Privatizing Poverty

How the poor became an alien population

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In 1962, Michael Harrington—a former Catholic Worker adherent and follower of Dorothy Day turned socialist activist—published a short book that sought to shatter the complacency of postwar affluence: The Other America. In this brief tour through the lives of the down-and-out, Harrington chronicled the problem of poverty in a mass consumer society, bringing to public awareness the lives of tens of millions of people who lived in staggering want, despite the wealth of the broader postwar world. They were, as he wrote, people who had been left behind, excluded from the labor unions and untouched by the welfare state built up by the New Deal. They were the people who worked in jobs made obsolete by automation, the ones whose skills failed to match up with new possibilities in the service sector, the denizens of shuttered mining towns, skid rows, and inner cities.

For Harrington, the exploitation of the poor was less notable than their removal, their distance. To be poor in America, he wrote elsewhere, was to live in “a separate culture, another nation, with its own way of life.” It was to occupy a remote space outside of the tropes and norms of the dominant society: “That the poor are invisible is one of the most important things about them. They are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen.”

Two recent accounts of the problem of poverty—Not a Crime to Be Poor, by Georgetown public policy professor Peter Edelman, who had served in the administration of Bill Clinton and resigned in protest over the 1996 welfare reform bill, and The Poverty of Privacy Rights, by law professor Khiara M. Bridges—suggest a very different way to think about what it means to be poor in the twenty-first century. Poor people (and especially poor women), these books argue, are in fact seen too much—they are surveilled and imprisoned, monitored and fined. They are trapped within a social panopticon that permits and encourages their constant observation. They are the target of a state that feeds off their pariah status, attempting to redress its budget shortfalls through a blizzard of fines and fees. Poor people are treated presumptively as lawbreakers, and as a result, the state approaches them in a way that leaves them defenseless before it. According to these works, to be poor is to be almost completely lacking in the basic civil rights associated with what an earlier generation would have called bourgeois individualism.

Stopped, Dropped, and Rolled

Not a Crime to Be Poor opens with the shocking case of Vera Cheeks of Bainbridge, Georgia, who got a $135 traffic ticket for rolling through a stop sign. Arriving at the courthouse to settle her case, she was told she had to pay in full immediately. When she explained that she was out of work and tending to her dying father, the judge handed out a three-month “probation” to pay up, and dispatched her to a room in back of the courthouse. There, she was told that her bill had gone up to $267: an additional $105 to pay the private, for-profit company that administers probation, as well as an extra random $27 to go to the Georgia Victims Emergency Fund. She was told that she had to pay $50 cash on the spot or else go immediately to jail. Still lacking the cash, she was able to get her fiancé to pawn jewelry as well as a weed trimmer to cover the cost. Still, Cheeks remained under probation, with jail hanging over her if she missed even one payment. One minute she was a law-abiding citizen driving down the road; the next, because she was too poor to pay a fine, she was in debt to her local government, monitored by a private subcontractor, and one check away from being locked up.

Edelman’s book portrays the bewildering variety of ways that local governments charge the poor. People convicted of crimes are billed for jail stays, lab fees, administrative fees, even the reimbursement of their prosecutors. Mandatory classes (for example, on alcohol abuse for drunken driving) can cost more than $30 each in Boulder, Colorado. Electronic monitoring for pretrial release costs $14 a day. Burning leaves without a permit can leave you with a $500 ticket in Georgia.

The poor are trapped within a social panopticon that permits and feeds on their constant observation.

Are you getting food stamps? Selling your plasma to make ends meet can count as a “program violation” that leads to losing the benefit, if you fail to report the income. Do you call 911 once too often to report an abusive boyfriend or spouse? Your landlord has the power to evict you. Sleeping in a public space? In many cities, that’s a crime—you can go to jail, and then get billed for your stay. In one case, a homeless man in Sacramento, California, living under a bridge received 190 citations from police (almost all related to sleeping outside and camping) and wound up being assessed $104,000 in unpayable fines. When he died of cancer in 2016, there were thirty-seven warrants out for his arrest. Whose definition of public safety does any of this serve?

Especially shocking is how often (and how much) people are billed to pay the companies that monitor them while on probation—and if they’re unable to pay immediately, they are instantly jailed. “High grass and weeds” in a front yard—that is, having a lawn that fails to meet middle-class standards of decency—could get you slapped with $531 in fines in Ferguson, Missouri; random fees (such as those for operating the courthouse gym) of $500 might be tacked on to other tickets in Michigan. In what might seem a clear violation of the right to a public defender, forty-three states bill clients for their lawyers—in South Dakota, the charge is $92 an hour. Even if found innocent, clients still have to pay—and not having the money is itself breaking the law.

