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Tag Archives: Poverty Law

Tracing the Roots of the Criminalization of Poverty

That Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America is a must-read for those interested in the origins of the U.S. carceral state has been made clear in a stream of well-deserved and laudatory reviews.1 Echoing and reinforcing Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Build Prison America, Hinton persuasively demonstrates that today’s racially-targeted carceral state did not originate in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s. Instead its roots are both older and disturbingly bipartisan.

The architectural foundations of today’s carceral policies were laid during the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson, in the moments when the federal dedication to Community Action, maximum feasible participation and the War on Poverty gave way to the pathologization of black youth. Hinton moves steadily forward from that moment, persuasively indicting along the way not only Kennedy and Johnson but Carter as well. As she reveals, “in full historical context, the policies of the Regan administration marked merely the fulfillment of federal crime control priorities that stemmed initially from one of the most idealistic enterprises in American history .” (P. 4.) But the book is not only relevant for those interested in carceral policies. For scholars of poverty law and social welfare history, and in particular for those who seek to understand the historical origins of what Kaaryn Gustafson termed the criminalization of poverty, Hinton’s book is equally important.2

When one wonders at the punitive and criminalizing nature of current U.S. social welfare policy, from federal housing policies that devastate families, to the over-policing of schools and the resulting school to prison pipeline, to the desperate turn to problem-solving courts to solve seemingly every social ill, Hinton’s book sheds disturbing light. Beginning in the late 1960s, federal policy-makers began not only radically disinvesting in community-based support, but they began integrating policing and surveillance of urban, African American youth into the very fabric of what remained of U.S. urban social welfare programs. Ever-focused on “potentially delinquent” black youth, 1960s Youth Bureaus integrated law enforcement into recreational, education and employment programs. “By the mid-1970s federal disinvestment from the public sector and the remnants of the War on Poverty programs meant that social welfare agencies in urban centers had little choice but to incorporate crime control measures in their basic programming in order to receive funding.” (P. 236.)

Over time, basic and vital social supports, like public housing, became the site for surveillance, policing and criminalization. Take for example the Carter-era Urban Initiatives Anti-Crime program, which “[established] stronger partnerships between social and law enforcement institutions and [devoted] the majority of funds to surveillance and security needs.” (P. 288.) In so doing it “vastly enhanced the scope and power of punitive authorities in the most deteriorated and segregated public housing sites in the country.” By that time, “. . . law enforcement and criminal justice institutions could involve themselves in virtually any community-based effort.” (P. 293.)

By the end of the Reagan era, the story was complete. As Hinton explains, “[w]hen Reagan took office, the rhetoric of community involvement vanished from the domestic policy arenas, never to return. Stemming from the punitive shift in urban social programs during the previous decade, over the course of the 1980s, law enforcement officers came to provide the primary (and in some areas the only) public social services to residents.” (P. 337-38.) No wonder then that today police fill our schools and policing dominates our welfare offices. No wonder that we criminalize addiction and poverty. No wonder too that problem-solving courts have emerged as a desperate attempt to address the deep social welfare needs of whole communities led inexorably into criminal systems. History, it seems, has led us to precisely this moment.

But Hinton’s book offers not only an origin story but also a way forward. For her, solutions lie in returning to ideas deeply embedded in the early War on Poverty. As she states, “[w]e must revisit the principles of community representation and grassroots empowerment that guided the early development of the Great Society in order to begin moving toward a more equitable and just nation.” (P. 336.) We would be wise both to learn the history she teaches and to heed her advice.

  1. See e.g. James Forman, Jr., Fortress America, The Nation, Oct 17, 2016 at 35–37; Imani Perry, Book Review: ‘From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime’, by Elizabeth Hinton, N.Y. Times, May 29, 2016, at 15; Adam Hochschild, Our Awful Prisons: How They Can be Changed, 63 N.Y. Rev. Books 9, 30–32 (2016); Christine Canfield, Book Review: From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime; the Making of Mass Incarceration in America, ForeWord (Jan 23, 2017). []
  2. Kaaryn Gustafson, Cheating Welfare: Public Assistance and The Criminalization of Poverty (2011). []
Cite as: Wendy Anne Bach, Tracing the Roots of the Criminalization of Poverty, JOTWELL (August 11, 2017) (reviewing Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (2016)),

Robbing the Poor

Professor Daniel Hatcher’s new book opens up new, fertile, ground for poverty law scholarship and critique. The book contributes not only to our understanding of how “cooperative” federalism—which is a crucial part of many anti-poverty programs—works in practice but also the impact that state budget shortfalls can have on the most vulnerable members of society. The Poverty Industry shows the myriad ways that states, in collusion with private companies, misuse money meant to help the poor, primarily by diverting federal matching funds from their intended purposes into the general fund. Hatcher’s three main examples—taken from the foster care, Medicaid, and child support programs—highlight the perverse incentives that lead state agencies to take actions that directly contradict their mandate in order to provide states with additional unrestricted revenue.

