For most of my adult life, I’ve tried to explain (often from first-hand knowledge) how very expensive, time-consuming and demoralizing it is to be poor. This Barbara Ehrenreich piece does a really good job:
When the Parentes finally got into “the system” and began receiving food stamps and some cash assistance, they discovered why some recipients have taken to calling TANF “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.” From the start, the TANF experience was “humiliating,” Kristen says. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum. They act like every dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.”
The Parentes discovered that they were each expected to apply for 40 jobs a week, although their car was on its last legs and no money was offered for gas, tolls, or babysitting. In addition, Kristen had to drive 35 miles a day to attend “job readiness” classes offered by a private company called Arbor, which, she says, were “frankly a joke.”
Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson of the University of Connecticut Law School, “applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police.” There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting, and lengthy interrogations as to one’s children’s true paternity. The ostensible goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to turn poverty itself into a kind of crime.
This is why it drives me crazy when people say they don’t have a problem with drug-testing people on welfare, or unemployment. Obviously, they haven’t been there.
For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization, and one is debt. Anyone can fall into debt, and although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at least one state, Texas, people who can’t pay fines for things like expired inspection stickers may be made to “sit out their tickets” in jail.
More commonly, the path to prison begins when one of your creditors has a court summons issued for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or another, such as that your address has changed and you never received it. Okay, now you’re in “contempt of the court.”
Or suppose you miss a payment and your car insurance lapses, and then you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight (about $130 for the bulb alone). Now, depending on the state, you may have your car impounded and/or face a steep fine — again, exposing you to a possible court summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” says Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”
I just got a call last week from a collection agency trying to collect on a 12-year-old credit card debt. This was from a card that offered unemployment coverage – buy the plan, and they’ll pick up minimum payments for a year.
I bought the coverage, but lost the paperwork. I did, however, have the canceled check and the notation on my bank statement. They said it wasn’t “proof,” I told them to kiss my ass.
The interest rate was 28%. I’d already paid off the $500 balance, everything else was interest. The guy on the phone was trying to get me to pay $2800. I laughed at him.
He said it didn’t matter that the original company had long since written off the debt — that once a collection company buys the account, it hits the reset button. (I’m still trying to find out if that’s true.) But I have to say, it wouldn’t surprise me if they issued a warrant. That’s how things go in Dickens’ London — oh, I’m sorry, I mean America. And everyone still sits and waits for someone else to do something.