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Preying on the Poor

Posted on May 17, 2012
pasukaru76 (CC BY 2.0)

By Barbara Ehrenreich, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

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Individually the poor are not too tempting to thieves, for obvious reasons. Mug a banker and you might score a wallet containing a month’s rent. Mug a janitor and you will be lucky to get away with bus fare to flee the crime scene. But as Business Week helpfully pointed out in 2007, the poor in aggregate provide a juicy target for anyone depraved enough to make a business of stealing from them.

The trick is to rob them in ways that are systematic, impersonal, and almost impossible to trace to individual perpetrators. Employers, for example, can simply program their computers to shave a few dollars off each paycheck, or they can require workers to show up 30 minutes or more before the time clock starts ticking.

Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees (themselves subject to interest), the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600% a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.

It’s not just the private sector that’s preying on the poor. Local governments are discovering that they can partially make up for declining tax revenues through fines, fees, and other costs imposed on indigent defendants, often for crimes no more dastardly than driving with a suspended license. And if that seems like an inefficient way to make money, given the high cost of locking people up, a growing number of jurisdictions have taken to charging defendants for their court costs and even the price of occupying a jail cell.


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The poster case for government persecution of the down-and-out would have to be Edwina Nowlin, a homeless Michigan woman who was jailed in 2009 for failing to pay $104 a month to cover the room-and-board charges for her 16-year-old son’s incarceration. When she received a back paycheck, she thought it would allow her to pay for her son’s jail stay. Instead, it was confiscated and applied to the cost of her own incarceration.

Government Joins the Looters of the Poor

You might think that policymakers would take a keen interest in the amounts that are stolen, coerced, or extorted from the poor, but there are no official efforts to track such figures. Instead, we have to turn to independent investigators, like Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America, who estimates that wage theft nets employers at least $100 billion a year and possibly twice that. As for the profits extracted by the lending industry, Gary Rivlin, who wrote Broke USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.—How the Working Poor Became Big Business, says the poor pay an effective surcharge of about $30 billion a year for the financial products they consume and more than twice that if you include subprime credit cards, subprime auto loans, and subprime mortgages.

These are not, of course, trivial amounts. They are on the same order of magnitude as major public programs for the poor. The government distributes about $55 billion a year, for example, through the largest single cash-transfer program for the poor, the Earned Income Tax Credit; at the same time, employers are siphoning off twice that amount, if not more, through wage theft.

And while government generally turns a blind eye to the tens of billions of dollars in exorbitant interest that businesses charge the poor, it is notably chary with public benefits for the poor. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, for example, our sole remaining nationwide welfare program, gets only $26 billion a year in state and federal funds. The impression is left of a public sector that’s gone totally schizoid: on the one hand, offering safety-net programs for the poor; on the other, enabling large-scale private sector theft from the very people it is supposedly trying to help. 

At the local level though, government is increasingly opting to join in the looting. In 2009, a year into the Great Recession, I first started hearing complaints from community organizers about ever more aggressive levels of law enforcement in low-income areas. Flick a cigarette butt and get arrested for littering; empty your pockets for an officer conducting a stop-and-frisk operation and get cuffed for a few flakes of marijuana. Each of these offenses can result, at a minimum, in a three-figure fine.

And the number of possible criminal offenses leading to jail and/or fines has been multiplying recklessly. All across the country—from California and Texas to Pennsylvania—counties and municipalities have been toughening laws against truancy and ratcheting up enforcement, sometimes going so far as to handcuff children found on the streets during school hours. In New York City, it’s now a crime to put your feet up on a subway seat, even if the rest of the car is empty, and a South Carolina woman spent six days in jail when she was unable to pay a $480 fine for the crime of having a “messy yard.” Some cities—most recently, Houston and Philadelphia—have made it a crime to share food with indigent people in public places.

Being poor itself is not yet a crime, but in at least a third of the states, being in debt can now land you in jail. If a creditor like a landlord or credit card company has a court summons issued for you and you fail to show up on your appointed court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. And it is easy enough to miss a court summons, which may have been delivered to the wrong address or, in the case of some bottom-feeding bill collectors, simply tossed in the garbage—a practice so common that the industry even has a term for it: “sewer service.” In a sequence that National Public Radio reports is “increasingly common,” a person is stopped for some minor traffic offense—having a noisy muffler, say, or broken brake light—at which point the officer discovers the warrant and the unwitting offender is whisked off to jail.

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By genia, May 19, 2012 at 2:05 pm Link to this comment

it seems this sort of savagery is the price to be paid for the “crime"of poverty.

thanks for writing and publishing this.

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By DornDiego, May 19, 2012 at 10:01 am Link to this comment

When I was a bartender, the only people the manager would
provide free drinks were the ones who drove Jags and Mercedes

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By berniem, May 19, 2012 at 9:46 am Link to this comment

Just as the poor make “a juicy target” in the aggregate for those so inclined to rob them, it should be remembered that when the backlash occurs it, too will focus on the aggregate of those persons responsible. Bankers who see their banks leveled by the enraged mob will suddenly find themselves no longer in position to afflict others. This will apply to all other agents of oppression as the violence of a revolution escalates because greed blinded those who could have prevented the onslaught.

