The Criminalization of
Poverty in Capitalist America


The Poor, Welfare and Prisons

An anonymous poet in the 1700’s wrote about crime: “The law will punish a man or woman who steals the goose from the hillside, but lets the greater robber loose who steals the hillside from the goose.”[l]

When talking about “the greater robber” it seemed particularly appropriate in the midst of the biggest financial rip-off in history of this country to think about the billions of dollars the Savings & Loan criminals stole, and about how most of them have gotten away with it. I thought about the complete insanity of how this country defines crimes in society. If you steal $5 you’re a thief, but if you steal $5 million --you’re a financier.

Thirty percent of the wealth of this country is controlled by one-half of one percent of the people. Eighty percent of the wealth is controlled by ten percent of the people. I think that is a crime. In the dictionary, the word “crime” means “an act which is against the law.” Crime applies particularly to an act that breaks a law that has been made for public good. Crime in one country, the dictionary continued, “may be entirely overlooked by the law in another country or may not apply at all in a different historical period.”

That was interesting. What that really said was that concepts of “crime” are not eternal. The very nature of crime is socio-psychological and defined by time and place and those who have the power to make definitions; by those who write dictionaries, so to speak.

The more I thought about that and about those who write the laws, or at least define what law is, the more profound it became. I believe we all will agree that the United States is a nation of criminals. From its inception as a settler nation, exiled British criminals stole the land and lives from Native Americans and Africans.

They justified their actions with making and defining the law of the land, for example defining Africans as 3/5 of a man during slavery. Hence the power to define is an awesome power. It is the power of propaganda. It is the ability to manipulate our ideas, to limit our agenda, to mold how we see, and to shape what we look at. It is the power to interpret the picture we see when we look at the world for the American people in general, and New Afrikans, in particular. It is the power to place the picture we see when we look at the world. It is the power to place a frame around the picture, to define where it begins and ends. It is, in fact, the power to define where our vision begins and ends, the power to create our collective consciousness.

That kind of social propaganda is not only tremendously powerful, but it is also mostly invisible. We can’t fight what we don’t see. Most people accept the images and definitions that we have been taught as true, neutral, self-evident, and for always; so that the power to paint the future, to define what is right and wrong, what is lawful and what is criminal, is really the power to win the battle for our minds. And to win it without ever having to fight it. Simply said, it is hard to fight an enemy who has an outpost in our minds. This indicates the need for revolutionary nationalists to develop a national agitation/propaganda mechanism. Specifically, nationalists need a single national publication and organ that represents the unified development of NAIM (The New African Independence Movement) to which each formation and organization contributes and supports its distribution.

The Social Dynamics of Crime

Though some may question, as did Marx, the system’s fairness in applying its rules, today most people don’t question the basis of the system itself. That is, people don’t question the relationship between those who own and those who don’t. Though many people vote every four years on who governs, they never vote on and rarely question what governs. People don’t challenge the legitimacy of the system, they accept it. The exception of course is when the oppressed rebel in insurrections. But usually we don’t step outside of the frame around the picture. We don’t disconnect the dots.

Emile Durkheim argued that crime is “normal” and necessary social behavior. According to Durkheim, “the inevitability of crime is linked to the differences (heterogeneity) within a society. Since people are so different from one another and employ such a variety of methods and forms of behavior to meet their needs, it is not surprising that some will resort to criminality. Thus as long as human differences exist, crime is inevitable and one of the fundamental conditions of social life.” [2]

In this regard, the conservative view echoes this sentiment inasmuch as they seek to establish a genetic trait that explains criminal behavior. They argue, “If liberals have trouble with the idea that people’s genes influence their chances of committing crimes, conservatives have trouble with the idea that poverty causes crime. Conservatives do not deny that the poor commit more crimes than the rich. But instead of assuming that poverty causes crime, conservatives usually assume that poverty and crime have a common cause, namely the deficient character or misguided values of the poor.” (Jencks, p. 11)

Concomitantly, the neo-liberals are essentially giving credence to the conservative position as it pertains to the “underclass.” For instance sociologist William J. Wilson purports, “The liberal perspective on the ghetto underclass has become less persuasive and convincing in public discourse principally because many of those who represent traditional liberal views on social issues have been reluctant to discuss openly or, in some instances, even to acknowledge the sharp increase in social pathologies in ghetto communities.” (Wilson, p. 6)

Needless to say, such ideas as genetic traits are the cause of crime set a dangerous precedent. Trying to discern the social pathologies of the underclass harbors views that purport the wholesale contamination of entire communities. However, if one were to advocate that criminal behavior, especially of the poor, is either caused by genetic traits and/or born of social pathologies, then indisputably, it must be espoused that much of America suffers from these same causes.

