Spotlight Exclusives

Punishing Poverty: A Conversation with Peter Edelman

Peter Edelman, Georgetown University Peter Edelman, Georgetown University, posted on

Peter Edelman has been on the frontlines of the fight against poverty for over 50 years; a career which has included accompanying Senator Robert Kennedy on his tour of poverty in the Mississippi Delta, resigning from the Clinton administration in protest over welfare reform, and his current work as a professor of law and public policy and faculty director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University. In his most recent book, Not a Crime to Be Poor, Edelman examines how our current system has been structured to criminalize the lives of many low-income individuals. Spotlight recently spoke with Edelman to discuss his book and the larger struggle to combat poverty and promote economic opportunity. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the new book and your motivation for writing it?

The book was stimulated by the events of Ferguson and the DOJ report highlighting the way the city’s criminal justice system preyed on its lower-income, African American residents.

I had been working on poverty issues for decades, and was certainly aware of mass incarceration, but I had not fully understood the very significant damage caused by the various ways in which we criminalize poverty. It’s an issue that demands far more attention than it’s been given.

What does this criminalization look like in practice?

It starts with the enormously high fines and fees for minor infractions that states and municipalities are imposing widely across the country. This trend is a consequence of the anti-tax movement. Governments needed to find alternative sources of revenue. The result is that 10 million people owe a combined $50 billion in legal fines and expenses.

I talk a lot about debtor’s prisons in the book—people going to jail because they can’t afford fines or fees. And even more prevalent is driver’s license suspensions. Someone can end up losing their license for being unable to pay a fine for a minor traffic violation. And then it spirals. People keep on driving because they have to – for work and other family needs. Then they get another ticket and owe more and it goes on and on.

Our money bail system is even worse. People get arrested for minor offenses and get held in jail until their trial occurs because they can’t afford the money bail requirement that has been placed on them. The majority of inmates in Rikers Island in New York City are there because they are unable to make bail. Time after time, often lacking a lawyer, they plead guilty even though they are innocent, just to get out. Now they owe expensive fine and fees. They receive a payment plan and when they can’t keep up on that they’re held in contempt of court and owe even more, besides the collateral consequences that are slapped on them.

And of course, all of this is an intersection of race and poverty, since minority communities are more frequently targeted by police.

Where else in our system do you see this criminalization of poverty taking place?

We’ve become a very punitive society, and this is especially evident in the way we treat the poor.

We are seeing schoolchildren sent to court for hallway scuffles that used to end in the principal’s office. We have seen states institute policies that deter people from seeking public benefits by threatening criminal prosecution—for example, being falsely accused of fraud for a mistake in an application for assistance. We witness city after city use vagrancy and other laws to push the homeless out. And we’ve seen chronic nuisance ordinances used by the police to force landlords to evict women who called 911 for help for protection from domestic violence.

Zooming out from the book, I wanted to ask you about the broader effort to combat poverty. How would you rate our success?

On the one hand, we have made clear progress. The evidence shows that public programs keep more than 40 million people out of poverty. Poverty would be twice its current magnitude without the policies we have. That’s enormous. And now we are faced with unprecedented threats to turn around major portions of what we accomplished over more than half a century. We have to fight back. We are in peril.

So, what needs to be done? Where should we be focusing our efforts?

We have to play defense right now, but we should continue creating a vision and a strategy—the vision for the nation and a positive agenda for moving forward at the state and local levels. We need to be raising incomes for low-wage workers wherever we can. We need to seriously tackle the problem of deep poverty. And obviously there are the many issues around the criminal justice system that I’ve highlighted in the book. There’s no silver bullet. Our work against poverty always has multiple foci for us to address.

We need to come together and put shoulder to wheel. We have people focused on many vital topics from healthcare, to education, to criminal justice reform. Now we have to add another level: a movement that has us acting jointly to achieve the better politics that is needed for addressing poverty in its totality.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives