Social Safety Net Or Bed of Nails? It’s Costly Being Poor

images-2Being billed for room and board in jail might sound like a joke. It is not. In fact, it’s increasingly common in America, among cash-strapped local governments. Raising taxes is politically hard because taxpayers vote, organize, and donate to campaigns. It’s easier to extract cash from politically powerless people at the bottom of society.

That surely includes folks already ensnared in the criminal justice system, billing them not only for jail time, but all sorts of “user fees” for administrative processing. This often makes small fines for minor offenses balloon into money hemorrhages these usually poor victims can ill afford. UnknownMany simply cannot pay, so are hit with yet more fees and penalties for nonpayment, or even jailed – generating still further charges.

An article about all this in The Economist cited an Alabama case where a $200 misdemeanor fine metastasized into a 41-month $2100 ordeal, through a system that one judge labeled a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

I used the word victims. Some “conservatives” would have little sympathy – after all, they’re lawbreakers. Those who’d say this cannot envision themselves in such a position, and have no idea what it’s like. Most of the minor infractions we’re talking about (often motor vehicle related) happen not because these are bad people but because it goes with the territory of being poor. Unknown-1When government compounds their plight of poverty by preying upon them,* they are indeed victims. This turns the whole idea of a “social safety net” upside down.

The foregoing is part of a broader phenomenon, highlighted by (bite my tongue) Barbara Ehrenreich. I generally loathe her bilious negativism, but here she actually has a point: it’s costly to be poor in America.

Just one example: financial services. Bounce one check, or miss one credit card payment, and you face a cascade of hefty charges making your already precarious financial situation even worse. Thus do banks and credit card companies frankly exploit the less affluent. If you’re too poor to have a bank account, that’s expensive as well, in money order and check cashing fees, etc. Payday loans might also be mentioned. I don’t agree with attacks on payday lenders; they provide a needed service and their charges reflect costs and risks without excessive profit. But all these kinds of things, and many more, do make being poor a costly proposition, and something of a self-perpetuating trap.

I have argued that out-of-control government spending presages economic ruin. Many “conservatives” respond with a war on the disadvantaged. It’s the wrong target. In fact they’re a small fraction of our population, and spending on them is a small fraction of the total. Unknown-2Far more goes on welfare for the rich. We shame ourselves with the latter while scrooging the disadvantaged.

I have also criticized the “progressive” inequality obsession as reflecting less compassion for the poor as envy for the rich. But I do think there isn’t enough compassion for the poor. We should help them not because that’s “social justice,” or wealth is criminal, but because helping them is humane. We are a very rich society and could afford what it takes – if only, again, we controlled giveaways to the better off.

This essay points to some things we could do. For example, if you hate payday lending, how about government offering low-income people small loans at cheaper rates? Though I’m not actually keen on complicated bureaucratic programs. I’d favor a more global “negative income tax” approach that simply puts more cash in poor people’s hands.

images-3But at least let’s stop taking it out of their hands by charging them for the privilege of being punished.

*Government also rips off the less affluent by pushing lottery ticket sales.

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6 Responses to “Social Safety Net Or Bed of Nails? It’s Costly Being Poor”

  1. ramblingdon Says:

    Interesting opinions based on ……. opinions!
    You did not mention that there are presently seven states, thats 7, that have over 50% of their population on welfare.
    It doesn’t seem to me that we should shower people trapped in such situations with more money. Rather, let’s find a way to seek out the root cause of such a ridiculous situation and change that.
    Arbitrarily tossing money at the poor does not teach them to read and write English. It dos not teach them how to eat healthy foods. It does not teach them to work within the system and get a “good” job.
    Why don’t we, as a nation get some knowledgeable people to replace the bureaurcrats and design and implement a working system for the poor to pull themselves out of poverty, not just hand them money to go away until next month.
    DON

  2. ramblingdon Says:

    Also, try making your title match your article!
    DON

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Don, it would indeed be lovely if all disadvantaged people could be raised up to support themselves with good employment. In the real, world, however, that’s a fantasy. The fact is that there are people who did not do well in the lottery of life. Having myself done well in that lottery, I am willing to be generous toward those who didn’t.
    But I have pointed out repeatedly on this blog that we have a real problem of more and more people collecting benefits and ever fewer working to support them. That’s a separate issue. The answer for it is certainly not cruelty toward the minority who are incapable of adequately supporting themselves.

  4. Therese Broderick Says:

    Yes, let’s be humane, not cruel.

    I think the language die has already been cast. That is, in response to the comment left by Don, I would say that not all poor people are non-English speakers; and I would say that it’s probably incumbent upon affluent English speakers like myself to spend our time and money on learning Spanish or other languages. After all, we have the money to buy and use the most advanced smart phones with excellent translation apps.

    Perhaps Don should volunteer as an ESL teacher for Literacy Volunteers?

  5. Pádraig Says:

    If I may chime in from the left, having the post office or federal reserve offer low interest loans would be fantastic – let the higher risk be born by the institution with the greatest risk-bearing capacity. Where I part ways is in your claim that the left is simply envious – the reason we attack wealth is because wealth distorts politics, and makes ration solutions politically impossible, no matter how needed they are. Such as having the fed offer bank accounts and low interest loans to the poor.

    Your wealthy white commenters are perfect examples of what I am talking about.

  6. Thornton Hall Says:

    Don is abusing a statistic that relates to school lunches, which, I understand him to oppose. I am not sure what good starving our children would do, but it couldn’t hurt, right?

    Anyway, user fees is a particularly obnoxious example of the way the criminal justice system works. We have a debtors prison for undocumented immigrants. First we create jobs and set wages impossibly low. Then we fill said jobs w/ easily exploited workers. They can’t afford to live near jobs for any number of reasons so they get a car. They are not allowed to get a drivers license. The police have an official policy of pulling over crappy cars. Arrested for DWOL, $400 fine. Impound lot keeps car at a rate that makes it cheaper to get a new one, with bad plates from scammer car salesman. Arrested again. $1000 fine. Repeat until worker is deported.

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