Criminal Justice and Poverty–The Disturbing Connection

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Notice the dramatic increase in the 1980’s pictured in this graph from Wikipedia.

It’s alarming and ironic that in America, the land of the free, we have the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth. Overcrowded prisons hold 2.3 million people- a number so big it rivals that of 92 countries in the world! 60% of the prisoners are of a racial or ethnic minority. More than 1/3 are Black.

Why are there so many prisoners?  One reason for these prisoners are mandatory sentencing laws, enacted throughout the 1980’s such as “three strikes” you’re out, which drive people to prison in numbers unlike any other time in our history. America is tougher on crime and defines criminal activity loosely now and unevenly state to state. For example,  80% of increased prison sentences in the 90’s were for non violent possesion of marijuana. Yes, marijuana. In my city, police look the other way for minor possession of this drug but in other states it means prison time. A 2010 Pennsylvania commentary contends that non violent offences there, such as shoplifting, drunk driving, and juvenile crime were being sent to prison more often than they were sent to treatment programs.

How do these sentences relate to poverty? The majority of former prisoners, stripped of voting rights, food stamp access, public housing eligibility and many other basic rights and services, experience a 40% reduction in lifetime wages and constantly fight unemployment. According to a 2010 study by Harvard professor, Bruce Western, only 1 in 4 former prisoners will escape poverty. This in turn has heavy impact on the children in a prisoner’s family and is a cause of generational poverty.

Legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, summed up the impact that “justice” now has on America, on African American people, and on poverty in a January 2012 interview with Democracy Now, “I think we’ve become blind in this country to the ways in which we’ve managed to reinvent a caste-like system here in the United States, one that functions in a manner that is as oppressive, in many respects, as the one that existed in South Africa under apartheid and that existed under Jim Crow here in the United States,” she begins. “Although our rules and laws are now officially colorblind, they operate to discriminate in a grossly disproportionate fashion…millions of poor people, overwhelmingly poor people of color, have been swept into our nation’s prisons and jails, branded criminals and felons, primarily for nonviolent and drug-related crimes…[and] are ushered into a permanent second-class status, where they’re stripped of the many rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement…”  Please consider reading the transcript of Alexander’s 2012 Democracy Now interview. She discusses the problem in greater depth and describes how her life evolved from legal scholar into her role as an advocate.

Justice is blind. Let’s tell her what actions are being taken in her name. Prisons have evolved from institutions built solely to ensure public safety into industries profiting from social injustice. They represent America’s tragedy; wasted lives and minds and failure to address the needs of minorities and poor people.  There is a proper role for correctional imprisonment and rehabilitation of criminals but, today, we also need to rehabilitate our justice system which is dramtically out of balance and no longer solely functioning to protect society. It has become a root cause of generational poverty and a primary reason for higher poverty rates in communities of color.

Poverty, The Global Picture

March 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Miss our posts? Ruurbanpoor took a holiday and researched poverty in urban centers around the world which we’ll be sharing in future blog posts. Knowing the damaging impact in America when poverty increased to 15% of the population it was disturbing to see the even greater numbers of poor in other countries around the world. In sub-Saharan Africa almost 50% of the population are poor–very poor. In South America the average is 33% with countries like Paraguay significantly exceeding that number. Mexico and Central America’s poor average 47% of the population.

With urbanization trending up all around the world in part because of worsening conditions in the countrysides and increasing mechanization which creates less work in agriculturally based economies, slum populations have the potential to rise to 2 billion in coming years. Nearly 1 billion live in slums now. 1 billion out of the 7 billion people in our world today!

UN HABITAT reports encouragement in the State of the World’s Cities report 2010-2011, that several million people moved out of slums in the last decade however overall slum populations are increasing. A slum is an area of land in the city that has been settled by people who don’t own the land. The city views the settlements as illegal for that reason and, in most cases, refuses basic city services such as water, sewage facilities, heat, and, of course, education. Slum populations can exceed 1 million people.

