What is it like to be poor in the United States? In a recent New York Times op-ed, Thomas Edsall suggested that the 45 million people in the U.S. who are below the official poverty line have a far better standard of living than their forebears, not to mention the impoverished populations of the global south. According to Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks, the official rate of 14.5 percent falls to less than 5 percent when safety-net benefits are taken into account. Thanks to the social programs implemented during the Lyndon Johnson-era War on Poverty, Jencks argues, we have conquered the worst effects of being poor.
More pessimistic researchers, however, contend that the financial crisis and austerity policies have put a much larger group of families into a state of constant struggle and imminent disaster, and their prospects are worsening. According to a formula developed by United Way to reflect the cost of living in a given locale, statewide results in six states studied so far suggest that the real proportion of families who cannot make ends meet is about three times higher than the official rate.
So depending on whom you believe, poverty is either not so bad, or far worse than previously assessed. But neither formula fully captures the misery of American poverty, especially for people of color. To understand the experience of poor people in the United States, we must confront the escalating costs of fines, fees and incarceration on millions of people.
The recent Dept. of Justice report on problems in Ferguson, Missouri, revealed how local police and courts have shifted the fiscal burdens facing cities and states onto the backs of the poorest citizens. The report details a Kafkaesque state of affairs in which black residents are constantly subject to capricious, often false, charges for minor violations that ensnare them in a vicious web of debt that cannot be paid. When they fail to pay they may incur extended jail terms that resemble the debtors’ prisons that were outlawed in the United States in 1830. Fines of less than $50 can grow into thousands when people fail to appear for court proceedings they don’t know have been scheduled, resulting in warrants, arrests and added penalties. These charges have irrevocable consequences: Jobs are lost, cars repossessed and families evicted. Michael Brown’s murder shone a light on Ferguson, but the practices uncovered there have been reported elsewhere too. This trend has fostered profound alienation against law enforcement in the communities that suffer from the highest crime rates. It also has produced a kind of economic insecurity that is unaccounted for in standard measures of poverty.
It has long been understood that poor people, especially people of color, pay more for less. Usurious payday lenders, unscrupulous landlords, subprime mortgage lenders and many other predatory businesses exact added costs — sometimes referred to as the “poor tax” or “black tax.” But the extension of these practices to public agencies mandated to secure justice is even more insidious.
One major cause of this trend was the rise of “policing by the numbers,” in which cops are expected to meet or exceed unwritten quotas for arrests, thus providing tangible evidence of their effectiveness that pleases the public and wins federal grants. In 1994, William Bratton, Police Commissioner of New York City, developed a popular system called CompStat to bring a data-driven approach to fighting crime.
Although such data collection has legitimate purposes, so-called performance goals have introduced perverse incentives to make arrests that have no public safety or legal justification. Floyd et al v. City of New York, the 2013 New York court decision condemning minority profiling and excessive zeal in “stop and frisk” practices, confirmed the existence of quotas that lead to the arrest of people who are doing nothing wrong. Similar practices are widespread across the country, even though arrest quotas are illegal in most states. In Miami Gardens, Florida, where this practice was adopted, an African-American man “was stopped and questioned by Miami Gardens police 258 times in four years ... He was arrested 62 times for trespassing ... on the grounds of the store where he was employed.” Research indicates these excessive stops do not meaningfully deter crime.
Social science research, however, is little match for the lure of money generated by spurious arrests. In Ferguson, court fines and fees provide about 20 percent of municipal revenue, nearly double the figure two years ago. The ACLU has also accused Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida of using excessive fines on poor people to refill barren public treasuries. A 2010 article in The Police Chief magazine by the head of police in West Covina, California, suggested 20 new fines and fees as ways to address the disastrous loss of revenue since the 2008 recession. These measures included raising all fines by 50 percent and tripling fines for driving under the influence.
Higher fines and more aggressive enforcement are hailed as the route to public solvency. The consequences of these charges fall heavily on poor people who are unable to afford the initial fines and then face escalating sanctions as a result. In many states, indigent defendants are required to pay a fee (usually about $50) to obtain a public defender. Those unable to pay this fee are forced to plead guilty, even if they are innocent.
The new fines are especially hard on those who are incarcerated, released on parole or sentenced to probation. Parents in prison are charged for state costs of care for their children. Most leave prison with huge debts. Once out, they pay heavily for parole services, ankle bracelets, drug tests, classes and other supervision, on top of accumulated debts for child support, court fees and restitution. These charges, called “legal financial obligations” (LFO), deplete whatever pay they receive if they are able to find work, cannot be dismissed in bankruptcy and increase the likelihood of recidivism. States have contracts with private debt collectors who charge as much as 40 percent of the take. Absurdly, these exorbitant costs, along with the high price of re-incarceration, have been shown to exceed the revenue generated.
This ghastly system has grown out of the financial disaster of 2008. Instead of jailing the Wall Street culprits who caused the crash or taxing those who have benefited from it, most jurisdictions have chosen instead to punish and fleece poor people, many of whom were the first and worst victims of foreclosure and unemployment.
The growing problem of LFO debt, along with mortgage debt and student debt, must be addressed by political figures who decry the growing rate of poverty. The people with the scarcest incomes and least secure conditions are carrying unaffordable burdens of public and private debt. At all levels of government we must acknowledge the scope of true economic insecurity in the U.S., find more equitable sources of revenue and stop punishing those who can least afford it.