With the support of private companies contracted to maximize money collected either from the federal government or from the poor themselves, states are neglecting and, worse, directly harming whole groups of those with the greatest needs. As Hatcher shows states are taking social security, even survivor, benefits from children in the foster care system while acting as the childrens’ “representative payee.” (Pp. 65-110.) To game federal Medicaid payments, states use shell games that involve falsely inflating state Medicaid contributions on paper–using a variety of techniques from creating fully refunded bed taxes on hospitals to making elevated payments to providers–that are immediately kicked back to the general fund. (Pp. 111-42.) With the assistance of private contractors, states aggressively pursue child support payments and then, in the name of “cost recovery,” divert what little money is collected from the kids who should benefit to the state budget. In their aggressive pursuit of child support the states effectively ignore both the “best interests of the child” standard and the often destructive consequences to the often fragile relationship between fathers and mothers. (Pp. 143-79.) The Poverty Industry ends by giving other examples of how states and municipalities seek to profit off the poor, ranging from drugging the elderly to reduce expenses at state nursing homes to paying for basic services such as courts and policing through fees and fines. (Pp. 183-206.) In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, there has been increased attention to how such revenue generation tactics, in the context of racism and the criminalization of poverty, can harm whole communities.1 Hatcher makes a compelling case that state agencies, in their quest to generate revenue for themselves or for the general state budget, have lost sight of their mission to help those in need.

Though the book does include in a bit too much unnecessary repetition (it could probably be twenty pages shorter), by combining numerous examples of how funds are systematically and wrongly taken from the poor with insightful analysis linking the chosen examples, Hatcher has exposed previously underappreciated features of society’s antipoverty programs. Hatcher’s proposal for how to rein in “the poverty industry” is well-supported by the many examples and is fairly straight-forward: “We can all disagree about the best way to help vulnerable populations. And we will. But we all should be able to agree that when aid funds are generated with specific intent to help those in need, those funds should be used as intended.” (P. 207.) Although such a proposal seems fairly modest, if implemented it would involve numerous agencies at the state and federal levels and would result in a significant increases in funds that are not only ear-marked for the poor but actually reach them. It also, in keeping with the book’s focus on real world examples, is a proposal that could find enough political traction to be implemented.

Let me end by noting that The Poverty Industry illustrates how expansive “poverty law” can be as an organizing concept. Hatcher could have given the book a different title—The Problem with Cooperative Federalism or Ripping off the Federal Government—but as he shows, these state schemes ultimately are harming the poor. Even though some of the examples are well known, such as the difference in support for poor families versus foster care families, The Poverty Industry offers a wealth of new examples for most poverty law readers. Through FOIA requests, Hatcher was able to learn a great deal about the inner workings of the companies tasked with extracting as much money as possible from the federal government and from poor people and about the sketchy connections between these companies and state agencies. As with most books about poverty, The Poverty Industry is not a joy to read—on its surface it goes into considerable detail on a range of poverty programs and beneath its surface lurks the pain of those harmed by the practices the book details—but it is a book well worthy of attention and quite an achievement for Professor Hatcher.

  1. See, e.g., Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Gangsters of Ferguson, The Atlantic Mag., Mar. 5, 2015. []
Cite as: Ezra Rosser, Robbing the Poor, JOTWELL (November 23, 2016) (reviewing Daniel L. Hatcher, The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens (N.Y.U. Press, 2016)),

Recognizing Disgust, Repudiating Exile

Sara K. Rankin, The Influence of Exile, 76 Md. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN.

The discourse of poverty law in the United States is on the rise. Following the Great Recession of December 2007 to June 2009, the odd yet telling disparagement of “law and poverty” by the late Antonin Scalia in September 2008, and the Occupy Wall Street protests that erupted into public consciousness in September 2011, poverty law scholars have published three new casebooks, organized a new series of conferences hosted by law schools in California, Washington, and Washington, D.C., contributed to the theme for other ongoing conferences such as ClassCrits (Toward A Critical Legal Analysis of Economic Inequality), and assembled in well-attended panels at the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools.

