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Friday, April 10, 2015


The new impoverishment

by Tom Sullivan

The shooting of yet another unarmed, black man this week in North Charleston continues to plague the mind. Rather than pursue the unarmed man on foot, Officer Michael Slager is seen in the witness video drawing his weapon and firing at the fleeing man until he is brought down. Over a broken taillight. For three black men recently, "misdemeanors became capital offenses," writes Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post:

But it doesn’t take data analysis to realize that when police treat communities like occupied territory — and routinely automatically classify black men as suspects — the opportunity for tragedy grows exponentially.

Walter Scott’s broken taillight was an excuse, not an offense. Slager knew that Scott had to be guilty of something. It was just a matter of finding out what that black man’s crime might be.

Because living in a poorer neighborhood has itself become a crime in this country, especially if one is black. We worship wealth here, or didn't you know? By definition, the poor are sinners.

Emily Badger of the Post's Wonkblog writes that from drug-testing aid recipients to passing new laws restricting what foods the the poor can buy with SNAP benefits, the odd double standard applied to government support for the poor raises several questions about why, one of them moral:

We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid. We don't drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don't require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they're pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don't require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don't use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this). The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor.

At Salon, Alex Henderson offers seven cases of cruelty towards the poor becoming the new normal. He begins with this story:

In Portland, the courts spent months prosecuting a homeless woman for—of all things—using an electrical outlet in a sidewalk planter box to charge her cell phone in July. The woman, who the website Street Roots News identified as “Jackie” (she didn’t want her real name used), was charged with theft. And when “Jackie” missed her arraignment (she was homeless, after all), a bench warrant was issued. Months later, she turned herself into police and spent a night in jail. “Jackie” (who had never been arrested before) was offered a plea bargain, which she turned down because she was on a waiting list for housing and feared that having a criminal record would jeopardize her chance at putting a roof over her head. Eventually, the theft charge was dropped, but the very fact that “Jackie” was arrested and prosecuted in the first place shows that the “throw the peasants in the Bastille” mentality is alive and well in the U.S.

From debtors prisons to criminalizing feeding the poor on the street, this country has made poverty a crime at a time when poverty is a growth industry.

Missouri's proposed surf-and-turf law prohibits food-stamp recipients from using them to purchase, among other things, seafood or steak. This might include prohibiting the poor from purchasing canned tuna. (Sorry, Charlie.) Where's a seafood industry lobbyist when you really need one?

Dana Milbank writes:

The surf-and-turf bill is one of a flurry of new legislative proposals at the state and local level to dehumanize and even criminalize the poor as the country deals with the high-poverty hangover of the Great Recession.

We kiss up and kick down here. Steal trillions through your too-big-to-fail bank, and at most you'll draw a fine. Plug in a cell phone on the street and go to jail if you're lucky enough not to be tasered or shot. The new impoverishment is one of the soul.

Look. Over there. A poor person eating.