Criminalizing Poverty: America’s War Against the Poor

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

There has, for many years, been a tendency in the US to treat poverty as if it were something like leprosy, a contagious disease that is, something that must be avoided by good and healthy people. In the last few year’s we have seen the rise of anew kind of “war on poverty”.

This war on poverty, unlike LBJ’s war on poverty, which he initiated during his State of the union address in 1964, which was an attempt to follow in the footsteps of such Democratic leaders as FDR and JFK, is not by any means an attempt to lift up the lives of those who are suffering from poverty in the US, but instead is a war that moves in the other direction, which is to say that rather than lifting-up, this war is an attempt to press down on those whose lives are already compromised by the difficulties and hardships that come with one of lifes most stressful and degrading of circumstances, poverty.

Laws recently passed by both conservative and liberal local governments that criminalize panhandling on roadways and in public spaces are an example of their cruel and twisted attempt at addressing this phenomenon that is now affecting some 37.9 million Americans which includes at least 11 million children. According to the latest figures from the Childrens Defense Organization.

These numbers, which they admit are likely lower than the actual number of people living in poverty are likely rising in the aftermath of the covid pandemic with its destabilization of small business all across the country.

Adding to the economic up-set of lock-downs and changing business models that include the loss of jobs due to such things as computerized/mechanized self-check out stands, a continued decline in manufacturing, environmental considerations that have affected industries in the energy sector among others and a middle class that finds itself with less disposable income which in turn threatens artists, food vendors, providers of entertainment, and every other occupation that relies on those who can afford a little extra something from a stop at the ice-cream store to hiring some outside help for around the house or yard.

As if the decline in disposable income due to a lack of job opportunities was not enough to throw the system that once supported one of the most vibrant middle classes in the world, we have run-away inflation that has affected the price of nearly every commodity or service available to the public. The price of housing, health care, all kinds of food, all forms of energy and any service that is provided by our neighbors as they raise their prices in an attempt to stay in business and pay their bills, has gone up and up while wages remain static as the buying power of those wages is reduced to levels that have reduced the buying power of a doller by about 85% making what was in 1971 worth a dollar now worth about 0.15 cents.

With this poverty, homelessness continues to increase year by year while the health of Americans also is declining due to the unaffordability of quality food, health care and stress reducing activities such as vacations and the pursuit of hobbies and activities that give a sense of fulfillment to those that can enjoy them.

Chasing the homeless out of their pitiful camps and laws that prohibit a person from pan-handling in public seem to be some of Americas latest answers to the problem of poverty, as cruel and inhumane of an action that our government could possibly come up with. Smashing camps and destroying the few possessions that the homeless may have somehow gathered is an incredible tactic, one that would better describe a terrible bully or thug than a government bent towards the welfare of its citizens. Likewise, prohibiting a person on the edge of life, from asking for help in this cruel world is on the same level as stealing a poor man’s begging cup.

In one, used to be, fair city that I recently lived in (Asheville N.C.), according to The Asheville Blade, “the city councils’ environment and safety committee chaired by Maggie Ullman saw the members go farther than even city staff and seek to change their noxious “panhandling” ban to criminalize giving money to houseless people from cars, extend the areas covered by the ban and require those in poverty to stay at least 10 feet, rather than the current 6, away from those with money.”

“Asheville’s existing panhandling bans are part of a raft of ways city government uses to send the poor to the deadliest jail in the state for daring to exist in public.”

“Ullman went further, proposing in the Asheville Politics group that anyone giving desperately needed goods or cash to the poor (should) face criminal charges for doing so. Along with an “education program” to tell people that directly helping their neighbors is bad, actually. Better to give the money to non-profit hacks who will talk about the problem while spending it all on their salaries and bonuses.”

This push to criminalize direct charity to those in need is becoming a common ruse to funnel money into established institutions that purport to help the poor while criminalizing a person’s natural inclination to spontaneously give and to help those in need on the spot, at the point of empathetic action.

This directive inhibits a person’s charitable instincts, slows down the transfer of charitable contributions, creates conditions for those receiving the charity and of course siphons off hundreds of thousands of dollars that might have gone to support the most vulnerable among us.

Asheville has also recently been in our national news for destroying homeless camps, in particular an action that happened on Christmas eve where several of the homeless were charged with FELONY littering while also arresting two journalists from the Asheville Blade as they attempted to cover the camp eviction. (

This war on the poor is exactly the kind of response one might expect from a government that has lost all sight of its mandate to provide for the security and general welfare of the people. The poor in this country are treated as collateral damage in a nation that wars against its own citizens.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it would cost $20 billion to end homelessness in the US, which is a mere pittance compared to what is spent in our government’s efforts to destroy people’s lives, both here and abroad.

Ending poverty could be accomplished in many ways including raising the living wage, creating jobs programs in the manner of FDRs New Deal with its Works Progress Administration which would have the added benefit of rebuilding Americas crumbling infrastructure, or LBJs Economic Opportunity Act which expanded the government’s role in providing education, health care and direct welfare to those in need.

We can despise the Clinton administration for doing what it could to throw the poor under the bus by cutting welfare, approving NAFTA, while increasing the US prison population to that of the highest in the world among other abuses. Clinton destroyed the Democrats role in giving assistance to the poor and a number of his right-wing policies are still hindering, in fact are the cause of many of America’s attacks on the working people of America, reducing the middle class to a portion of its former numbers while in that same move creating an atmosphere of antagonism and hate towards those who, because of government mismanagement, couldn’t keep up with changing times. Today’s Democratic party continues along in the image of Clintons cruelty while pretending virtue in identity politics. Even Hillary Clintons and Barack Obamas much discussed health care reforms never came to full fruition while the Biden administration refuses to do anything even slightly helpful. The Republicans and general welfare should not even be uttered in the same sentence except to shame them, if they are at all capable of shame.

There’s an election coming up in 2024 but the general public due to corporate propaganda and fears instilled by the same, might change the course of this governments war against its own people, but considering the outcome of other recent elections, even given the chance of breaking away from this insult of a government with a couple fresh candidates that have a truly Democratic vision for our country, they very well might go right ahead and once again vote away their rights to a better life, voting, whether Republican or Democratic, against their own better interests and instincts.

And we say, “God Bless America”.