal justice system. This intersection includes not only overlapping goals and attitudes toward the poor, but also collaborative practices and shared information systems between welfare offices and various branches of the criminal justice system. Both these systems are now preoccupied not with addressing social ills, but rather with reducing the risks associated with social ills.

The criminalizing features of The Personal Responsibility and Welfare Reform Act of 1996 included:

  • Fugitive Felon Prohibitions that prohibited anyone with a felony warrant from receiving any assistance including TANF, SSI, food stamps, or housing assistance.
  • Operation Talon, which allowed police access to any welfare recipient information without probable cause or warrant and used food stamp offices as sting operation centers in the enforcement of the fugitive Felon prohibitions.
  • Drug Felony Lifetime Ban, which encourages states to ban drug felons from any TANF aid, and instituted lifetime bans of receipt of Federal aid monies for education, SSI or housing.
  • Collection of biometric data on welfare recipients (such as fingerprints and photographs), and data sharing with law enforcement in an effect to crack down on “welfare fraud.”
  • Increased criminal prosecution of “welfare fraud” cases, even relatively minor cases.
  • Increased use of and demands for drug testing as a precursor to receiving any sort of aid, and as a condition of retaining it.

These changes seamlessly convert social welfare systems into branches of the prison industrial complex. Those in need of governmental economic assistance of any sort are no longer just under the watchful eye of social workers, but now, of the police. The criminalization of poverty now takes on new meanings, as those in need of assistance are de facto subject to constitutionally questionable intrusions and deprivations privacy in lieu of probable cause. Because they are poor.

Criminalizing Homelessness

Currently 1.5 million Americans are experiencing homelessness on any given night, and that number has increased since the foreclosure crisis of 2008. The definition of homelessness is as follows:

A homeless person is anyone who:

  • lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and
  • has a primary nighttime residence that is a supervised, publicly- or privately-operated temporary living accommodation, including emergency shelters, transitional housing, and battered women’s shelters; or
  • has a nighttime residence in any place not meant for human habitation, such as under bridges or in cars.

As with poverty, women with children, African Americans, Latinas and Native Americans are over-represented among those officially counted as homeless. So too are veterans, and as a recent study shows about one out of five homeless adults (21%) had been released from a correctional facility within the previous 12 months.

Lack of affordable housing and increasingly, fleeing from domestic violence are significant contributors to homelessness. The challenge of finding affordable housing is exacerbated by a felony record, so our current experiment in mass incarceration has contributed to housing insecurity as well.

It is no historical accident that the creation of a large and persistent homelessness population coincides with the trend towards gentrification and privatization and policy shifts that allowed wage stagnation, reduced the availability of affordable rental properties, destroyed tens of thousands public housing units, and mass imprisonment/the war on drugs, and yes, so-called “welfare reform.”

Yet the personal responsibility storyline (also fomented by Reagan) is just perhaps even stronger than that attached to poverty alone. The stereotypes have long been associated with substance use, and flawed decision-making. That is often the case even with supposedly sympathetic portrayal, as in the case of the recent New York Times series, “Invisible Child.” Despite glancing critiques of Bloomberg policies and growing inequality, the spotlight was meant to show individual failing and “bad choices.”

Homelessness has long been de facto criminalized – to be without a house, to live your life in public, often results in the involuntary violation of ordinances on lurking, loitering, trespassing, public nuisance, and more. As homelessness increases, so too has enforcement of these laws.

A recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty recently examined laws targeting the homeless in 188 cities. Criminalizing homelessness in myriad ways was a central theme of the report:

The criminalization of homelessness takes many forms, including:

  • Enactment and enforcement of laws that make it illegal to sleep, sit, or store personal belongings in the public spaces of cities without sufficient shelter or affordable housing.
  • Selective enforcement of more neutral laws, such as loitering, jaywalking, or open container laws, against homeless persons.
  • Sweeps of city areas in which homeless persons are living to drive them out of those areas, frequently resulting in the destruction of individuals’ personal property such as important personal documents and medication.
  • Enactment and enforcement of laws that punish people for begging or panhandling in order to move poor or homeless persons out of a city or downtown area.
  • Enactment and enforcement of laws that restrict groups sharing food with homeless persons in public spaces
  • Enforcement of a wide range of so-called “quality of life” ordinances related to public activities and hygiene (i.e. public urination) when no public facilities are available to people without housing.