In the March 12, 1993, issue of the Wall Street Journal an article entitled “Common Criminals --Just About Everyone Violates Some Laws, Even Model Citizens,” byline by Stephen J. Adler and Wade Lambert stated:

We are a nation of lawbreakers. We exaggerate tax-deductible expenses, lie to customs officials, bet on card games and sports events, disregard jury notices, drive while intoxicated --and hire illegal childcare workers.

The last of these was recently the crime of the moment, and Janet Reno wouldn’t have been in the position to be confirmed unanimously as attorney general yesterday if Zoe Baird had obeyed the much-flouted immigration and tax laws. But the crime of the moment could have been something else, and next time probably will be.

This is because nearly all people violate some laws, and many people run afoul of dozens without ever being considered, or considering themselves, criminals.

When we look at downtown urban centers, when we look at the lines of humanity waiting for food or a bed at the missions; if we look at the faces of people living in cardboard boxes on the streets of the cities, we must know that a crime has been committed. When we look at the faces of the dispossessed people, we see faces that look like people who lived in California when it was part of Mexico. In Miami we see faces of people whose great-great-grandparents were abducted and brought here from Africa.

In America, in the l990s, as was the case in England in the 1800s, it is a crime to be poor. The poorer you are, the more criminal you are. If you are so poor that you have no place to live, and you live on the pavement or sleep in a car or in a park, you have committed a crime. It’s against the law to sleep on the streets or in a park. If we have no home, it’s against the law to sleep anywhere.

Walter I. Trattner in From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America makes the following observation in opposition to government policies that sought “to dismantle all benefit programs for working-age people except perhaps for unemployment insurance.” (p. 335)

Indeed, others argued that structural changes in the economy and the erosion in anti-poverty programs were the causes of the problem, and that a strengthening, not dismantling, of the welfare state was essential in order to solve it. Such was the theme of Michael Harrington’s The New American Poverty (1984), a depressing sequel pronouncement, “The poor are still there.” They are poor, however, said Harrington, not because of any personal shortcomings or decisions on their part, but because of changes in the international economy, especially the “de-industrialization” of America, and the way in which they have been treated, or mistreated, here at home. They are the uprooted and the homeless, products of de-institutionalization, cuts in welfare programs, shortages in low-rent housing, and other social and economic forces over which they have no control; undocumented aliens who have become the new sweatshop laborers; unemployed blue-collar workers victimized by the disappearance of steady and relatively well-paying manufacturing jobs in the “smokestack industries” as a result of technological advances and global competition; white-collar workers who lost their jobs due to reorganization schemes in the name of efficiency, plant closings, or moves to new locations in the so-called Sunbelt; hopeless, uneducated, and untrained young blacks unable to get and hold jobs; families headed by poor, unmarried women; uprooted farmers and farm laborers hurt by the elimination of the subsistence farm and the agricultural depression; and millions of others in unskilled unsteady (and often parttime), low-wage, dead-end benefitless jobs in the service sector of the economy -- cooks in fast food restaurants, dishwashers and chambermaids in hotels and motels, janitors and cleaning women in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and the like. Harrington and others demand that the government spend billions of dollars on social programs to meet the needs of these “rejects” of society. (p. 336)

When the government fails to be responsible to its citizens and ignores the social dynamics of poverty, people are generally forced to seek illegitimate means to eke out an existence. In this case, it is a question of national oppression, whereby the imperialist government maintains exploitative relationships with New Afrikans, Native Americans, Chicanos, and Asians. Too many of these “rejects” of society are caught in the vicious web of the criminal justice system. But the real criminals are those who create the socioeconomic conditions that perpetuate impoverishment. The real criminal is the colonial government itself. It then becomes necessary to assess the pathology of the capitalist and social policy makers that make crime big business, and deflect culpability of their criminal behavior.

Crime is big Business

The political decisions of the bankers are decisions about who will be poor. Corporate decisions made in the late ’50s to remove industry from communities of color were about who would be unemployed. Decisions by developers and bankers about redevelopment (redlining and gentrification) are decisions about who will be homeless. Such decisions affect everyone, but people have no say in the matter. Generally people, especially the poor, have no say in most social and economic decisions that affect their lives. Somehow that is not part of the democratic method of government, and because people have no say in the process, creating homelessness is not criminal, but being homeless is. Runaway plants and plant closures are legal, but vagrancy is a crime. Trattner says:

Meanwhile the plight of the nation’s hungry and homeless worsened. In November, 1984, in a pastoral letter on “Catholic Social Thinking and the U.S. Economy,” American Roman Catholic bishops had called poverty in America a “social and moral scandal that must not be ignored,” and stated that “works of charity cannot and should not have to substitute for humane public policy. … A little more than a year later, the Physicians Task Force on Hunger in America reported on a two-year nationwide study it had conducted and concluded that, despite fifty-eight continuous months of economic expansion, hunger was more widespread and serious than at any time in the fifteen years (affecting some twenty million Americans), largely, in its words, because of “governmental failure” … (Trattner, p. 337-8)

Hunger and homelessness are deliberately imposed socioeconomic conditions of the disenfranchised large numbers of the American population. This is especially significant when consideration is given to the method and means by which the malfeasance of the powers that be operate to ensure that such conditions stay the same. Thus such pathology ensures the rich get richer, while the poor get prison and early death.

