The Criminalization of Poverty

By Rev. Nikia Smith Robert, Ph.D.

The pervasiveness of carcerality dovetails with racial, gendered, and economic inequities. According to “The Status of Black Women in the United States” report, Black women have higher poverty rates than women and men from any other ethnic group except for Native American women. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that Black women have the highest labor force participation and Black mothers’ rate is higher than other moms. Though overworked by essential jobs, Black women are grossly underpaid, earning only 63 cents to the dollar compared to white men with the same educational attainment levels. Amid these dismal realities, eighty percent of Black women have the unique burden of navigating carcerality and inequities while serving as the sole providers and breadwinners for their families.

Furthermore, Black women are underrepresented at every level of federal and state governments despite having the highest voting rates in the past two presidential elections and arguably single handedly saving our democracy. Against utter desperation and dismal realities caused by racial, gender, and class inequities, poor Black mothers find themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, forced to make an unlawful way out of no way in carceral wildernesses without support from their families, communities, churches, or adequate social safety nets.

According to the Former United States Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, “Put simply, we know that when we incarcerate a woman we often are truly incarcerating a family, in terms of the far reaching effect on her children, her community, and her entire family network.” Thus, the cumulative harms of incarcerating mothers and criminalizing poverty is far-sweeping and often outweighs the crime in the first place. Instead of criminalizing the survival strategies of Black mothers and blaming the poor for their misfortune, society must hold accountable the structural injustices that create economic disparities that make it nearly impossible for Black women to survive and thrive.

Punishing the poor has theological connections. Assigning religious meaning to work and moral worth is grounded in the reformer John Calvin’s conceptualization of the protestant work ethic. Society condemns poor individuals as blameworthy for not working hard enough to merit God’s abundance, and the wealthy are rewarded as God’s favored. traced to governmental responses that are corrective and retributive. To fix the poor’s perceived immorality the government uses several strategies including making life uncomfortable, providing inadequate relief, diminishing the legal status of the poor, and “[using] supervision and control in which the poor must endure whatever conditions and demands for behavior that are imposed on them by the wealthier members of society who use government regulations to impose their worldviews on the poor.”[2]

According to womanist ethicist, emilie townes, public policies impact welfare reform by emphasizing personal responsibility to target poor Black mothers. Townes argues, “Public policies reflect the working out of our national value judgements. The moralization of poverty in the age of empire is a gruesome and death-dealing pageant for low-income and poor women, men, and children. The poor in the U.S. culture and society are often ignored, rendered faceless, labeled underserving, considered an eyesore, their own worst enemy, or simply down on their luck.”[3] The Welfare Queen instantiates the ways in which these negative perceptions of poverty as sinful or a social aberration is the fault of the individual for their laziness and avoidance of work. Townes observes, “the current welfare policy of the United States often lifts up the Black Matriarch as the poster child for its demonization of poor women, children and men. Poverty is the problem of those who endure it, rather than socioeconomic system structured to insure inequality while touting its openness to all—we must simply work harder to reap the benefits that are there for the taking.”[4]

Abolition requires a narrative change. Disparaging stereotypes and societal blame can no longer undermine the humanity of poor people and socially constructed deviant populations. Black women are not responsible for their impoverishment. Society must be held accountable. Poverty points to the gross injustices of racial capitalism and structural inequities. Prisons do not solve these social problems. Rather, they proliferate and perpetuate these injustices. A reallocation of funding using a community budgeting approach ensures that the people who need resources receive interventions and not punishment. The criminalization of poverty is profitable, but it benefits white dominant society and steals the assets that underserved communities need to survive and flourish. It is immoral to fund cages and not create communities of care. Moreover, it is evil to use religion to blame the poor and justify punishing them for their misfortune. Abolition theology changes the narrative and redresses harmful theologies by prioritizing a social gospel where Jesus calls the poor blessed, feeds the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and shelter to the houseless. Abolition theology, in the tradition of a liberative Christian witness, requires us to overturn oppressive structures and rebuild a new system where the last become first. Abolitionist theology promotes a radical re-ordering of social hierarchy by giving preferential option to the poor and believing in God is on the side of the oppressed.

The Status of Black Women