Breaking the Broke

Money bail is probably the best known version of the way that simply not having ready access to hundreds or thousands of dollars can turn you into a prisoner. In the course of any given year, more than eleven million Americans find themselves in city or county jails (double the number in 1983, and far more than the approximately two million people who are in prison after conviction). Three-quarters of these are there for low-level, non-violent offenses; three-fifths have not been found guilty. Black people are detained nearly five times more often than white people.

This shadow population of imprisoned people—often totally innocent and not even charged with a major violation of the law—exists because of cash bail. People accused of minor violations can be asked to post bail worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. A middle-class person in this desperate situation could come up with the sum; people who are unemployed, eking out their existence amid the scraps of the social safety net, or living paycheck to paycheck cannot.

A noteable example of this is the horrific and Kafkaesque case of sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder, imprisoned at Rikers Island for three years, wrongly accused of stealing a backpack. Because he was on probation (for joyriding in a stolen delivery truck), a judge set bail of $3,000 on the backpack charge, which he was not able to pay. While in jail (where he spent two of his three years in solitary confinement) Browder became deeply paranoid, and he committed suicide after his release. Browder’s case has been the subject of much attention in part because his three-year stay was obviously a violation of any right to a speedy trial. But Edelman emphasizes that Browder was essentially locked up and subjected to the psychological torture of solitary confinement because he did not have access to the money to pay his bail. Poverty made him a person who had no rights that the state was bound to respect.

Might Takes Rights

Khiara Bridges—a law professor (also a professor of anthropology) at Boston University—takes the question of the constitutional rights of poor people one step further in her book The Poverty of Privacy Rights. Here, she makes the case that “wealth is a condition for privacy rights, and that, lacking wealth, poor mothers do not have any privacy rights.” Focusing in particular on the legal predicament of poor women, and especially poor mothers, she suggests that poor mothers lose their privacy altogether if they accept public assistance, because they do so on terms that open their lives—and especially their sexual and reproductive lives—to the aggressive monitoring of the state. But if they forgo government assistance they may be unable to provide their children with food and medical care, which in turn opens them up to privacy-invading investigations from Child Protective Services. Either way, “it is impossible for poor mothers to create a space free of state power.”

Bridges puts forth what she describes as both a “moderate” and a “strong” version of her argument. Poor mothers might on the one hand be seen as simply unable to effectively exercise their privacy rights—possessing them, but unable to practically exercise them. Her real commitment is to the stronger claim, though: that privacy rights depend on some level on wealth, and that poor mothers are constituted as subjects who hardly have these rights any longer at all.

If they want to get public health insurance while they are pregnant, they have to answer questions and give up information about their sex lives, their romantic histories, their medical past, their incomes, their ideas about the future of their families. In some states, if they want to receive public assistance, they must agree not to have more than a certain number of children. Their family lives are subjected to a routine scrutiny that is entirely different from the experience of middle-class families.

The justification for this loss of privacy is the assumption that the state has an overriding interest in the well-being of children—and that the mothers of poor children are likely involved in behaviors that are going to be dangerous to their children. As Bridges observes, though, there is a disconnect between the actual behaviors (drug and alcohol use, short-term relationships) and this judgment—after all, they are not deemed pathological in the same all-encompassing way when middle-class or wealthy women engage in them. There is also an implicit racism at work here—the portrayals of poor black women in the media and in social science literature traffic in endless stereotypes about their basic inadequacy as parents. As Bridges argues, these impoverished mothers are defined as a separate class of people, by a state apparatus that has judged them ahead of time. The underlying reasoning here is that poor mothers are reproductive subjects who, by dint of their failure to achieve economic success, are morally suspect, so much so that they are treated pre-emptively as though they constitute an immediate threat to their children. So as a perverse administrative outgrowth of this moral judgment, they are compelled to give up many of the normal rights attached to liberal individual subjects—effectively, to occupy a position in the postliberal social contract suggesting that they do not possess the fundamental rights thought to underwrite it.

Few political theorists have written about poor women and what their systemically diminished legal position suggests about the degree of freedom available within the society as a whole. One striking feature of Bridges’s book is just how unusual it is to make this move: to focus on the treatment of these women (she explicitly says she is writing about women, not having done the research needed to make her cases applicable to men as well) and to take the absence of their rights seriously. The novelty of this analysis stands as its own indictment of a liberal state that has long ceased to view their predicament in the context of their constitutive rights as citizens, rather than in terms of the stigmatization of material lack—and the further exploitation of such want in the state’s own interests.

Making the State Behave

The implications of this analysis are likewise shocking to whatever may remain of the liberal conscience. Poor mothers become, in Bridges’s treatment, something analogous to the subjects of a totalitarian regime, or perhaps people who have lost their citizenship: internal aliens. In the end, Bridges calls for poor mothers themselves to work against the “moral construction of poverty” that so dehumanizes them—to engage in acts of civil disobedience and other ways of reclaiming and transforming their role in the broader polity, until the middle class is forced to see them as no different from the middle class in any moral sense, but simply “ourselves without class privilege.” Changing the prevailing view of poverty and of poor women—viewing poor African American women as full human beings—would necessitate a transformed social and political response.