City ordinance are frequently tools for criminalizing homelessness. Of the cities surveyed:

  • 40 percent prohibit “camping” in particular public places, while 16 percent prohibit “camping” citywide;
  • 33 percent prohibit sitting/lying in particular public places;
  • 56 percent prohibit loitering in particular public places, while 22 percent prohibit loitering citywide; and
  • 53 percent prohibit begging in particular public places, while 53 percent prohibit “aggressive” panhandling and 24 percent prohibit begging citywide.

The increase of these laws serves to create a new class of “criminals,” those who due to the nature of their status as poor and homeless are defined, by their very existence as criminals. This of course adds to the catch 22 effect often associated with criminal injustice; the homelessness are arrested because they are homeless, and then, because of their criminal records, even less likely to be able to obtain housing than before.

The Nonprofit Industrial Complex and Criminalization

As direct governmental assistance continues to be cut, the poor and homeless are forced to increasing rely on charity and non-profit social service providers. This option too is wound up with criminalization, as these service providers are often funded and deeply connected too governmental systems of social and legal control.

The Non-Profit Industrial Complex. As INCITE! defines it:

The non-profit industrial complex (or the NPIC) is a system of relationships between:

  • the State (or local and federal governments)
  • the owning classes
  • foundations
  • and non-profit/NGO social service & social justice organizations

that results in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements. The state uses non-profits to:

  • Monitor and control social justice movements;
  • Divert public monies into private hands through foundations;
  • Manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism;
  • Redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society;
  • Allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through “philanthropic” work;
  • Encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them

INCITE!’s critique is largely directed at the ways in which the NPIC controls social activism via foundation funding and grants. This is relevant here, but there is another layer too. To the extent that non-profit service agencies receive local, state or federal money to provide services, they also will rely on the government’s use of “surveillance, control, derailment, everyday management” and criminalization of their “clients.”

This is certainly true with regard to non-profit services for the poor and homeless; all of the aforementioned criminalization tactics are often translated into the non-profit sector including drug/alcohol tests, required curfews, collection of biometric data, cooperation with law enforcement and other criminalizing agencies such as child protection, and creation of a highly regulated climate of security and surveillance.

Case in point: Last week students and I visited several nonprofit agencies that provide services and both short and long term shelter for the poor and/or homeless. The largest of these shelters, whose focus was homeless families, was substantially funded by the county, and offered the most services and the best accommodations.

It was also exactly like going to jail. A security guard and metal detectors at the door. Curfews and locked doors at night. A racial dynamic that involved primarily white female employees over-seeing mostly Black and American Indian women and their children. Rules, rules and more rules. Institutional food. Extensive cooperation with child protection and the police. Spending millions of taxes payer $$ in short-term responses to long structural dilemmas. A climate, in the guise of “help’- and yes in many ways it was – was also laden with white middle-class judgments on child-rearing and “choices.”

At one point, we passed a children’s library where we saw a young Black girl dreamily gazing at the shelves of colorful books. Our guide, the director of community outreach no less, poked her head in, and said in a patronizing voice. “Hi cutie pie, are in you in here all alone? Does your mother know you are here? Aren’t there rules against this?”

Before the stunned child could answer, we had moved on. Who knows what would have followed had we not been there on a time table and a “tour”?

But isn’t this the heart-breaking anti-thesis of the world that we hope for? Shouldn’t we be celebrating – not chiding – small children who just simply want to joyfully linger with books?

Not in the world of criminalized poverty, where rules override the humanity of us all.


Per usual, I am better at detailing the troubles than offering solutions, better at asking the questions than easily answering them.

What I do know is that we are a nation on lock down in more ways than we always see. It is not just the PIC and the escalating reach of the NPIC. Add in the medical industrial complex, and we have an endless inter-connecting, inter-locking web of social control, some disguised as benign, some advertised as brutal.

And it is not just the policing of the poor that expands. We all are – or soon will be some sort of criminals now – whether they call us inmates or patients or clients or “guests.”

Well, not all of us. Some, of course, will be employed as over-seers – as correctional officers, police, psychiatrists, social workers, teachers, employment counselors, what not, in what remains the last growth industry in the dying desperate days of late service-sector consumer capitalism.

In this era of privatization, tax payer money is funneled into any number of industrial complexes to warehouse a surplus labor force, regulate those at the margins, create working class/middle class semi-skilled/professional job opportunities for those employed in the management of said populations, and of course, provide high profits for those at the top.

Always keep this in mind as we call for abolition:

The industrial complexes of social control – It’s somebody’s job now.

And at whose expense?

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