RecensionsBook Reviews

Not a Crime to Be Poor. The Criminalization of Poverty in America. By Peter B. Edelman (2019), The New Press, 336 pages. ISBN : 978-1-62097-548-0[Notice]

  • Catherine Glee-Vermande

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  • Catherine Glee-Vermande
    Maître de conférences / Associate professor in OB-HRM
    Directrice du Master Management des Ressources Humaines et Organisation
    iaelyon School of Management, Université Jean Moulin

Published in 2017, just one year after Donald J. Trump was elected, this book examines the social situation of millions of poor people living in the United States. While reading this book I was often confronted with a sense of incredulity with respect to the unfolding “criminalization of poverty” in the United States. Peter Edelman presents an immense amount of data and frames his analysis through the lens of “calamity.” He argues that this calamity is deeply embedded in American society, which is “built on the pillars of racism and antipathy to low-income people.” The portrait Edelman paints is indeed arresting : the reader discovers how the most vulnerable—the ones who should be protected—are systematically trapped by a system that is not only inhumane, but also almost totally ineffective. Nonetheless, the author leaves the reader with some hope when presenting some of the recent reforms and programs that different states have implemented. In his conclusion, he argues that these programs, when combined with collective organization and popular support, may provide a realistic opportunity to “turn back what we allowed to happen. That is what we must do. That is the overarching movement we need now.” Using robust data, the first part of the book demonstrates how and why the system effectively operates to punish poverty. From a historical point of view, it is evident that punishing the poor for being poor is “as old as the Bible.” For example, the English Poor laws of the 16th century were established in order to “control” rather than to help the poor, a perfect illustration of how empathy and compassion for vulnerable people are so often presented as “dangerous” for society. Additionally, in the United States, the mass incarceration of the population can in no small part be linked to those who were some of the first victims of globalization : a consequence of relentless competition and the spread of a neoliberal policy paradigm. When, in the early seventies, economic growth started to slow down, the attitudes toward poverty—which had been reduced from 22.4 % in 1959 to 11.1 % in 1973—started to change. Deindustrialization and the loss of low-wage jobs, the weakening of unions, an increasing number of single-parent families (mainly women in charge of children with frequently low-paying work), and the neoliberalization of politics reinforced by the election of Ronald Reagan—all of these changes created a breeding ground for the criminalization of poverty in America. By reducing public funding, Reagan and subsequent administrations, except the Obama administration, became anchored in an anti-tax revolution, which in turn made things worse : the deterioration if not disappearance of the public education system ; the continued underfunding of public hospitals ; the persistent deterioration of public transit ; the disappearance of affordable housing—all of this, alongside an increasing shift to creation of low-wage jobs, combined to create a system of debtors’ prisons. What Edelman makes clear is that this was a deliberate dismantling operation and was coupled with a rhetoric that stigmatized the “poor” as “super predators,” “profiteers of the social system,” “lazy people,” “dishonest people,” and even as “potential murderers.” Going to the roots of this system, the author demonstrates, with an explicit reference to Robert Kennedy, that the fight against poverty must focus not simply on wealth but also on the higher ideal of justice. Step by step, the author illustrates how the criminalization of poverty works as a dehumanizing system, destroying lives at great cost to the whole of society. Indeed, since the Reagan era, the politics of poverty and racial attitudes have deteriorated. As Edelman notes : “Joined together, poverty …