The Land Of Opportunity

August 14, 2009

There’s an interesting Barbara Ehrenreich story in the NY Times about the growing criminalization of the poor during the recession. Here’s an telling example:

“A grizzled 62-year-old, he [Mr. Szekely] inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants.

It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of ‘criminal trespassing’ (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail.”

In general, there are two factors that work against the poor. One is the ‘poor tax.’ Everything is either more expensive or carries greater risk of an unexpected or catastrophic fee or fine for poor people. For example, poor people pay more for car loans and mortgages and credit cards (higher interest rates on all debt in general). Poor people are less likely to be able to purchase a new or quality car so are more susceptible to expensive auto repairs. Or they have to go without a car, which makes many, many things more expensive: there’s the opportunity cost of it taking much longer to get anywhere, limitations on possible jobs because of limitations on commuting options, the inability to frequent big-box or discount stores and a greater reliance on supermarkets and stores in poor neighborhoods, all of which charge more, etc., etc. Poor people are more likely to have late payments or overdrafts, all of which carry substantial penalties. And of course health is a big issue. Poor people are more likely to have jobs that don’t provide paid sick days off from work, so illness translates directly into lost wages. They are more likely to go without healthcare, which means more out-of-pocket expenses for medical emergencies. Fewer opportunities for exercise, greater life stresses, and poorer diet means more medical problems.

The other factor at work is greater susceptibility to problems with the law. Poor neighborhoods, particularly those that are predominantly black or Latino, are more heavily policed. Small infractions, from drug possession to jaywalking to – my favorite of late – disorderly conduct are more likely to be prosecuted. The court system is more hostile to poor people on every level, and poor people cannot afford the same quality legal representation as wealthier citizens. And problems compound faster. Unpaid parking tickets or failures to get inspection stickers more easily translate into contempt of court charges or failures to appear, especially when you cannot afford the initial fines in the first place or hire a lawyer.

In sum, all the things wealthier people take for granted, from simply paying off parking tickets to paying for the tow truck when the car breaks down or renting a car to get to work when yours is in the shop, translate into major crises for poor people, often leading to additional expenses, fines, lost jobs, or even jail. And as the problems accrue, they compound. Once you have a criminal record, you can’t get a job. When you don’t have a job, you can’t afford a place to live. When you live on the street, you can be subject to any one of a gazillion causes for legal harrassment.

Think about all that, and then think about George W. Bush’s remark that the poor can use the emergency room for healthcare. What will the outcomes be for asthma, diabetes, or even far less grave illnesses as gastro-esophogeal reflux, chronic pain problems, anemia, high cholesterol, high blood pressure if you rely on the emergency room?

Completely out of touch with reality.


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