By Kaaryn Gustafson, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law
Every September, the Census Bureau releases updated statistics on the poverty rate in the United States. For a day or two I will read media reports about poverty, and then poverty disappears from the news until the next September. The poverty rate varies a bit from year to year but remains consistently — and shamefully — high.
According to a 2009 study drawing upon data from the Luxembourg Income Study, a project that gathers comparative economic information from various nations, the only upper-income countries with child poverty rates equal to or higher than United States (22 percent) were Russia (also 22 percent) and Mexico (27 percent). Some level of economic inequality within a population may be inevitable, but poverty — and the stress, hunger, homelessness, and daily chaos that go with it — are not. How much attention a county gives poverty, how a country tolerates poverty, and how a country allocates the resources targeted for the poor are political decisions. The United States has become poverty-tolerant and, increasingly, tax dollars are going to police the poor rather than to address poverty.
There have been moments in American history when poverty has been an issue of public and political concern but those moments are distant memories. Since the War on Poverty in the 1960s, the public and politicians have become complacent about ameliorating poverty. Political concern about the poor has, indeed, remained but it has taken a new form. Over the last few decades, federal and state governments have instituted a host of policies and practices that equate receipt of certain public benefits with criminality, that police the everyday lives of the poor, and that weave the criminal justice system into the fabric of the welfare system.