Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ehrenreich: "On Turning Poverty into an American Crime"

Barbara Ehrenreich updates Nickled and Dimed for 2011. It's horrifying.

You want to know what America really is? It's stuffing poor people into small apartments like sardines because they can't afford their own space. It's suicide help lines swamped with calls, and suicide rates spiking with those who couldn't be helped. It's people selling raccoon carcasses on the side of the road because it's the only source of food for people in the area. (The guy selling them recommends "marinating them in vinegar and spices") It's people killing squirrels for meat in places where they can't even afford the raccoons.

America is injured workers that can't go on disability because disability insists on an MRI they can't afford. It's people on food stamps only because welfare is now impossible to get, post-Clinton. It's TANF recipients being fingerprinted and interrogated as to the parentage of their children by hostile social workers.

As Ehrenreich said, though, America is mostly about criminalizing the destitute and impoverished, hating and blaming them for their own misery. That hatred motivates the constant suspicions of drug use in low-wage employment. That hatred motivates a legal system that drags ordained ministers out of shelters for the crime of being homeless. That hatred gets homeless activists arrested for feeding "indigents", and pushes places like Phoenix, Arizona to try to use zoning laws to stop churches from serving breakfasts to the desperate.

America is, yes, also about debtor's prisons. It's not called that, of course. But if you can't pay a fine, or if your creditor leans on a judge to get you declared "in contempt of court"? Off you go to jail. If you're a minority, you might not even have to wait until you're in debt, either; your communities have their public funding cut at the same time as law enforcement is redoubled:

In what has become a familiar pattern, the government defunds services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Generate no public-sector jobs, then penalize people for falling into debt. The experience of the poor, and especially poor people of color, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks. And if you should try to escape this nightmare reality into a brief, drug-induced high, it’s “gotcha” all over again, because that of course is illegal too.

One result is our staggering level of incarceration, the highest in the world. Today, exactly the same number of Americans -- 2.3 million -- reside in prison as in public housing. And what public housing remains has become ever more prison-like, with random police sweeps and, in a growing number of cities, proposed drug tests for residents. The safety net, or what remains of it, has been transformed into a dragnet.
Worst of all, as Ehrenreich points out, is that many states are making prisoners pay for their own incarceration, shifting the burden of a broken justice system onto its desperate victims.

Meanwhile, America's richest 1% are wealthier and more powerful than they've ever been in the history of the Republic, and thanks to Citizen's United, they're going to make damned sure that the only voice that voters hear is theirs.

That's your America. Unless you damned well DO something about it.


  1. Anonymous6:09 AM

    Such as writing frustrated blog posts, perhaps?

  2. The Revolution9:13 AM

    "Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains!"

    Now more relevant than ever.

  3. @The Revolution: Armed insurrection against the United States government is pointless, unless a high fraction of the army sides with the uprising. At best it would result in a decades-long guerilla campaign along the lines of the Troubles, probably with no better return on the price in blood than the Provisional IRA got. At worst, the military would level entire neighbourhoods until the revolution was put down.