In The Influence of Exile, Sara K. Rankin, associate professor of law and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at the Seattle University School of Law, contributes to that discourse by theorizing “the influence of exile”—the well-documented drive to exclude disfavored groups of people by restricting their rights to access and occupy public space. (Pp. 1-2.) The influence of exile has taken myriad forms throughout United States history (e.g., Slave Codes, Black Codes, anti-miscegenation laws, and Jim Crow regimes; Asian exclusion laws, Mexican “repatriation” campaigns, and Anti-Okie laws; redlining regulations, policies, and practices; and “Sundown Town” policies and practices), but Rankin argues persuasively that the influence of exile perseverates today in a distinctive “social-spatial segregation [that] further entrenches stereotyping, misunderstanding, and the stigmatization of marginalized groups.” (P. 11.) Her article abounds with insights into these matters. Here I discuss three of them—the visible poor; sociolegal control of public space; and disgust, affect, and ideology.

Rankin critiques the official definition of homelessness and urges a reconceptualization by way of Joel Blau’s notion of the “visible poor.” (Pp. 2 n.8, 3 n.11.) The visible poor includes not only people whom the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development officially counts as homeless but also a substantially larger part of the forty-three-plus million people whose poverty combines “with housing instability, mental illness, or other psychological or socio-economic challenges that deprive them of reasonable alternatives to spending all or the majority of their time in public.” (P. 2.) Like the move urged in 2014 by the ClassCrits group, to contextualize poverty and inequality in relation to precarity and work, Rankin’s rhetorical shift from the homeless to the visible poor promises a better approach to analyzing and intervening against the contemporary “criminalization” laws and policies that target such people. (Pp. 43-44, 48-49, 52.) For example, implicating a larger part of the forty-three-plus million poor people in the United States—over thirteen percent of the populace—helps to move the proliferation of laws that criminalize the visible poor from the margins and may help to organize more effective counters to the influence of exile.

Rankin characterizes the past twenty years as a period in which “the combination of economic conditions, broken window ideologies, and the human drive to exile created a perfect storm for the increasing enactment of laws that purge signs of visible poverty from public space.” (P. 42.) Drawing on interdisciplinary urban studies, she argues that the privatization, commercialization, festivalization, and sanitization of public space all contribute to the problem. (Pp. 39-41.) In particular, business improvement districts, which cities have increasingly imposed on their traditional downtown areas, exemplify these sociolegal processes and political projects. (Pp. 41-42.) For Rankin this situation amounts to one that sociologist Talmadge Wright has conceptualized in terms of “battles for ‘tactical control’ of public space.” (P. 3). Rankin argues persuasively that, “in this context, the mere existence of homeless [and visibly poor] people in public space is an act of resistance.” (P. 56.) In her view, sociolegal controversies over the visibly poor express the ideological and material class relations that construct, naturalize, and ultimately control “public space.” (Pp. 9, 57-58.) In particular, “visible poverty as a form of protest challenges the American conscience to grapple with its own complicity in creating the circumstances within which homelessness and poverty can thrive.” (Pp. 57.)

In the longest part of her article, Rankin synthesizes studies from psychology, social psychology, social neuroscience, and sociology, which explain the group and individual dynamics that animate people to differentially identify with and include others, or instead to misrecognize, exclude, marginalize, and ultimately exile strangers. (Pp. 5-24.) In particular, social neuroscience findings confirm, “that today, society tends to regard homeless and visibly poor people with disgust and rejection at higher rates than most any other perceived status.” (Pp. 12 n.46.) Though some people may find the claim controversial, Rankin explains that, “Studies show visible poverty elicits higher rates of disgust than nearly any other commonly marginalized trait, including racial or ethnic indicia.” (P. 15 n.60.) She acknowledges that people whose ethnicities are racialized into a minority group status tend to be poorer in income, own less wealth, and be otherwise worse off than people whose ethnicities are racialized into the majority white group status. (Pp. 5-7, 12-15.) However, she hypothesizes that the stigmatization of poverty may have become a sanitized way to express otherwise disfavored forms of prejudice. (P. 16 n.63.) Instead of “overt expressions of bias . . . with respect to race and gender, and perhaps increasingly, with respect to sexual orientation and identity . . . the American conscience may be sanitizing many forms of discrimination to appear as something less objectionable or actionable: judgments about social worthiness.” (Pp. 18-20.)

Thus, the influence of exile troubles Rankin in at least two ways: first, it feeds on the disgust that individuals, who are ostensibly not poor (or at least perceive themselves not to be poor), feel when confronted with visibly poor people: they perceive these “strangers” as not only unsightly and dirty blemishes in public space but also as dangers who symbolize human “broken windows.” (Pp. 22-23, 25-26, 36-38, 59.) Second, United States society and culture have evolved an ideology to legitimate and reinforce the disgust that (some, many, most?) individuals feel when confronted with visibly poor people. Instead of allowing this feeling to be identified as invidious discrimination, this ideology cloaks individuals’ feelings of disgust beneath the mantle of a sober judgment about blameworthiness and just deserts. (Pp. 20-21.)

