Punished for being Poor

Listen in to a discussion between a liberal and conservative and the topic will eventually center around liberty and equality. For the conservative, liberty is the prize. Mention liberty and all kinds of symbols come to mind. The Statue of Liberty and a new beginning for millions of immigrants coming to America is the strongest image I can think of. But, that isn’t the liberty they mean. A conservative definition of liberty is the freedom to get what you can and not have to share it with others. For many, it is simply the ability to work hard and reap the riches of your labor. It is often referred to that as the American Dream. For some, it is a concerted effort to keep the other guy down. A lot of people have a head start when it comes to their circumstances. Still, if you work hard enough will you get ahead? Or are the cards stacked against you?

Education is a prime example of the way up. The cost of education has increased 260% since 1980 while the average consumer goods grew by 120%. If learning is the way up, then it is less likely available to the poor. We also know that the jobs being created require more skills and credentials. How do you get them if you can’t afford them? Student aid is dwindling and unions who use to offer free education through apprenticeships take few new candidates and even fewer minorities into their fold.

Liberty also means freedom to most of us and freedom means not being locked away in prison. There are more Black men in prison today than were enslaved during the Civil War began. The American prison system is big business for both the for-profit prison operators and the politicians who take pride in legislating mandatory sentences which circumvent our tripartite form of government. The question is whether the punishment fits the crime?

Some years ago, I developed the local intermediate punishment plan required for our county to obtain funds to build a new jail. The first jail was 95 years old and had not reached its maximum capacity until its 93rd year of existence. The Intermediate Plan was to help divert people from incarceration for lesser crimes by doing alternative sentences so the new jail would not fill up too fast. A new jail was constructed with 250% of the original jail’s capacity. At 1995 rates of incarceration it should have not reached its max until 2010. It reached maximum in 4 years.

Part of my study looked at length of stay and number of convictions. Over 95% were convicted of their crimes which I found to be quite high. It turned out that most pleaded guilty and got out of jail because they spent the length of their sentence incarcerated even before they went to trial. They couldn’t get released on bond because they could not afford the bail so they just stayed in jail. They were punished for being poor. Think of their personal loss and the cost to the community.

Bullying and the blame and shame game are other forms of punishment we learn in the school yard and hone to a sharp edge by adulthood. In a social media world, judgement is rendered without chance of defence. Our current election process is a prime example of how the poor are blamed for high crime, no jobs, rampant drug use, you name it. It starts with teasing that poor kid for what they wear or what they eat for lunch.

Equality is not the buzz words and images conservatives use to portray the poor–welfare moms/freeloaders, affirmative action/got in the fancy school because of race not brains, planned parenthood/abortions. Equality gives us access to education, it gives us access to safe neighborhoods, it gives us access to health care, it gives us equal protection under the law but unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way. It is a rich man’s game. You would think that all that education, they could make their argument more intelligently.


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