Exploring the Systematic Criminalization of Poverty in the United States Through Criminological Theory
The American Dream, a foundational idea engrained in United States history, emphasizes the concept of money equating to freedom. This pervasive cultural narrative celebrates the idea of upward social mobility through hard work and individual achievement. This phenomenon has been widely discussed by criminologists and scholars alike, who argue that the American Dream reflects a broader trend toward criminalizing social problems and exacerbating inequality in American society. The reality of the inherent inequality in the United States, generated by decades of unchecked and imbalanced institutions, allows individuals and communities to be systematically excluded from actualizing this dream. This criminalization of poverty serves to reinforce existing social hierarchies and perpetuate the inequality that drives American structures. Furthermore, by framing poverty as a personal failing, it absolves the state of its responsibility to address the imbalance, and instead, places blame on the individuals and communities. Ultimately, the criminalization of poverty is a manifestation of the very principles that the American Dream is based upon.
As a result of the very real implications of this dream, criminologists throughout time have worked to understand the criminalization of poverty through various theoretical lenses. In this article, four critical perspectives of criminology will be utilized to explore this epidemic: social disorganization theory, labeling theory, Marxist criminology, and feminist criminology. Each of these perspectives provides insight into the causes of poverty, crime relative to social class, and the criminal implications of poverty that are so widely criminalized. These ideas, when applied to American society, allow for the critical assessment of the current economic, political, and social structures in place, and how these structures aid and abed the cyclical nature of an imbalanced and unjust society that feeds into the facade of the American Dream.
Social Disorganization and Poverty
Introduced by Shaw and McKay of The Chicago School in 1942, the social disorganization theory suggests that areas with weak social institutions and disorganized communities facilitate more crime and deviance than those with better structure. This theory argues that anti-social behaviors and social disorganization lead to increased crime rates, as inhabitants of impoverished communities lack access to the essential means of obtaining wealth, such as education and employment. Shaw and Mckay analyzed neighborhood effects in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, taking note of what imperative structures lacked in the area and how that correlated to high rates of crime and victimization. These patterns noted from this research conducted 100 years ago, can still be seen in today’s American society. Individuals living in poverty are disproportionately criminalized for their behaviors, such as loitering, panhandling, and sleeping on public property, despite these behaviors being reactions to their lack of resources and social structure. Rather than creating avenues for individuals and communities to overcome the unstable nature of their environment, the state enables such behavior through stricter policies and incarceration Therefore, this criminalization then perpetuates the cycle of poverty, as individuals with criminal records often struggle to find employment and housing, further limiting their access to resources.
A key example of this perpetuation of social disorganization is through anti-homeless movements instilled by governing bodies to cater to the upper-middle class ideals and aesthetic demands. An article from The Hill, titled "New York City to Crack Down on Homeless Encampments," highlights the criminalization of poverty in New York City in the form of anti-homeless movements. The article discusses a new policy aimed at dismantling homeless encampments and dispersing individuals experiencing homelessness throughout the city, thus perpetuating the social disorganization of the homeless population in New York City, and further limiting resources and aid. While the policy is presented as a public health and safety measure, it simultaneously criminalizes homelessness, a symptom of poverty, by penalizing individuals for sleeping in public spaces. The article notes that "To clear out encampments in his city, Adams told the Times his administration would conduct an analysis ‘block-by-block’ to identify the encampments before executing ‘a plan to give services to the people who are in the encampments, then to dismantle those encampments’” (Dress, 2022). This policy can be analyzed from the perspective of social disorganization theory, as it reflects a lack of effective social institutions and resources to support individuals experiencing homelessness, and the continued installation of counterproductive methods that appease the upper class. Rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness, such as unemployment, financial instability, and inadequate housing, this policy focuses on punitive measures that only further the cycle of poverty, social disorganization, incarceration, and victimization. It is unclear exactly what services will be administered, and where these people will be sent. When applied to the criminalization of poverty, social disorganization theory highlights that poverty itself is not the root cause of criminal activity, but rather the social disorganization and lack of community ties that often accompanies it. Individuals living in poverty are more likely to engage in criminal activity when they lack access to effective social support systems and are only met with counterproductive institutional measures instead. Anti-homeless regimen is only one way in which the government allows for the continuance of social disorganization, therefore encouraging the criminalization of poverty. As Americans in poverty, being told to follow the American Dream, but having no resources or communal motivations to do so, only further instills the lack of community and disorganization that Shaw and Mckay describe.
