Crime and Human Rights (15): The Criminalization of Poverty

A lot of jurisdictions have so-called “public order laws” making it illegal to do what poor people do, and therefore in a sense making it illegal to be poor. “Crimes of misery” include begging, loitering, littering, sitting on sidewalks, lying down on benches, urinating in public, selling in the streets without a license and other things poor people, and especially the homeless, tend to do and often have no choice but doing. Some of those activities may be a nuisance and an unpleasant sight, and even blameworthy when non-poor citizens engage in them, but they’re not an avoidable choice when you’re poor and homeless.

Hence, public order laws disproportionately target poor homeless people who, in addition, have a hard time respecting them. Poverty and homelessness unavoidably result in violations of the law. Ostensibly, there is nothing discriminatory about such laws. If a millionaire were lying on a sidewalk, he would also be in violation of the ordinance. In the words of Anatole France, “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.” But, of course, the rich have better things to do.

If activities that are unavoidable parts of life on the streets are forbidden, then it’s not outrageous to claim that deep poverty itself is a crime. If you add to this the fact that many of the homeless are mentally ill, chronically alcoholic or drug addicted, then it’s obvious that their daily conduct will inevitably put them on the wrong side of the law. Even people who try to assist the homeless are sometimes legally forced to stop. Communities often don’t welcome charities that attract homeless people. They fear that the neighborhood may become less appealing as a result. Hence they impose rules limiting the number of meals that soup kitchens may serve, use zoning laws to stop churches from serving food, issue park ordinances outlawing food distribution in public places etc.

It’s obvious that the criminalization of poverty is another poverty trap. A criminal record, jail time or fines won’t help if you’re struggling to get off the streets.

And it’s not just the homeless. Low-wage workers are often subjected to constant suspicions of theft and drug use: they are monitored with CCTV during the working day, they are searched when leaving their shift and tested for drugs when they’re hired. Welfare recipients are fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated about their attempts at finding a job or about the true paternity of their children, supposedly to prevent welfare fraud. Access to public housing comes with a drug test. Etc.

The war on poverty is all too often a war on the poor.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Poverty? (4): Does the Concept of Poverty Collapse Under the Weight of Historical Comparisons?

Many of the people who are considered poor in developed countries have a higher living standard than the average middle class citizens of some centuries ago. If we bracket the minority of the extremely poor in developed countries (the homeless for example), poverty today seems to be a relatively comfortable position to be in, once you see it in a historical perspective.

The same is true for people in poor countries. In 1820, average income per person was low everywhere in the world: about $500 in China and South Asia, and about $1000-$1500 in Europe (1993 US$ PPP). In developing countries today the range is between $1000 and $3100 (the world average is about $6000, the US has more than $40,000). So, the poor of today are equally well off or even better off than the average world citizen 200 years ago. 75% of the world’s population lived on less than $1 a day in 1820. Today, almost no one does in the West. In China it’s less then 20%, in South Asia 40%, in Africa half. Globally, it’s less than a quarter. Historically, almost everyone was poor; today it’s a minority.

So it seems almost futile to talk about poverty today. What is defined as poverty now was the normal way of life not so long ago. However, if that’s the way you want to go, the concept of poverty evaporates. You’ll always find someone who’s worse off. You just need to go sufficiently far back in time (or move in space) to find people who are more deprived and who make the current poor (or the local poor) seem relatively well off. The baseline is then the caveman and everyone else isn’t really “poor”.

Hence, if you want to keep talking about poverty, you can’t engage in historical comparisons. Does that mean that poverty can only be measured against the current average standard of living? That poverty is a percentage of current median income? In that case, there will always be poverty and the fight against it is a Sisyphean task. I’m not entirely convinced of the usefulness of the concept of relative poverty – that you should compare people’s living standards to society’s average standard (where poverty becomes basically income inequality) – and the historical rather than spatial version of relative poverty reinforces my doubts. However, I know that people commonly see poverty as a relative thing and that they may feel deprived because they compare themselves to their living compatriots and not only because they are below a certain absolute level of income, consumption or capabilities. Conversely, the middle classes of some centuries ago, even if they had the same standard of living as some of today’s poor, felt good about themselves because they looked at the poor of their time and felt that they had done comparatively well.

Still, relative poverty is not the only solution to the problem of historical comparisons. Poverty can be measured relative to average historical or current standards of living, but can also be measured by comparing consumption, income or capabilities to a commonly accepted absolute minimum level (for example a minimum amount of calorie intake).

In the latter case, it’s not important how rich the rich really are, or what the median income is, or how poor the poor were centuries ago. It’s important to know what are people’s basic needs, how much they cost, and how many people currently can’t buy the stuff to fulfill their basic needs. Of course, these basic needs can’t always be determined scientifically (as in the case of calorie intake) and some level of arbitrariness is unavoidable. A lot depends on the capabilities we believe are necessary in order to have a minimally decent life, and that’s controversial.

