Criminalizing poverty

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.

8 thoughts on “Criminalizing poverty

  1. This is so f*c%ing depressing. I scanned Barbara Ehrenreich’s story, as I can hardly bear to read the details. It really shouldn’t be hard for people to get how hard and stressful it is to be poor. But I guess too many people find it easier to blame the poor instead, and treat them like criminals.

  2. There is also the factor that just being in a situation of uncertainty and anxiety can have on your body. This keeps your body flooded with adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones that affect your heart, lungs and digestive organs. Then you have heart attacks, asthma and digestive problems like Chron’s Disease, ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. People begin to depend on alcohol and narcotics for pain control and to relieve anxiety. Kids get diagnosed with attention deficit disorder because their nervous systems stay on edge and hyper-alert.

    People get angry and fight and hurt each other. They also have accidents and get hurt because they aren’t able to concentrate on what they are doing.

  3. Has Barbara Ehrenreich ever apologized for the vicious, venom-filled attack on Hillary she published in 2008?

    She help give us Obama.

    She doesn’t deserve our time or attention.

    Carolyn Kay

  4. Susie– absolutely not true (at least in Pennsylvania) that the purchase of a debt starts the clock rolling again for the statute of limitations. Four years from the last use of the card, or from the last time you acknowledged the debt. Period. Tell them that the debt is too old, and that you don’t acknowledge it.

    (What I’ve found is that if they actually progress to suing you, most debt collection law firms are too chickenshit to actually litigate these claims. The last three of these cases I’ve represented, I filed what are called Preliminary Objections– objections to the form of the complaint– usually that they didn’t attach the relevant bills to the Complaint, or didn’t attach the cardholder agreement, etc. In each case, the debt collection firm *dropped the suit* rather than actually have to fight a case that was being defended.)

  5. I told them that the debt had already been written off and that as far as I was concerned, that was it. But I don’t know what the legal definition of “acknowledging the debt” is, and I’m afraid I might have done that.

  6. I doubt that most debt collection agencies have the facilities to go through the tapes and figure out who’s acknowledged and who hasn’t. And they certainly aren’t going to turn the tapes over to a lawyer.

  7. I’m with you Carolyn.
    She helped greatly in making things the way they are, when she could have easily done the opposite. Clearly one candidate was better than the other in her history of helping regular folks. If Erhenreich and all of the recent liberal/progressive handwringers were so concerned about society crashing down around their ears, she and they would have backed the right candidate.

  8. You can’t prove a negative or predict the future! Whether electing Hilary would have made any difference we will never know. The fact remains that Obama is our president. That the Republicans have obstructed every single plan he’s put forth and that the Democrats have not had the courage nor the unity to stand together and support their candidate. I doubt that any single person could have or will make a difference (including Bill Clinton). We together must now make a difference, somehow we all need to get off our butts and participate. Show up to meetings, protests, voice your opinion, organize and act. If all we do is rant on the Internet about what should have been then we are screwed. I would like a lot of things to have been different but they are not! I would have liked for the country to not have been founded on the rape and pillage of Native America but it was, to not have been built on the backs of slaves but it was, to not have been selling a false dream to line the pockets of the rich but it has. Not what are we going to do about it?

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