The Shackles of Labeling
Becker’s labeling theory (1963), as part of the social process school, emphasizes the role of social stigmatization in shaping criminal behavior and the criminal justice system. Becker argues that individuals who are labeled as deviant or criminal based on their characteristics are more likely to engage in further criminal behavior. Additionally, the theory insists that the criminal justice system often perpetuates this stigmatization through its practices, policies, and patterns. In this way, labeling theory would argue that the criminalization of poverty is not just a result of economic inequality, but also a product of the society and criminal justice system's labeling and stigmatization of those who are impoverished. Becker argues that deviance is not an inherent trait of humanity, but rather a response to the social determinants of an action as good or bad, right or wrong, deviant or just. In this way, everything is subjective, it is simply the social structure and ideology that upholds what is decided as right or wrong, and then the response to such a decision. The American Dream is widely accepted and desired, though only based on the subjective idea that money is freedom and hard work is the good, right, and just way to be a happy American. With this in mind, the United States criminal justice system can easily criminalize poverty, as it directly opposes their idealistic principles of what defines success. As a result, people living in poverty can internalize these negative labels and instill a sense of failure, becoming more likely to engage in criminal behavior as a result.
Of the many labels created and emphasized by the criminal justice system, many are aimed at low-income communities and impoverished individuals. As a result of a lack of funds and a need for resources, shoplifting is a common activity. Despite shoplifters showing clear need and desperation, they are labeled criminals and repeatedly incarcerated. In a New York Times article titled “Undeterred Criminals Plus Demoralized Cops Equals More Crime”, author Bret Stephens offers his opinion on why criminality is so prevalent in impoverished areas, and it is not socioeconomic inequality and distress. Stephens notes that law enforcement officials are too lax with their arrests, allowing for the “criminally inclined” to repeatedly commit petty crimes like shoplifting. Evidently, petty crimes are more commonly committed and reprimanded in low-class communities, so here, Stephens is subliminally targeting impoverished persons and insisting they receive even more government punishment. It is very clear the label in which he employs as he notes “bad guys and brave cops” are the crux of the social unrest in places like Chicago and New York City, coincidentally two locations with high poverty rates. Stephens then adds “And the consequence of supposedly ‘victimless’ crimes like shoplifting has created a palpable sense of disorder, menace, and fear — each conducive to the anything-goes atmosphere in which crime invariably flourishes” (Stephens, 2023). In this case, the criminal justice system's practices perpetuate the labeling and stigmatization of individuals by media influences like Stephens, who blame those who are struggling with poverty and financial instability, making it harder for them to break out of this cycle and achieve financial stability. In addition, increasing incarceration of the “criminally inclined” shoplifters creates even more of a stigma around petty crime, therefore making it harder to move forward, get an education, or secure a job that would allow them to escape poverty. According to Becker, those who are incarcerated are now more inclined to future criminal behavior as a result of their label and now will continue to struggle in poverty and use illegal methods to obtain money and resources. Ultimately, the labeling theory can be used to conclude that the criminalization of poverty through societal and institutional labeling of impoverished individuals and groups of people as criminals or potential offenders perpetuates a cycle of poverty and criminality that can be difficult to break, making the American Dream inaccessible to most.
Marxist Criminology in the 21st Century
Marxist criminology is a school of thought inspired by the works of Karl Marx that took a rise in the 1970s as criminologists began to analyze the booming crime rates in relation to evident capitalistic functions in society. The Marxist criminology perspective views crime as a product of the economic and social structures of society, arguing that capitalist societies create conditions that lead to inequality and exploitation, which can contribute to criminal behavior. Individuals who are marginalized and excluded from society are more likely to turn to criminality and illegal means as a result of their economic and social circumstances, which lack resources and stability. The criminalization of poverty can be understood through a Marxist criminology lens as a means of controlling and punishing those who lack access to economic resources and are therefore seen as a threat to the status quo. Impoverished communities and their members are disproportionately targeted, convicted, and incarcerated for using illegal means to get necessary resources like shelter and food, while those who engage in white-collar crime or other forms of corporate wrongdoing often go unpunished. The bourgeois creates and enforces laws limiting the mobility of the lower class, utilizing that power as a means of justification for the criminalization of poverty as the vulnerable impoverished are easy targets.
Marxist criminology emphasizes the instilled value of social class in a capitalist society like the United States. American culture as aforementioned, supports the idea of climbing the social ladder, meaning those who do not are subjected to exploitation or deviant behavior in order to get resources. In recent years, upper-middle-class citizens and elitist politicians have become outspoken on their distaste for discount or dollar stores like Dollar General and Dollar Tree. Several state representatives have actively worked to prevent the opening of these discount stores in their districts, noting that they decrease value and “support poverty”. This motion to eliminate accessible and affordable options for those who cannot afford Walmart and Shoprite prices actively targets low-income households and impoverished communities. These elitist idealists frame the initiative as caring for their underprivileged neighbors, saying that discount stores do not provide them with the proper nutrients and are unfair. An analysis in the Washington Post article “The Ongoing Criminalization of Poverty” emphasizes the general ignorance of the complaints, noting that “For people with cars, free time, and disposable income, ‘just drive two miles to the grocery store’ may seem like benign advice. But for people just getting by, it’s dismissive of their real challenges” (Balko, 2018). Seeing these initiatives rise nationally highlights the ignorance of the bourgeois, as well as counterproductive memos that prioritize aesthetic and upper-class ideals over the security and stability of those who can only afford dollar-store essentials. As punishment for the “demeaning” qualities of poverty, elitists are able to actively have a say in accessibility to basic human needs and further instill their power as a social class. In this way, impoverished communities are targeted and criminalized, which then can perpetuate petty crime due to a lack of basic resources. Marxist criminologists would evidently argue that social class dictates freedom, and the bourgeois actively pursues power through the domination and elimination of resources and opportunity for the lower class, thus allowing for exploitation in labor and other facets that boost the capitalist regime.
