Can We Think about Poverty without Thinking about Criminality?

Cheating Welfare
Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty
By: 
Kaaryn Gustafson
August 25, 2011
BookTalk

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. 

The first few chapters of my recently released book, Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and the Criminalization of Poverty, trace the ways that tactics for crime control have crept into welfare administration in the United States. From fingerprinting and mug shots to suspicionless home searches, from welfare bans on adults with drug convictions to aggressive prosecutions of welfare recipients who underreport income, and from increased access of law enforcement officials to welfare records to a flurry of new legislative proposals to drug test welfare recipients, we can see government policies that increasingly treat the poor as criminals.

The central chapters of my book, which draw upon interviews with welfare recipients in Northern California, examine the thoughts and experiences of adults who use public benefits.  Their stories revealed that these parents needed the benefits they received but could not survive on welfare benefits alone. Many of them broke the rules — some of them knowingly, some of them unknowingly. They struggled to understand and follow the complicated welfare rules and requirements and also struggled to juggle family caretaking, job searches, employment obligations and unmet financial needs. What became clear during the study was that the federal welfare reforms instituted in 1996 were not serving to transition these parents from welfare to work. Moreover, some of the punitive aspects of the policies were making life for these parents and their children more difficult rather than providing a minimal level of security.

Surprisingly, most of the welfare recipients I interviewed, even while breaking the welfare rules themselves, embraced popular beliefs about “welfare queens” and the need to have punitive welfare rules to police the poor. Rather than translating their own difficult experiences with the welfare system into critiques of the system, they instead neutralized their own rule-breaking and lodged their support for get-tough policies aimed at the poor. In short, even the poor could not talk about poverty without shifting the discussion to issues of criminality and punishment.

One of the questions the book raises is whether it is possible to disentangle criminalization, which includes latent assumptions of criminality among the poor and efforts to police them, from the issue of poverty. To have meaningful public conversations about how to address poverty and its effects, rather than discussions about how to punish the poor, would mark a dramatic shift in discourse. It is my hope that readers will avoid the distractions of the rhetoric of criminalization and become part of a new public conversation about poverty.