Ending Poverty and Hunger is a United Nations Millenial Development Goal. One would hope it will become a goal in the United States as well. Inequality in America is given special attention in the State of the World’s Cities report. Using a measure of equality called the Gini Coefficient* (0 being a society of financial equality and 1 being a totally unequal society)  the report notes that 40 U.S. cities have coefficients greater than .5 and America has more cities measuring high inequality then any other wealthy country.

The Gini Coefficient is most commonly used to determine a society’s economic fairness.  The most unequal cities in America are: Atlanta, New York City, Washington, D.C., Forth Lauderdale and Miami.

Golden Years Dim For Growing Numbers Of Aging Poor

January 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

If you’re poor or ever have been you know that costs others may take for granted loom and finding aid takes time, patience, and good searching skills. Many places that help require quick action and personal appearances for intake interviews. It’s a challenge for most people but for those with physical limitations, problems with memory or no transportation it’s daunting and aid can go unfound and unclaimed. That’s part of why late 2011 news announcing that 1 in 6 seniors may be poor is so troublesome. How many of those elders aren’t finding advocates who can help? I hate to imagine.

Any senior who faces the hardships of poverty is a tragedy. Old age has many natural hardships and poverty just compounds an already challenging stage of life. Prior to new Census analysis, using the Supplemental Poverty Measure, it was believed that 9% of the senior population lived that tragedy. But the more sophisticated analysis that takes into account things like the cost of medicine found that nearly 16% of our older population are struggling at the poverty line.  

“My health insurance has asked for a raise. I am having $313.00 taken out of my Social Security check now. When you take that away from $900.00 you don’t have much to pay for the rent,” writes a woman in Maryland. “I’m on Social Security disability and I am raising two grandchildren. I don’t have custody of them and I draw no extra money for help. We are living from one pay check to paycheck and still do without,” writes another. They’re two of more than 4,000 elders who contributed their story of economic hardship at One Away in order to help Congress understand financial crisis in old age and the necessity of financial supports.

Struggling seniors are members of America’s invisible community so you may not realize that, in 2010, 3.5 million lived BELOW the poverty line. Feeding America found that even if there was some money to buy food older people often had trouble accessing groceries because of health and transportation problems. Older people also have SNAP (food stamps) cards less often even though they meet eligibility criteria.

Add homelessness to the list of woes in old age. Jobs, houses, and retirement savings lost in the recession are hard to overcome in later years. Though homelessness hasn’t historically been an aging issue The National Alliance to End Homelessness anticipates a 33% rise in aging people without homes between 2010 and 2020 caused by pressures such as: financial collapse, job loss, mental health challenges, discontinued or inadequate public assistance, relationship problems, physical problems and illness or disagreements with family or friends offering shelter.

Streetlife isn’t meant for anyone but it’s especially hard on elders. In San Diego county in 2009 25% of the transitional housing population were 51+ and 28% of the local emergency shelters were over 51.   Homeless advocates view 50 as old in terms of homelessness. Many people living on the street don’t reach 62 and living outside will progress aging significantly.

Life is not getting easier or mellower for a shockingly significant percent of the aging population.You can help by contacting elected officials about saving benefits for older people and protecting Medicare and Social Security which are often the only sources of income and health protection people have. Take good care of parents, grandparents and aging relatives. If your neighbor is aging check in occasionally to see what may be needed. Aging isn’t easy. Aging with worry and financial stress is hard. Your care and support won’t solve poverty but can make someone’s life more tolerable.

Ruurbanpoor Looks Back at 2011

December 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

Google “urban poverty” and you’ll probably get a list of poverty news about other countries. That symbolizes how little we know or talk about poverty in America and how seldom people in poverty narrate their own experience. This blog, launched in 2011, joins other efforts in pushing for new awareness and the civic engagement of people living poor and low income lifestyles.

2011 signalled greater media coverage of movements promoting awareness of economic inequality:

  • Tavis Smiley and Cornel West launched their Poverty Tour broadcasting stories from 19 locations and promoting poverty action.
  • Occupy Wall Street united people across the nation in focusing on broad issues of economic inequality.
  • A revitilized Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign pushed for the creation of Land Trusts and staged a summer march and action plan. Democracy Now covered their work however, unlike the events above, it doesn’t appear that they broke through broadly to mainline media.