Impoverished mothers are defined as a separate class of people, by a state apparatus that has judged and defined them ahead of time.

Taken together, Edelman and Bridges suggest a distinct (and Foucault-inflected) way of viewing poverty, arguing that it should be understood as a problem of discourse and state power. Emphasizing incarceration, interrogation, and the ways that the lives of poor people take shape in a legal context profoundly different from that of the middle class, the real appeal of this mode of argument is that it turns questions about poverty into ones that have to do with basic political rights and justice. So much conservative and mainstream liberal writing about poor people is primarily concerned with what they do: their habits, behaviors, attitudes, cultures, and the ways that these make it impossible for them to succeed in the marketplace. The mismatch between jobs and skills, the problem of “grit” and attitudes toward education, the pathological culture of poor people: from left and right alike, the tendency in one way or another is to blame the poor.

Even Harrington, with his tone of moral outrage, also cast poor people as broken and powerless, incapable of taking action on their own behalf and dependent ultimately on the goodwill and righteousness of the middle classes. Edelman and Bridges suggest that all these attitudes and ideas reproduce the condescension and de-humanization that helps to sustain poverty in the first place.

For all their strengths, though, one problem with their accounts is that by moving to treat poverty in terms of the state, they recast it so that it seems oddly disconnected from economic life. Work and employment are almost entirely absent from both books. Yet the position of poor people has everything to do with the broader political economy. The parade of terrible jobs that helps to create poverty—work in domestic service and child care, as maids and housekeepers and office temps, in garment factories and meatpacking plants—is hardly mentioned, by either author, and this creates a very different understanding of what poverty is and what its relationship to the broader economy might be.

Freedom Fighting

It is true that the decimation of the American welfare state has helped to create a tremendous pool of people living on remarkably low incomes, who may be only tangentially connected to the labor market. They apply for jobs but don’t get them; they flirt with eviction and homelessness; they struggle to raise children without a steady income, a prerequisite for any material or psychic stability. On the other hand, there are also many extremely poor people whose poverty is primarily the result of their declining conditions of employment: their work simply does not pay them enough to live on. Instead of drawing a bright line between these two populations, our economic order has ensured in many cases that this group overlaps with those who are outside of the market altogether. Neither status is hard-and-fast; members move indistinguishably from one group to the other, casualties of the tremendous rise in economic inequality of recent years.

Today, concerns about surveillance are bound up with fears about the national security state and the role of the internet in daily life. It’s easy to miss the ways that these high-profile debates play a role in the offline conduct of economic life. But the various surveillance and punishment strategies that both books document can also be seen as part of a larger system of documentation and control, one that extends into the workplace and seeks to punish anyone who tries to challenge the hierarchies there: for example, by organizing a union. There is, in other words, a class politics inherent in these efforts to monitor and survey. Such state-sponsored surveillance doesn’t operate via some abstract directive to gain total knowledge and control of its subjects; it instead reflects, more or less directly, just who gets to have power and representation in the American social order and who does not.

In 1963, one year after Harrington published The Other America, the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainright that the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel extends to poor people, and that the state must therefore guarantee free legal representation. An itinerant and sometime petty criminal named Clarence Earl Gideon had been charged with burglarizing a pool room in Panama City, Florida. He requested an attorney but could not pay for one; after attempting to argue his own case, he was sentenced to five years in prison, pleading his innocence all the while. From his cell, he handwrote an appeal of his case to the United States Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it and to appoint him a lawyer (the future Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas). The Court ruled unanimously in Gideon’s favor, creating the right to legal representation in criminal cases regardless of income. (His case returned to court, this time with a lawyer; the jury acquitted him after one hour of deliberation.)

Material deprivation is inextricably linked to fundamental questions of citizenship.

While the logic of Gideon’s case has been largely undermined, and the legal representation that poor people receive is far from equal, the landmark ruling still serves as a reminder that poverty has everything to do with rights and justice—that material deprivation is inextricably linked to fundamental questions of citizenship. It’s also a reminder that most advances for poor people have been made only through an active confrontation with state power—Gideon scrawling in the prison library, appealing his case even as the civil rights movement surged through the South (though he himself was white).

The treatment of poor people documented by Bridges and Edelman only makes sense in a society rigidly structured around fantasies of inequality and domination, in which some people possess all the freedom and others none. Taken together, they make a persuasive case for the idea that securing the most basic of individual rights for all in our society in fact demands a complete overhaul of our existing institutions.

Kim Phillips-Fein's most recent book is Fear City: The New York City Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of the Age of Austerity. She teaches history at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.

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