What Do We Get From Punishing the Poor?

There must be a reason we are ratcheting up the arrests and fines for loitering, drinking in public, jaywalking, littering, and sleeping under bridges. Barbara Ehrenreich notes the trend in Sunday’s New York Times: “In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually been intensifying as the recession generates ever more poverty. So concludes a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty….”

It’s mean, but it is also destructive, leading to what she calls a “mad cycle of poverty and punishment.” Some have argued that those fines are designed to raise revenue for local communities that are suffering from declining tax revenues. But a moment’s reflection makes it clear that the cycle also generates more expense for the governments that have to prosecute and incarcerate the offenders.

Perhaps the goal is to get rid of them, to re-gentrify the streets and parks so ordinary citizens are not discomforted by the sight of the poor. That not doubt is part of the reason, but I think it is worse than that: these developments do not just cover over the problem – they actually punish the offenders. It is as if, collectively, we are taking out our pain and frustration on those least able to defend themselves against it. We can’t so easily get the bankers and managers responsible for the toxic securities that have plunged us into this financial disaster, so where is our anger to go?

Moreover, we can justify singling out the poor because in the land of opportunity – where every man has a chance to be successful – those who failed have only themselves to blame. And, to be sure, most of those who fail do blame themselves. Guilt, self-recrimination, self-loathing and blame – these are the underside of the American dream. So why not join in and persecute them all the more?

It takes a crusader like Barbara Ehrenreich to get us to see how irrational it all is.