Decriminalize Poverty!

Today, I saw a news article that said the administration was going to try to cut 3.1 million people’s Food Stamps. The idea, said the man who proposed it, is that only the truly needy can get them. This may well be the final battle in the war on the poor. There will be casualties.

For at least 40 years,the poor have gotten poorer, and worked harder to stay poor than in any time I can remember. Years ago, I had a client whose children were in DCYF custody because she had 3 or 4 children and she couldn’t afford them. She couldn’t afford to feed them. She couldn’t afford to clothe them. What money she had was taken by the drunken father of her children.

Could she work? Not and raise her children in the poorest section of a working class town. The neighborhood she could afford wasn’t safe, so she didn’t want to leave them alone. She had a car, but it didn’t pass inspection, so the police ticketed it. She couldn’t afford to pay the ticket, so it put her into debt. Down from a zero net worth to less than that. Another resource gone. If she drove it, they’d take it, impound it, and she’d be further in debt.

Some of her children tried to feed the family by getting into the local industry — drug dealing. That brought the police to her door and DCYF took her children. I remember saying in a conversation with the social worker that “poverty wasn’t against the law — yet.”

While her case sounds harsh, any other person in her neighborhood could easily be in the same predicament. That case was 20 years ago.

Recently , I had a similar case: this time involving 3 different medically children and a single mother. In order to make ends meet, she filled out the forms for renewing their food stamps. A definition was changed on the form and she was disqualified from getting Food Stamps for 60 days until they processed her brand new renewal!

That’s the legal/policy part of this story. Somewhere in Washington, some policy-maker thinks this is a great idea, consistent with their philosophical viewpoint. Let me suggest that that policy-maker has never been poor. If they had, this would not be happening.

Even budget-wise, they are only seeing the smaller picture, if that much. Here’s why:

I have seen this client for more than two years now. She has made extraordinary progress which has allowed her to stay sane enough to raise her children, despite the hardships. She simply refuses to go down. And yet, when she lost her food stamps, she melted down for the day, because she couldn’t feed her kids and she couldn’t work harder and now what was she going to do? Financial stress is a killer. It just is, especially if you’re trying to live within the law. So, for this simple policy change, the government saved a few hundred dollars not feeding her children. They lost money paying for her mental health. They could easily have lost money paying the police to come to her house if she lost her temper. They could further lose money paying for, housing, and paying DCYF staff to deal with her case. And if, as many do, she had chosen illegal ways to make money, the state and the feds would have paid for all of her time in the justice system. I don’t know prices, but I could easily see those services costing thousands of dollars by “saving” a few hundred.

None of that economic stuff is the point, though. This simple policy change could have — and for a day — did destroy lives. This woman was frozen in fear, anxiety and grief, so her mothering skills were down that day. If she wasn’t the solid person she was, her life, and those of her children would have been destroyed. That is the tragedy here.

What the government is now proposing will guarantee that same outcome, for a longer period of time. People’s lives will be destroyed. It is as simple as that.

Of course, the other option is to ask the rich to pay their fair share so that people who can’t lose a dollar, or make a mistake, or have misfortune dealt to them one more time, can have something that looks like a life. There is a distinct connection between poverty criminality. If people can’t survive legally and don’t have other legitimate ways of paying for things, they will seek illegitimate ways of doing so. We can avoid much chaos, much violence, much mental health care if we let people have enough to eat, and enough money to buy the things they need.

When we criminalize poverty, we create desperation, we create havoc and instability in an already unstable world. In short, we create criminals.

When we are compassionate towards those whom life kicks —often and hard — we bring some stability to our society, and create people who can add to the world, willingly and with joy.

The choice is ours. Let us choose wisely for all of us.

Resisting with Peace,

John

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