Feminist Approach to the Poverty Epidemic
Feminist criminology, originating from the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, is a school of thought that examines the ways in which gender inequality contributes to the creation and enforcement of criminal law. Feminist criminologists argue that the criminal justice system is not neutral, but rather reflects patriarchal norms and values that promote the American Dream to predominately cis-gendered, rich, white men. From this perspective, the criminalization of poverty can be seen as a result of the ways in which poverty intersects with gender, race, and other identities to create inequalities and unrest. It is vital in this approach to assess the social and cultural contexts in which crime occurs, and the ways in which gender norms and expectations contribute to criminal behavior and punishment. The criminalization of poverty in the United States is rooted in gendered power dynamics, American cultural norms, and stigmatization of minority communities that allow for their continued criminalization and victimization. Alongside the gendered functions within American society, intersectionality plays a key role in one’s individual experience and navigation of the criminal justice system. The system in place caters to its creators, powerful white men, and with that subjects marginalized communities who do not fit that description to minimal resources and lack of security.
It is commonly known that the wage gap in America is a hot topic that quite often is disregarded by political figures and the upper-middle class. With lower wages comes less opportunity and financial restriction. The United States Census concluded in a 2018 analysis that 56% of homeless persons were women. In addition, a majority of those women were people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. The current system is not geared in favor of marginalized groups, and in fact, actively works against them through anti-abortion policies, limited healthcare services under insurance, and access to public social assistance. Abortion right, specifically, have been a recent figure in American legislation, as the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade sparks increased damage in the low-class community. As a form of healthcare, abortion is not accessible to all women already due to the cost and limited insurance coverage. Due to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, now abortions in 26 states have become even more inaccessible and even criminal. Women with the resources to travel to another state and get an abortion see this as a great injustice, yet fail to recognize what this initiative means for those who cannot afford to travel across state lines and pay for an out-of-pocket procedure. Aside from the evident target against women socially, this act by the American government is an economic attack as well. CNN details the compounded hardships women in America now face in their article “Women Living in States with Abortion Bans Suffer Greater Economic Insecurity”, explaining how already impoverished women are now met with a plethora of new issues due to forced pregnancies, such as unemployment, healthcare costs, and lack of mobility. Author Vanessa Yurkevich summarizes this idea, stating, “The rate of incarceration in states with restrictive or total bans on abortion is more than one and a half times higher than the rate of incarceration for states with abortion protections. It’s very much a racial justice issue because Black and Hispanic women are very disproportionately incarcerated. And that has huge economic impacts on future earnings and the ability to get a job” (Yurkevich, 2023). In this way, it is very evident that the banning of abortion not only attacks impoverished women and women of color, it reflects statistically through incarceration and crime rates. The criminalization of poverty through abortion bans is only one of many ways marginalized groups are targeted by laws based on characteristics and identities. Feminist criminology actively seeks to asses instances like these, and emphasize how poverty is criminalized through the usage of impoverishment as an identity in society, as well as through the blatant narratives created against women, people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, and so on. Persons who are living in poverty are often subjected to intersecting forms of oppression based on their gender, race, and socioeconomic status, to which the United States government imposes upon their rights and criminalizes their existence.
As a result of the obvious issue of poverty criminalization in the United States, it is essential to utilize multiple criminological frameworks to assess the condition of the country and understand the cause. Despite the varying explanations for poverty, exploitation, and incarceration through each of the schools of thought, all perspectives effectively outline the many ways in which the current system is geared toward the oppression and criminalization of the poor for social and economic profit. The American government benefits from this oppression, and allows for leaders to infringe upon the rights of the lower class and effectively monopolize their vulnerability. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and many of those incarcerated are poor and marginalized individuals who have been targeted for survival-based behaviors deemed as criminal. The criminal justice system has become a key tool for managing poverty, with many states and agencies implementing harsh laws and policies that profit off of individuals who are homeless, unemployed, and living in poverty. It is with this information that reform can be worked toward ensuring safety and creating an American Dream that is accessible to all.
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