The influence of exile, Rankin argues, thus degrades not only the visibly poor themselves, but also the legislators, judges, and citizens who accede to popular animus against them. Indeed, the influence of exile degrades all of us who allow ourselves to become complicit in the sanitization (privatization, commercialization, festivalization) of public space, and the criminalization of the visibly poor—in a word, exile.

Shakepeare’s Prince Escalus, the ruler of fair Verona, declared at the end of Romeo and Juliet:

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.

According to Rankin, under the influence of exile, here too “all are punish’d.” Thus, she argues for the law—legislators, judges, and the polis—to recognize its invidious influence, to confront its pernicious effects, and ultimately to protect “the rights of all people to exist in public space or, more fundamentally, to exist at all.” (P. 59.)

Cite as: Marc-Tizoc González, Recognizing Disgust, Repudiating Exile, JOTWELL (October 25, 2016) (reviewing Sara K. Rankin, The Influence of Exile, 76 Md. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN),

Looking Intersectionally and Seeing Structural Bias

Every day, across the criminal justice system, state and private actors wield discretion in making decisions: Is a girl standing before a police officer, prosecutor, child welfare official, or social worker a victim in need of protection or a perpetrator, in need of punishment? Does she need harsh correction or gentle, resource-rich protection? Is she a prostitute or is she a victim of trafficking? In (E)Racing Childhood: Examining the Racialized Construction of Childhood and Innocence in the Treatment of Sexually Exploited Minors, Priscilla Ocen presents compelling data suggesting that these discretionary decisions open a door to the exercise of implicit bias and lead to devastating outcomes, disproportionately removing Black girls from the realm of protection embodied by anti-trafficking laws and placing them squarely in the hands of the punitive mechanisms of the juvenile justice system. These facts are tremendously important but, sadly, not surprising. They only add to the wealth of information definitively establishing the disproportionate negative outcomes for Black women, men, boys, and girls in the social welfare, child welfare, criminal, and juvenile justice systems.

While the statistics are jarring, the important questions to ask are causal: Given that Black girls are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation and disproportionately victimized, why, as a society, do we tolerate them being disproportionately punished? Why are they not, as both the data and intersectionality theory might suggest they should be, at the very center of our efforts to protect girls?

Ocen’s major contribution is her ability to help her readers ask, and begin to answer, these questions. She deftly draws the lens back, helping us understand how history, social construction of identity, implicit bias, failing social institutions, and legal mechanisms allowing for discretionary determinations work together to produce these outcomes. Here we see clearly structural racism and gender bias at work. We see embodied, too, the very real human impact of failing to think and work intersectionally as we purport to solve social problems. To make these crucial arguments, Ocen beautifully marries the particular with the more general, interweaving narrative, data, theory, sociology, history, and psychology in her text.

Ocen argues that while we have a strong cultural construct equating childhood with innocence and the need for protection, Black girls occupy a space of “liminal childhood,” placed at the excluded margins of idealized forms of white girlhood, both included in the concept of girlhood for the purposes of rights deprivation but excluded from notions of childhood innocence. Black girls are “at once viewed as dependent, limited rights-bearing subjects while at the same time they are imbued with adult characteristics such as sexual maturity, individual agency, and criminal responsibility.” (P. 1594.) If the image of the trafficking victim is the innocent girl next door, the Black girls are Jezebel, excluded from protection, blamed for their actions and subject to punishment as prostitutes. Taking us through history, from slavery and the black codes forward, Ocen traces the roots of these powerful cultural stories, arguing compellingly that the reasons that we, as a society, have tolerated Black girls’ disproportionate victimization and punishment are found in this history. But the answers to those why questions are rooted not only in powerful, historical imagery but in important cultural institutions: under-resourced communities; failing schools; high crime rates; and “limited housing, education, and health care” (Id.) all explain why Black girls are situated in positions that make them more likely to be targets for sexual exploitation than their white counterparts.

Ocen’s solutions flow directly from her careful analysis: remove discretion of police, prosecutors, and other state actors by enacting mandatory decriminalization; focus on institutional structures that render Black girls more vulnerable; and establish “race-conscious and gender responsive programs in schools and other social service agencies … where Black girls are most vulnerable to being trafficked.” (P. 1595.) Ocen proves, once again, that intersectionality is not just a theory. It is lived reality, and applying its lens exposes deep injustices and leads toward solutions that address some of our most pressing societal problems.

Cite as: Wendy Anne Bach, Looking Intersectionally and Seeing Structural Bias, JOTWELL (September 27, 2016) (reviewing Priscilla Ocen, (E)Racing Childhood: Examining the Racialized Construction of Childhood and Innocence in the Treatment of Sexually Exploited Minors, 62 UCLA L. Rev. 1586 (2015)),