The opposite of poverty is not wealth. It is justice. — Bryan Stevenson
The ultimate goal, of course, is the end of poverty itself. But as we pursue that goal, we must get rid of the laws and practices that unjustly incarcerate and otherwise damage the lives of millions who can’t fight back. We must fight mass incarceration and the criminalization of poverty in every place they exist, and fight poverty, too. We must organize — in neighborhoods and communities, in cities and states, and nationally. And we must empower people to advocate for themselves as the most fundamental tool for change. We need elected leaders, judges and lawyers, and journalists too, but we will get more done and get it done sooner if it is grounded in the people who demand action. — Peter Edelman
Next month the longtime antipoverty crusader Peter Edelman will turn 80. Born and raised in Minneapolis, Edelman has distinguished himself in a career spanning more than 50 years as an activist, author, attorney, university administrator and academic. In the 1960s, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg and served as a legislative assistant to Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
While an aide to Kennedy, Edelman witnessed the extreme horrors of poverty firsthand by accompanying the senator on trips to the small town of Cleveland in the Mississippi Delta, the neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and the migrant farms of California’s Central Valley. In 1996, Edelman notoriously resigned his post as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation in the Clinton administration in protest of the newly signed welfare reform law, which he argued threatened the security and well-being of millions of Americans.
Today, Edelman is professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University as well as faculty director of the school’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. A few weeks ago, he returned to his hometown to discuss his recently released (and already critically acclaimed) ninth book, Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America.
A follow-up to his 2012 best seller So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America, Edelman’s latest effort reveals how American institutions, big and small, have established and in some cases ensconced policies and practices that persecute and effectively criminalize the poor and people of color in this country.
Edelman cites a number of these nefarious laws and regulations in states such as Louisiana, North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, South Dakota and Washington. In highlighting these, he demonstrates:
- how the homeless are harassed and criminalized,
- how prisons have become a preferred state substitute for mental health institutions,
- how the recipients of public benefits are both ostracized and penalized by the courts, and
- how racist and inequitable discipline enforcement in primary and secondary education fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.
One of the more illuminating accounts featured in the book comes in the wake of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) 2015 Civil Rights Investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department. The report notes that the city’s “law enforcement practices are shaped by its focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs, and that African Americans in Ferguson account for nearly 95 percent of all arrests (while making up approximately two-thirds) of the population.”
The DOJ findings also reveal that one African American woman, whose only crime was the one-time illegal parking of her automobile, ended up spending six days in jail and was levied fines that ultimately cost her more than $1,000. Such roguish and discriminatory practices, suggests Edelman, have in essence instituted “twenty-first century debtor’s prisons” not only in Ferguson but across America.
In its assessment of Edelman’s text, Kirkus Reviews calls Not a Crime to Be Poor “An impassioned call for an overarching movement of justice.” And, as Edelman concludes, among the most vital elements in our quest to end poverty is the swift and widespread reform of our criminal justice system.
As I have noted in several recent columns, poverty is not a character flaw. Nor is it a crime. Therefore, we cannot allow our social, political and legal institutions to treat it like one. While our nation represents only five percent of the earth’s citizens, it houses more than 25 percent of the world’s prison population. This disparity in no small part helps to drive the disgraceful income and wealth gaps here in America (in a rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer sort of way).
This has to stop. Justice must prevail.
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104