2011 produced shocking statistics and sad realities

  • New census analysis revealed the full extent of post recession poverty levels. Income levels dipped to that of the mid nineties and poverty jumped to historic proportions. The New York Times dubbed it a signal of a “Lost Decade.”
  • 1 in 8 Americans experienced hunger and food banks strained to meet needs. 1 in 4 families with children had difficulty getting food and hunger among our elders increased 80% over levels in 2001.
  • 45,000 people died in America in 2011 because they didn’ t have health care. More than 16% live without healthcare insurance now.
  • 1 in every 3 working families lost ground earning only low income wages and pushing them into the houses of relatives, into their cars and onto our streets.

Discussion about how to measure poverty and economic insecurity ramped up in 2011. The Census’ Supplemental Poverty Measure reported 16% of America at the SPM poverty line. That’s more than officially measured. The Supplemental Poverty Measure isn’t official yet and won’t be impacting who receives assistance but the fact that it’s analysis was publically reported this year indicates it may become official at some point and will certainly alter our concept of who and how many live in poverty.

State budget crises impacted a broad range of social services that had been helping people living poor and low income lifestyles. New York Human Services Coalition termed the onslaught of cuts to services during and after the recession “dismantling.”

President Obama put forward three major anti poverty programs: Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods and Byrne Criminal Justice Initiative. Promise Neighborhood funding survived vicious budget negotiations but at much less than Obama allocated. Similarly Choice Neighborhoods was funded but at half the cost allocated by the President.

That’s the major news from 2011. As numbers of poor and low imcome people continue to grow and services to help suffer setbacks this blogger anticipates movements for change will gather greater momentum. Stay tuned for another year of reports from low income, poor and homeless authors on issues affecting their lives.

Ode To Kuma Coffee House by Aaron Crosetto

December 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

A stoneway siren’s song for dusty travellers
It welcomes you
it beckons to broken shards of city bards
of workers hard and busriders sore with fare to settle
gathering, collecting like weathered leaves
with long stories to tell;
it brings up people we forgot about,
or never knew ’til now.
Ruminating over glaze of jam
laughing and lamenting crimes of Uncle Sam,
Swilling earthen bean in a tongue of war
over salty work politic–
all comers take the artist’s brush and knife
and embrace the lust of countryside
where city scapes whisper of old trolls and moldy souls
whose ghosts still linger in our doorways.

Where is a musician’s swarthy soul when you need one?
but at a coffee house.

Dipping into soup pots, a carrot stock bringing fiber
to customer’s spiritual sustenance,
a celery circumstance, a donut hole we not yet know,
a toasted cheese–an exhorted salty sentence to please!
a pearful of ginger in a muffin
to trounce your savory tongue.

Truck drivers, merchants and social workers
cutting each other off to see smoky wafts of rising steam
from the holy brew of Kuma Coffee.
It welcomes you.
It beckons to broken shards of holy bards
in all of us.
Think twice next time you ride nearby on city bus.

Kuma Coffee is located in Seattle

Somethin’s Happenin’ Here by Manny Frishberg

November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

You can almost hear the ringing tone of Stephen Still’s guitar out at Seattle’s Westlake Plaza, the original site for this city’s venture into Massively Multiplayer On-street Rebellion Games known as the Occupy movement. I feel the buzzing undertow of excitement at creating something entirely new and unexpected – the blindingly mad hope that we can actually leverage some changes this time, that we won’t get fooled again.

This is not my first rodeo, you see. I’ve been up and down on this merry-go-round horse before. More than once. It always starts like this, fresh with the flush of exhilaration at discovering that each of us is not alone after all. We are united, proud, big.

We are the 99 percent – that means there’s a lot of us. And we’re getting a lot of attention. So far, so good.