Max Weber has argued that society is structured to function in a specific way to ensure its existence, that the social structure is subject to the mechanics of government, and that governing is all important above and beyond the immediate needs of the people. Weber held that social stratification depends on the distribution of three resources: wealth (economic resources), power (political resources), and prestige (social resources). Thus, in our society, wealthy business owners often gain power by contributing to political campaigns and earn prestige by making large donations to charity or to the arts. In other cases, however, the three are not linked. For example, in our society an individual acquires less prestige (in most circles) than someone who acquires comparable wealth by legitimate means. Artists, the clergy, and others may enjoy prestige but not wealth. On occasion people with few economic resources and little social prestige -- bureaucrats, for instance -- exercise considerable power. … Weber held that because stratification is multidimensional, the formation of groups depends on which interests or identities people choose to emphasize. In capitalist societies, for example, ethnic and national identifications have proved more important than economic or class identification.[3]

We are able to determine the social and racial implications of certain classes, then, having a vested interest in crime. It can be argued that because an elite class of criminals is in charge, they commit capital crimes, crimes against society and humanity. The jails are overflowing, but that doesn’t seem to help -- because the real criminals aren’t in jail. They’re in the board rooms and in the White House. They are the social policy makers that run this country. And today, they are increasing social repression by building more prisons, creating harsher legal sanctions (i.e. 52 death penalty laws, three strikes you’re out), and becoming ever more heedless to the social implications of poverty as an impetus to committing crime.

Under their misleadership, over five million people are homeless, 37 million have no health insurance, 30 million are illiterate, 30 million more are functionally illiterate, one million are incarcerated, and 60 million live in poverty and are struggling day to day. By contrast, a tiny fraction of the population controls enormous wealth. The median net worth of the top 1% of households is 22 times greater than the median net worth of the remaining 99% of outstanding stocks and shares. The wealth of the richest 5% of the population increased by 37% from 1977 to 1988. The wealth of the richest 1% increased by 74.2%. At the same time, the number of people in poverty increased by one-third.

In this case crime does pay. The U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics announced on July 15, 1990 that federal, state and local governments spent $61 billion for civil and criminal justice in 1988, a 34 percent increase since 1985. Other findings in the report were that federal, state, local governments spent $248 per capita: $114 for police, $78 for corrections, $54 for judicial and legal services, and $2 for other items.

Almost half of the nation’s justice spending was for police protection. Corrections accounted for almost one third of justice costs. Spending for corrections grew the most during that period, by 65 percent. Since 1979, state spending for prison construction increased 593 percent in actual (constant) dollars. That’s some 2.6 times the rate of spending to operate prison facilities. In October of 1988 the nation’s civil and criminal justice system employed 1.6 million persons, and the total October payroll for them was almost $3.7 billion. [4]

Crime is big business in America. Annually the laws are changed to ensure profitability in the industry of crime. Social conditions that serve to maintain levels of poverty, feed the industry of crime, also put stress on the social stratifications of society. Given the fact that America is a nation of criminals as elucidated in the Wall Street Journal article, social conflict is inevitable. It then becomes a matter of identifying the real culprits of crime, and seeking the means to have them become accountable for their criminal behavior. This may very well include the redistribution of their wealth, and the reorganization of the social contract between the government and the governed.

In response to the stratification outlined above, it requires revolutionary nationalist and socialist efforts to formulate a national political agenda and policy that will challenge the prevailing social contract between the oppressed and the oppressor nation. This means revolutionary nationalists and socialists must have a clear and concise mass-line and political program that identifies and explains the nature of poor peoples’ oppression, and how they are to be organized to confront their oppression.

Notes

1. Taken from an edited version of a speech by Sabina Virgo, given in L.A. on International Human Rights Day, December 8, 1990.

2. Quoted from the text, Criminology, by Larry Siegel., pg. 40.

3. Quoted from An Introduction to Sociology, by Michael S. Bassis, Richard J. Gelles and Ann Levine, pages 238-239.

4. Justice Expenditure and Employment, 1988 (NCJ-124132).

Bibliography

Hacker, Andrew. Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, New York : Ballantine Books, 1992.

Jencks, Christopher. Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty and the Underclass, New York : HarperCollins, 1992.

Time Magazine. “Lock’em Up: Outrage over crime has America talking tough,” Feb. 7, 1994.

Trattner, Walter I. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America, New York : Free Press, 1989.