Criminalizing the Poor in America Today
Passing laws to make the conditions of poverty criminal acts is nothing new in patriarchal societies that favor the wealthy elites. In the 1600s and 1700s, the English passed hundreds of laws to criminalize the poor in order to get them off the streets and out of the country to serve as prisoners and indentured servants in the colonies. If you were homeless, it became a crime to sleep anywhere but in your house. If you were unemployed, you were charged with loitering or vagrancy. It became a crime to beg, to be a wandering minstrel, even to turn down any offer of employment no matter how awful the conditions and pay.
If you were a woman, you ran the risk of all of the above plus being charged with “loose morals,” especially if you were raped or accused of prostitution. And if you became pregnant without being married, you were arrested because having a child “out of wedlock” was against the law, though only for the woman, not the man. In America today, little has changed in our attitudes about women, poverty, and crime.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “It is an unfortunate trend of the past 25 years that cities around the country have turned to the criminal justice system to respond to people living in public spaces.”1
Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were made homeless after 2009 by Wall Street’s greed, increasing numbers of cities are handling this crisis, not by prosecuting the banking and financial industry criminals who illegally foreclosed on and evicted people, but by criminalizing the victims. From sleeping under bridges to sitting on a park bench, the Coalition reports: “This trend includes measures that target homeless people by making it illegal to perform life-sustaining activities in public, including prohibitions on sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and begging in public spaces. There are often criminal penalties for violation of these laws.”2
This increasing criminalization is happening at the same time that homelessness is increasing and homeless shelters have not been able to keep up with the rising demand. Although the total number of beds in shelters across the country hasn’t changed since 2009, the numbers of homeless people has.a, 3,4,5,6,7
The criminalization of women is also accelerating. All across the nation, states have been passing hundreds of laws criminalizing abortion, while at the same time shutting down health care facilities for women and making it increasingly impossible for women to even have access to contraception. Just as in old England, women are criminalized for getting pregnant, not men, and the criminalization falls most heavily on the women who can least afford it.
As the results and realities of poverty are increasingly criminalized, increasing numbers of people are pushed into the growing prison industrial complex, which means increasing profits for the corporations who own private prisons and the hundreds of companies that make use of cheap prison labor to make enormous profits.
Meanwhile, the bankers and brokers, and title companies and insurance execs who inflated housing values, sold subprime loans, falsified documents, and cheated millions out of their homes and savings are raking in record profits.
Foreclosures, Homelessness & Corporate Greed
Indentured Servitude and the Prison Industrial Complex
The Note to Criminalizing the Poor in America Today
a: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that the number of homeless people across the country is declining slightly. However, they base their figures on a method of reporting called “Point-in-Time Estimates,” which counts the number of people in shelters, transitional housing, and insecure housing on a particular night in January every year.8 The problem with these numbers is that they don’t count people who are in temporary housing living in motels or camps, with friends or relatives or hiding from the government for fear of being deported or institutionalized. As a result, these official numbers that are widely cited are much lower than the numbers being reported by anyone else (see Foreclosures, Homelessness & Corporate Greed for more detail).9,10