Okay, so sometimes it’s hard to pin down exactly what’s the point, well, that’s one of the strengths of the movement, if no one’s in charge than all the concerns of all 99 percent of us is what we’re for (or at least, some of us are – we can’t talk for everyone).

Still, even with the intended power vacuum in place, a certain consensus view of what we are protesting and what we are for has been coalescing. We are upset by the sense that the social deck is stacked in favor of the small sliver of the populace who take in the overwhelming bulk of the nation’s (and the world’s) riches. We are the 99 percent! That means we see millionaires becoming billionaires while middle class neighborhoods turn into ghost towns.

Back in the day, the revolution was not being televised. This time around it’s being tweeted, face-to-facebooked, live-streamed over the internationally ubiquitous Internet. We speak through a “human microphone”, the very antithesis of the brave, new techno world we want to embrace. All politics are local; the best are face-to-face.

The question, from the beginning, has been, “What do you do for an encore?” Deciding that the occupation is the purpose is one potential pitfall – already cities from Oakland to Atlanta are focusing attention on the campsites. But a naïve attachment to a place, making a stand on the (not really very) defensible position that since we are the people, we have a right to pitch our tents wherever will get us the most attention – it says so in the Constitution. (Except it doesn’t.)

A remarkable feature of the Occupy movement is its sponge-like quality – and I mean that in a good way. Sea sponges are made up of free-swimming cells that form into a loosely patterned organism, internal parts forming as needed. The Occupy movements have spontaneously generated interest and action-oriented groups, from medical and supply to media, tactics and arts and entertainment. Occupiers in other cities write out their position papers and they circulate freely through the cloud.

Another striking thing, for an old grizzled activist inclined toward telling war stories, is how widespread the support appears to be. Men and women in business suits drop off supplies and donations on their way to work in the office towers that are the ostensible targets of the demonstrations. Commuters honk as they drive past. In just a month, pluralities in every part of the country are inclined to look at the Occupiers favorably. The unions were among the earliest supporters of the Occupy movement. Even the cops themselves are not unsympathetic, not all of them. Not all the time.

So I claim the right to experience a shiver of excitement, a thrill of wonder to go along with the familiar déjà vu. The been-there, done-that, made-bail, got-the-t-shirt. Time to get my hopes up, one more time. (Then we’ll get on our knees and pray: We won’t get fooled again!)

Uninsured America Nearing Majority in Many Communities

October 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Greece and it’s debt woes moved the stock market, Iraq and our involvement was on the news every day yet the populations of those two countries added together are smaller than the number of uninsured in the USA in 2010.  That number, 49.9 million and 16.3% , climbed in the opening decade of the 21st century. What impact is that having on our society and our communites and why aren’t we doing more to treat the uninsured?

The consequences of an uninsured epidemic are every bit as grave as war. Tragically, high numbers of uninsured increase mortality. New studies from Harvard Medical School show that someone dies from lack of health insurance every 12 minutes. Nearly 45,000 people die in America each year because they didn’t have enough money to see their family doctor for a preventable or treatable condition.  Our county’s infant mortality rate is an abysmal 27th among 30 industrialized countries in part because more than 800,000 pregnant women are uninsured.

The number of uninsureds unable to afford basic healthcare and prescribed drugs is reaching a majority in our communities. 45% of single mothers reported not going to the doctor when they needed to and 43% didn’t fill a prescription. 39% of Hispanic women didn’t go to the doctor as needed, 32% of all Black men hadn’t filled a needed prescription, 52% of the unemployed skipped seeing a doctor when they had to, and 47% of unemployed men were struggling to pay a medical bill. In fact, high percentages of all the above respondents profiled in Women and Men Living on the Edge: Economic Insecurity after the Great Depression were having trouble paying medical bills.

Healthcare is expensive but the cost of not providing healthcare is human lives. As our country withdraws from the long years fighting in Iraq I call for new daily headlines;  stories about the lives we can and are saving in America by solving healthcare inequities. Please join me. We don’t need medical specialists to heal our communities we need to come together and insist on change.

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