On the News With Thom Hartmann: It’s Effectively a Crime to Be Poor in the US, and More

In today’s On the News segment: Debtors prisons have been outlawed for more than a century, yet it’s still effectively a crime to be poor in our country; the rich love to whine about entitlements, but that doesn’t stop them from collecting their own government handouts; protesters held a 15-day fast outside Los Angeles City Hall to demand an increase to the city’s minimum wage; and more.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.


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You need to know this. Despite the fact that debtors prisons have been outlawed for more than a century, it’s still effectively a crime to be poor in our country. According to a stunning new report called “The Poor Get Prison,” the “justice system” is being used as a weapon against the poor in cities all over our nation. That study was co-authored by Karen Dolan and Jodi L. Carr on behalf of the Institute for Policy Studies, and it breaks down the various ways that Americans are being punished for being poor. In addition to the obvious criminalization of poverty, like fining the homeless for being homeless, cities and counties throughout our country have set up a vicious cycle of charging exorbitant fees for small infractions and then jailing people who can’t afford those fines. By turning many petty crimes, like drinking from an open alcohol container, into civil infractions, cities and towns set up the poor to fail and end up behind bars. A $100 ticket can easily turn into probation for failure to pay fines, which snowball when probationers then fail to pay so-called “supervision fees.” Suddenly, someone ends up in a modern-day debtors prison. Not only is this whole process unconstitutional, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Throwing someone in jail over unpaid fines means that they can’t work, and they can’t make any money. It also means that instead of a $100 fine being lost to the city or county, taxpayers are now on the hook for the cost of putting someone behind bars. In the introduction to “The Poor Get Prison” report, one of the authors wrote, “In the last ten years, it has become apparent that being poor is in itself a crime in many cities and counties, and that it is a crime punished by further impoverishment.” Debtors prisons were outlawed long ago because they are inhumane and ineffective, and it’s time to end the criminalization of poverty once and for all.

It’s official. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders announced he’s running for president. In an email about his announcement, he wrote, “After a year of travel, discussion and dialogue, I have decided to be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.” Although Senator Sanders is officially an independent, he is seeking the Democratic nomination to ensure that he doesn’t split the vote. Various news outlets and pundits ignored or dismissed the announcement, but Sanders said, “People should not underestimate me.” With a strong background of fighting for veterans, protecting the middle class, and standing up to the big banks and Wall Street, Senator Sanders gets support from people all over the political spectrum. In an interview with the Associated Press, Senator Sanders said, “I’ve run outside of the two-party system, defeating Democrats and Republicans, taking on big-money candidates and, you know, I think the message that has resonated in Vermont is a message that can resonate all over this country.” Regardless of where you stand on 2016, it’s great to have another voice in the race who will fight for working Americans.

Rich people love to whine about entitlements, but that doesn’t stop them from collecting their own government handouts. In a recent article over at Common Dreams, Paul Buchheit explains how the actual cost of the social safety net pails in comparison to the cost of tax avoidance, loopholes and corporate welfare. In 2014, the total cost of the non-medical safety net was $370 billion. That means that programs like SNAP, WIC, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit and others cost less than one quarter of the $2.2 trillion that is lost to tax avoidance. While those at the top blame food stamp recipients and hungry kids for bankrupting our nation, they continue to stash money in overseas tax havens and call for even lower tax rates on the rich. The poor people in this country are not the problem, and it’s time to call out the real welfare kings and queens for the massive benefits they take from our government.

The Fight for Fifteen has helped raise wages in cities like Seattle and San Francisco, but workers aren’t stopping there. Last week, protesters wrapped up a 15-day fast outside Los Angeles City Hall, which was being held to demand an increase to that city’s minimum wage. The group of protesters is made up of fast-food workers who say that they can’t survive on poverty wages. In an interview with the ThinkProgress Blog, one of the protesters said that fasting was just a reminder of the way that she grew up. While many would applaud the difficult form of protest, Martha Sanchez said, “It’s not difficult because I grew up hungry. I’m not doing anything radical, I’m doing exactly the same thing that thousands of moms are doing in silence in their homes.” In the richest nation on Earth, no one should be suffering with hunger, and every worker should earn a wage that ensures they have enough to eat. Hopefully, this brave protest will push lawmakers to do right by the low-wage workers of Los Angeles.

And finally … Corporate profits are at record highs, but wages are growing at the slowest pace since 1960. While workers and activists fight for higher wages, one senator is fighting this inequity from a different angle. Earlier this month, Democrat Tammy Baldwin sent a letter to the head of the SEC about the use of stock buybacks and dividends to manipulate stock prices and deny wage increases. In her letter, Senator Baldwin wrote, “There is mounting evidence to suggest that buybacks have a negative effect on jobs, wages, and investment, which in turn have negative impacts on innovation and long-term national economic growth, competitiveness, and security.” In earlier decades, corporations used this money to invest in their companies, their workers, and their nation. Now they’re just using it to make those at the top even richer. Good on Senator Tammy Baldwin for shining a light on this corporate manipulation, now let’s help put pressure on the SEC to make stock buybacks a thing of the past.

And that’s the way it is – for the week of May 4, 2015 – I’m Thom Hartmann – on the Economic and Labor News.