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Preying on the Poor

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

By Barbara Ehrenreich, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

Local Governments as Predators

Each of these crimes, neo-crimes, and pseudo-crimes carries financial penalties as well as the threat of jail time, but the amount of money thus extracted from the poor is fiendishly hard to pin down. No central agency tracks law enforcement at the local level, and local records can be almost willfully sketchy.

According to one of the few recent nationwide estimates, from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 10.5 million misdemeanors were committed in 2006. No one would risk estimating the average financial penalty for a misdemeanor, although the experts I interviewed all affirmed that the amount is typically in the “hundreds of dollars.” If we take an extremely lowball $200 per misdemeanor, and bear in mind that 80%-90% of criminal offenses are committed by people who are officially indigent, then local governments are using law enforcement to extract, or attempt to extract, at least $2 billion a year from the poor.

And that is only a small fraction of what governments would like to collect from the poor. Katherine Beckett, a sociologist at the University of Washington, estimates that “deadbeat dads” (and moms) owe $105 billion in back child-support payments, about half of which is owed to state governments as reimbursement for prior welfare payments made to the children. Yes, parents have a moral obligation to their children, but the great majority of child-support debtors are indigent.


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Attempts to collect from the already-poor can be vicious and often, one would think, self-defeating. Most states confiscate the drivers’ licenses of people owing child support, virtually guaranteeing that they will not be able to work.  Michigan just started suspending the drivers’ licenses of people who owe money for parking tickets.  Las Cruces, New Mexico, just passed a law that punishes people who owe overdue traffic fines by cutting off their water, gas, and sewage.

Once a person falls into the clutches of the criminal justice system, we encounter the kind of slapstick sadism familiar to viewers of Wipeout. Many courts impose fees without any determination of whether the offender is able to pay, and the privilege of having a payment plan will itself cost money.

In a study of 15 states, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found 14 of them contained jurisdictions that charge a lump-sum “poverty penalty” of up to $300 for those who cannot pay their fees and fines, plus late fees and “collection fees” for those who need to pay over time. If any jail time is imposed, that too may cost money, as the hapless Edwina Nowlin discovered, and the costs of parole and probation are increasingly being passed along to the offender.

The predatory activities of local governments give new meaning to that tired phrase “the cycle of poverty.” Poor people are more far more likely than the affluent to get into trouble with the law, either by failing to pay parking fines or by incurring the wrath of a private-sector creditor like a landlord or a hospital.

Once you have been deemed a criminal, you can pretty much kiss your remaining assets goodbye. Not only will you face the aforementioned court costs, but you’ll have a hard time ever finding a job again once you’ve acquired a criminal record. And then of course, the poorer you become, the more likely you are to get in fresh trouble with the law, making this less like a “cycle” and more like the waterslide to hell.  The further you descend, the faster you fall—until you eventually end up on the streets and get busted for an offense like urinating in public or sleeping on a sidewalk.

I could propose all kinds of policies to curb the ongoing predation on the poor. Limits on usury should be reinstated. Theft should be taken seriously even when it’s committed by millionaire employers. No one should be incarcerated for debt or squeezed for money they have no chance of getting their hands on. These are no-brainers, and should take precedence over any long term talk about generating jobs or strengthening the safety net. Before we can “do something” for the poor, there are some things we need to stop doing to them.

Barbara Ehrenreich, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” (now in a 10th anniversary edition with a new afterword). She is the founder of the just-launched Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which supports innovative journalism on poverty and economic hardship.  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Ehrenreich discusses how the poor get soaked and her latest project to fund investigative journalism on poverty, click here or download it to your iPod here.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

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Copyright 2012 Barbara Ehrenreich

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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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