Criminalization of Poverty in America

Does the criminalization of poverty exist in America? Have you ever wondered why the poor people are the ones most likely to be incarcerated or face steep fines and penalties as opposed to a higher social class? According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006. Also, a Pew Center Study released in March 2009, found states spending a record of over $50 billion on corrections, an amount that the center judged, with an excess of moderation, to be “too much” (Ehrenreich 2009). In the following article I will explain how poverty affects criminalization and possible ways to stop criminalizing poor people for petty crimes.

Criminalization of Poverty

Poor people are being criminalized

To begin with, I believe there are certain laws like truancy and trespassing that are set up to target poor people or individuals who can’t afford to pay hefty fines. For instance, in Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250. This is an ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their kids to school (Ehrenreich 2009). Poor people, especially Blacks and Hispanics are the main ones who face these fees and thrown in jail if they fail to pay these outstanding costs. Can you imagine serving 12 months in jail for stealing a can of beer worth $2? In Augusta Ga., a judge sentenced Tom Barrett to 12 months after he stole a can of beer worth less than $2 (Balko 2014).

– Related: Pardon Canada Cost.

Another way poor people are criminalized is by the government welfare system. Government welfare policies increasingly treat poor people as a criminal class, and the treatment of low-income woman as criminals has occurred at all levels of government (Gustafson 2009). Welfare recipients and section 8 participants go through a vicious evaluation cycle and are subject to drug tests and random home inspections. A welfare recipient has likely signed documents informing her that her welfare grant will be reduced or terminated if she has someone move in without notice, fails to vaccinate her kids, or is convicted of a drug offenses charge (Gustafson 2009). This is known as welfare cheating and this has been going on for as long as welfare reform was created. Government welfare policies increasingly treat poor people as a criminal class, and the treatment of low-income women as criminals has occurred at all levels of government.

Welfare & Poverty

Working low paying jobs and staying on welfare will keep you in poverty.

Next, public housing and court costs from traffic tickets can be a means of criminalizing poor people. A yearlong NPR investigation found that the costs of the criminal justice system in the U.S. are paid increasingly by the defenders and offenders. It’s a practice that causes poor people to face harsher treatment than others who commit similar crimes and can afford to pay (Balko 2014). Can you imagine paying nearly $300 just to appeal a $20 traffic ticket? Massachusetts’s highest court upheld the state’s $275 fee to appeal traffic tickets as low as $15 (Balko 2014). Laws like these seem to go against our constitutional rights of not being assessed excessive fines or punishment; the punishment must fit the crime. Now that we know that criminalization of poor people does exist, what can there be done to stop it?

Many states are starting to slow down on the criminalization of poverty – for instance, by instructing drug offenders to treatment centers instead of jail, early terminating probation and decreasing the number of individuals locked up for technical violations like missed court appearances (Ehrenreich 2009). This will not only help offenders transition back in the community but also save the state money by decreasing overcrowded prisons or jails. Laws like criminalizing the act of sharing foods with the homeless should be eliminated and underpaying working people for high-productive output needs to come to an end (Ehrenreich 2009). Creating public programs that would realistically alleviate poverty, allowing workers to organize and protest for better wages, and not doing the other things that keep poor people down seems to be the only options to help stop the criminalization of poverty.

Leeman Taylor
Senior Criminal Justice Major at Florida A&M University
Real Estate Investor. Internet Marketer.


  1. Ehrenreich, B. “Is It Now a Crime to Be Poor?” The New York Times 9 August 2009
  2. Gustafson, K. “The Criminalization of Poverty” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Spring 2009
  3. Balko, R. “The Criminalization of Poverty” The Washington Post 23 May 2014