I also understand that social norms evolve and that basic needs can change over time. Several centuries ago a microwave and a cellphone were obviously not a basic need; now you will be considered poor if you lack these tools. In a pre-modern agrarian society, you would have been considered poor only when you were on the brink of starvation. You didn’t need technological tools, child care, education etc. in order to have a minimally decent life, because no one had those things and your functioning in the economy didn’t require them. Today, if you don’t have them, you’ll feel excluded, less than normal, weird, “trash” and in certain cases you’ll end up deeper in poverty because you’ll have a hard time finding a job if you don’t have a car, a cell phone or child care.

Also, why shouldn’t we become more ambitious over time? Should we be content if we’re able to avoid only the worst kind of deprivation? Or should we try to continually improve many different capabilities? The latter is I think a sign of civilization and progress. That doesn’t mean we should scatter our attention and forget to focus on the worst deprivation. It only means we shouldn’t stop after we’ve dealt with the worst. And we haven’t dealt with the worst simply because the percentages of those worst off have been coming down (see the numbers cited above). Indeed, a smaller share of the world’s population suffers from low income than some time ago. But because of population growth – which is a good thing resulting from higher life expectancy rates – the total number of people with low income is now higher. And total numbers also count, just as much as percentages. As Thomas Pogge has argued, the Holocaust wouldn’t be any less horrible if it turned out that the number of people killed was a smaller percentage of the world’s population than initially thought.

Poverty and Privacy

The poor suffer certain specific violations of their right to privacy, and it’s fair to say that in general poverty means less privacy. Being poor often means having substandard housing. Without a proper house, or without a house at all, it’s much more difficult to be private. Furthermore, poverty often implies that people live together in “extended families”, perhaps even with others who aren’t family at all, strictly speaking. And this also reduces privacy in several ways (most obviously the intimate side of privacy).

In addition, being poor means being dependent on government welfare. But in order to benefit from welfare payments, tax credits, subsidies etc. the poor have to prove that they are indeed poor. Hence they have to divulge personal information to the government, and the government has a right to check this information. Some governments even have the right to do home searches in pursuit of welfare fraud.

If you view abortion as an aspect of privacy, then there’s an additional way in which poverty hurts privacy: the poor, because they have less access to birth control, will want to engage in abortion more often, and will therefore have their privacy violated by anti-abortion laws. Because the poor use public transportation more often, they are more likely to be tracked by police surveillance systems. They represent a disproportionate part of the prison population, and prison life obviously isn’t good for privacy. The poor are also more likely to be illegal immigrants, and therefore subject to control by the competent government agencies.

On the other hand, being poor allows people to avoid some types of privacy invasion: they use the internet less and hence are less at risk of internet related privacy violations; the poorest of the poor are less likely to take credit (credit means telling the bank about your income, spending, previous credit scores etc.) or to enroll in fidelity schemes (in which the use of a fidelity card tells the shop what you consume). Perhaps they won’t be taxed as much – or at all – and therefore don’t have to divulge private information to the tax authorities.

Still, on balance poverty is likely to have an adverse effect on privacy. Some even say that the poor are targeted by the government and that they are discriminated in their right to privacy simply because of their poverty. For instance, the way in which governments do home searches in pursuit of welfare fraud would be unthinkable if it were directed at other purposes and other social classes. It seems that the poor don’t only lose their privacy but also their right to privacy.

And poverty often also means the forfeiture of other, non-privacy rights. Simply begging or being homeless can still land you in jail and can get you kicked out of public places. In most countries, the days are gone when poor people were sterilized against their will, excluded from the vote, their children taken away from them etc. But in many parts of the world, poor children are still discouraged from going to school and forced into labor or warfare. Healthcare for the poor is still a problem, even in some developed countries, making it less likely that their health rights are respected. So don’t tell me poverty isn’t a human rights issue.

Economic Human Rights (9): Homelessness

Without your own house, it is difficult to have and enjoy private property. Hence you are more likely to suffer poverty. Without a house or your own place in the world and without your own intimate and personal things, it is obviously more difficult to have a private life. The four walls of your private house protect you against the public.

Independence, self-reliance, autonomy, and therefore freedom are capacities which rely heavily on private property and a private place. Private property and a private place are also important for the creation and maintenance of relationships. When you have your own house and your own place in the world, you can live in a particular world, in a very concrete social context of friends, enemies, neighbors and other types of relationships. A place in the world is always a place in a particular community.

Therefore it seems that homelessness is not only a violation of a human right as such (the right to housing, article 25 of the Universal Declaration) but makes it very difficult to enjoy other human rights as well. Examples are the right to the absence of poverty (also article 25 of the Universal Declaration) and the right to private property (article 17 of the Universal Declaration), but it also hinders freedom in general, freedom in the sense of independence and autonomy.