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By John Steinsvold, May 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm Link to this comment

An Alternative to Capitalism (where there would be no

Several decades ago, Margaret Thatcher claimed:
“There is no alternative”. She was referring to
capitalism. Today, this negative attitude still

I would like to offer an alternative to capitalism
for the American people to consider. Please click on
the following link. It will take you to an essay
titled: “Home of the Brave?” which was published by
the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:


John Steinsvold

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and
expecting a different result.”~ Albert Einstein

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By Joe, May 18, 2012 at 4:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As someone who pulled myself up from my bootstraps, I know exactly what you mean. Add bank fees to your list of usury practices, as well as every corporation that wants to sign you up for some free service that ends up being a recurring charge on your credit cards.

I drive the I5 corrider frequently in California. The police presence has gone way up ever since the economy dived. Sure they’re enforcing the law, but they’re now doing it for the wrong reasons. The incentives are there for massive abuse, and I can only imagine how one must feel driving that corrider in a vehicle that stands out as “probable cause”.

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By balkas, May 18, 2012 at 6:24 am Link to this comment

but in the end, it is the system and openended personal freedoms to do
whatever one desires that does that. it’s much like a jungle law; in which
stronger always prevail. govts [really managers—just like safeway ones],
thieves, schemers, et al, only obey it.

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M Henri Day's avatar

By M Henri Day, May 18, 2012 at 4:11 am Link to this comment

But surely things are getting better ! I remember my father singing Joe Hill’s old Wobblie song (100th anniversary next year !), The Tramp, of which the fourth verse runs like this :

  Down the street he met a cop,
  And the copper made him stop,
  And he asked him, “When did you blow into town?
  Come with me up to the judge,”
  But the judge he said, “Oh fudge,
  Bums that have no money needn’t come around.”

Judging from Barbara’s article, a judge today, rather than rejecting him out of hand, would give the tramp a warm welcome into the hoosgow (of course, he would be expected to pay for the privilege, but that’s capitalism). Who says that things haven’t improved in the last 99 years ?!!...


PS : Joe Glazer’s rendition of this song can be found at :

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By do over, May 17, 2012 at 5:49 pm Link to this comment

Do unto others until others are undone.

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By Shirley, May 17, 2012 at 5:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is the greatest article i ever read and it open my eyes to 400 years of poor people abuse, and how each segment of Government played a part. How Sad.

Its even worst in 2012, if you have a record, you are unable to vote, or get a job, and at this point these people feels there life sliping away so they go out and committ another crime.

I like to watch AMERICANS-GREED and when these millionaries are caught they get to go to a place much like home, and i wonder if they still get to vote and re-join the working community.

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By steve, May 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It would seem usury is far more profitable than
making widgets and such. The pawn industry has been
overtaken by large well financed chains.Payday loan
companies were on almost every corner of the main
street of my former hometown; It was depressing.
Businesses like these attract investor because they
are so profitable and the overhead is comparatively
low. A storefront and minimum wage clerks manning
them is far less costly than building factories,
buying equipment and hiring people to actually make
things. Investors don’t worry about the unsavory
source of the profits. The discreet won’t brag about
it; the coarse will.

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By Kachtice, May 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm Link to this comment

This is what the Country has become, greed above all else.  The American Politician has been paid for and those who own them expect laws that are in their best interest at the expense of the general public.  Until the American Citizen wakes up and realizes what is really going on within this Government expect things to only get worse.

“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny” - Thomas Jefferson

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By jr., May 17, 2012 at 11:40 am Link to this comment

In 2008 i was arrested in las vegas for riding my bike on the sidewalk.  Not that it is, nor was, illegal to be riding one’s bike on the sidewalk, especially where i was.  The arresting county police officer was even kind enough to tell me that, “i’m not arresting you for riding your bike on the sidewalk; that is why i pulled you over.  I’m arresting you because you refused to continue answering my questions.”  Questions he said he would find the answers to running my license anyway, so i might as well tell him everything.  So i told him to go ahead and run my license;  since there were no warrants for my arrest or anything like that i felt i had nothing to worry about; and he said he would find what he was wanting to know anyway.  So, because it started sounding more like a nazi interrogation, than a routine traffic stop, i discontinued talking.  Now, if it were truly illegal to be riding a bike on the sidewalk, which it isn’t, but if it were, why are they not arresting their own children and senior citizens?; which they’re not doing.  Furthermore, if it were illegal to be riding a bike on the sidewalk, why wasn’t that the charge?  Why hide what one is doing behind a blanket charge like “failure to obey traffic laws.”  That was the official charge.  And, if refusing to any longer answer his questions was illegal, why wasn’t that the charge?  The case was eventually dismissed, but that didn’t make-up for my having to spend two days, and of my vacation, in jail; nor did it make easier the huge amount of trouble that caused me.  There was even a bail set. Lucky for me the city paid that, or i would have, no doubt, had to spend a full month in jail just waiting for the preliminary hearing.  I even had to beg the public defender to stand-in for me, so i could go home.  Initially she wanted a retainer’s fee.  Not to mention the arrest record is still on the books. 

People in this city of las vegas, nevada, are even encouraged to call the police to report “suspicious” activities.  Do you know the kinds of abuse that is leading to?  Sadly, i tell you, books could be written.  Sometimes i think these people forgot to take their psych-drugs, and find everything, and anything, suspicious:  like a homeless person they just don’t want around in their public parks.

What is one to do?  Unfortunately, as long as that kind of behavior is a highly cherished value of society, that kind of blatant harrassment will surely continue.

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