Monday, December 28, 2015

The Criminalization of Poverty as Hungry Americans Flood Major American Cities

Hunger in the US is now the highest since the era of the Great Depression as real unemployment is much higher than the 5.6% rate reported in the mainstream media (closer to 40-50% if you include the marginally employed); as earnings are stagnant or declining for 90% of the work force; as inflation of food prices spiral out of control, not to mention a significantly compromised social safety net and the subtle, yet continuous effort to criminalize poverty.  

Unlike now, during the Depression tightly knit communities and family farms stretched across the nation to provide a safety net that served to catch some or many of those who suffered the worst consequences of the failed economy.   Unlike now, people knew the entire nation was struggling.  They knew that times were hard and were less likely to fault the individual. 

Today, society is fragmented and the establishment media is taking advantage of that by deceiving people into believing our economy is improving and anyone who is not making ends meet...well, it's their fault! They're not trying hard enough!   In fact, the criminalization of poverty is a growing trend in America.

But many things have changed in the last 50 years, some of them so recently as to have gone largely unnoticed by pundits and policy makers. The poor, and especially poor people of color, have long been over-represented in the prison population. This used to be attributed to the fact that the poor are more likely to be tempted by criminal activities such as theft and drug dealing. Just in the last ten years, however, it has become apparent that being poor is in itself a crime in many cities and counties, and that it is a crime punished by further impoverishment. As Karen Dolan explains in this hard-hitting report, a simple traffic violation – such as a broken tail-light – can bring down a cascade of fees and fines, which mount quickly if not paid on time and can lead to incarceration.

The mid-00s were a turning point in the criminal justice system’s treatment of misdemeanors. Local governments increased the fees, fines and court costs they levied for minor transgressions, and at the same time, increased the number of possible misdemeanors to include truancy (for which parents can be punished), driving with an expired license (as is the case in Washington, DC), putting one’s feet up on a subway seat (in New York City), and a variety of other minor infractions. The latter two are grounds for immediate arrest, leading to the imposition of fines and court costs. If the defendant cannot pay, he or she may be jailed and, in the ugliest twist of all – later charged for the cost of room and board, then re-jailed for failing to pay that. If the defendant is put on probation, he or she must pay for the probation officer and anything else required for monitoring, like an ankle bracelet.

Ferguson, Missouri helped bring attention to the extent of “offender-funded” criminal justice services. The city was relying on fees, fines, and court costs for 20 percent of its budget, effectively turning it into an occupied territory, with a 95 percent white police force supporting itself by forcibly preying on a nearly 70 percent black population.

Who benefits from this “criminalization of poverty”? In the short-term, municipalities and counties may appear to benefit, as well as the private companies that increasingly provide probation services and operate detention facilities and prisons. In addition, the increasing barriers, such as drug testing and criminal record searches, to social benefits like public housing, SNAP, and TANF may also temporarily help relieve cash-strapped local governments. But the overall effect is to perpetuate poverty and even expand the poverty population, to no possible good effect. Poor and indigent people cannot afford to pay for the means to coerce and incarcerate them, and nothing is gained by repeatedly jailing them. The criminalization of poverty – and increasing impoverishment of people judged to be criminals — amounts to a system of organized sadism.

This is the real “cycle of poverty:” Poverty leads easily to criminal charges from unpaid debts, unrenewed licenses and the like. Criminal charges in turn lead to ever-mounting debt and, despite laws prohibiting debtors’ prisons, to incarceration. There is no mystery about where government needs to intervene — first, by stopping the persecution of people who are already struggling to get by, and second, by mitigating that struggle
So, big cities across the nation are struggling to keep up with the growing number of homeless, hungry Americans. Washington, D.C., our capital wins this contest as it increased its homeless population by more than 60% in 2015. 
The past year has marked the year of homelessness in the US as Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Seattle — America's most populated areas — hosted a huge jump in the number of people on the streets, according to the Hunger and Homelessness study. Washington, D.C. ranks first in the list of cities with homeless as figures say it has 28 percent more homeless and 60 percent more transient families. The demand for food for the hungry rose 27 percent over last year's.

The survey said that across twenty-two cities including Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, homelessness rose by 1.6 percent overall and handouts increased by 3 percent over the past year.
The recently released US Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Survey presents the results of a survey of 22 of the citie s whose mayors serve on The U.S. Conference of Mayors' Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness.

A number of important findings emerged from the survey:
  • Emergency food assistance requests rose by an average of 2.8 percent during the survey period in more than half, 61 percent, of the cities involved in the survey.
  • Twenty-three percent of requests for emergency food assistance in the cities surveyed went unmet.
  • Food pantries and emergency kitchens had to cut back on the amount of food given out as groceries or meals in 47 percent of cities involved in the survey. Additionally, in far more than half of cities surveyed, 57 percent, families and individuals had to cut down on the number of visits to charitable food outlets they could make each month. The same percentage of cities were unable to meet food requests by homeless and hungry residents demand because they lacked sufficient resources.
  • Lack of affordable housing, an issue that continues to worsen in many places around the country, was the primary reason given for homelessness among families with children. Poverty, unemployment and low-paying jobs were the reasons that followed.
  • In 50 percent of cities surveyed, mayors indicated they expected homelessness to rise “moderately” next year. Similarly, 65 percent of cities say they expect emergency food requests to “moderately” increase over the coming 12 months.

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