As the Economy Unravels, the Poor Are Criminalized

Quality of life laws resurrect a disgraceful tradition of discriminating against poor people. Like Jim Crow laws, these new laws segregate our country by race and class.

by Paul Boden

Perceptions of public safety vary drastically. A tourist or shopper’s perception of safety will be different from that of a person who can’t rub two dimes together. How you perceive public safety depends on where you stand in society.

As the gap between the wealthy and poor grows, public displays of extreme poverty and suffering have become commonplace. This disturbing reality brings to the fore competing needs for public safety. Whose rights should be protected by the state?

This growing economic divide is a recipe for social instability and conflict. The current proliferation of “nuisance crime” and “quality of life” laws resurrect a disgraceful tradition in the United States of using discriminatory measures to deal with poor and unwanted people. Like Jim Crow and Anti-Okie Laws, these new laws segregate our country by race and class.

Does the litany of laws forbidding camping, loitering, trespassing, blocking the sidewalk and panhandling make society safer? Or would we do better to focus our attention and resources on the vast inequality riveting our country?

The recession has hit hardest on the poor. According to the Center for Labor Market Studies, in the fourth quarter of 2009, households with incomes over $150,000 had an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, whereas households with incomes under $12,499 had an unemployment rate of 30.8 percent.

United for a Fair Economy reported that roughly 3.4 million families experienced foreclosure in 2009 and that almost 60 percent of mortgage defaults were caused by unemployment. African Americans and Latinos have experienced the brunt of the recession’s unemployment and home equity loss. The Census Report recently reported that the poverty rate is at a 15-year high.

Meanwhile, local and state governments across the country are eliminating vital social programs, privatizing parks and other services, raising tuitions, putting government workers on furloughs and reducing hours to curb budget deficits that in many states run in the billions of dollars. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “at least 45 states plus the District of Columbia have reduced services since the recession began.”

The Obama administration has interrupted some of the neoliberal social policies of the previous four administrations, most notably with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Nonetheless, we are still reaping the misfortune of 30 years of neoliberal cutbacks to the safety net, cutbacks that have created huge structural gaps in the housing and labor markets.

As the economy and safety net unravel in the recession, public spaces have become a battleground for competing perspectives of public safety. People from the top-earning households don’t feel safe or comfortable in the presence of all the poor people on our streets. And all the poor people on the streets don’t feel safe or comfortable in the presence of all the police officers and security guards.

“Nuisance crime” and “quality of life” laws separate public safety from social welfare and equity at a time when a broader systemic effort is necessary to address the crises in housing, employment, education, and health care. Poverty is not simply an individual choice or lifestyle. Resting on a bench or even sleeping in a doorway are not problem behaviors, nor are they criminal acts, when no other options are available.


A sick, disabled, emaciated man on the streets of San Francisco. Robert L. Terrell photo

A sick, disabled, emaciated man on the streets of San Francisco. Robert L. Terrell photo


According to Homes Not Handcuffs, a report released in 2009 by the National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness that surveys the criminalization of homelessness, of 235 cities, 33 percent prohibit camping, 30 percent prohibit sitting or lying, 47 percent prohibit loitering, and 47 percent prohibit begging in certain areas.

The message is clear: If your city is seen as tolerant of poor people in public spaces, tourists will stay away, families won’t come downtown to shop, small businesses will go under, tax revenue will go down, budget deficits will increase, and more services will be cut, precipitating a downward, irreversible spiral into financial ruin. This rationale has fueled the criminalization of poverty.

This story has worked well with the mainstream media and local legislative bodies looking for “action now” solutions. It suggests a clear cause and provides a specific answer. The cause is “those people” and the answer is to get rid of them for “the greater good.” After all, it’s much easier to find someone to blame and pound the message home — until it becomes its own reality — than it is to address an economic system that is increasingly producing inequality and poverty.

The fear, nervousness, and desperation that people are feeling is very real, but policing the crisis will not fix the fundamental problem. In many ways, we are at a crossroads. We need real solutions and they do exist. Economic human rights models that include a right to housing, education and treatment, a job with a living wage will prove much more effective in the long run — when pressed, people on all sides seem to agree on this point.

Yet, advocates for zero tolerance policies keep crowding out other voices by saying that we need “action now!” They argue that one more law will give them the tools they need to make everything better.

Taking “action now” to address homelessness has meant needing even more “action” tomorrow. If we as a country had initially diagnosed the real causes of emerging homelessness in the early 1980s — the disappearance of affordable housing — instead of believing it to be a temporary crisis for dysfunctional people, the divisiveness, hostility and anger that surrounds today’s law-adding frenzy, that keeps moving homeless people away, would be virtually non-existent.

Paul Boden is the organizing director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.

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