The Penalization of Poverty in a Class System

Almost all of the British economists of the late 18th century said when you have poverty, when you have a transfer of wealth to the rich, you are going to have shorter life spans. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, countries like the Baltic states and Russia have seen death rates soar and life spans shortened due to worsening conditions after the implementation of neoliberal policies. Who is living longer in Canada and the US? The rich are living longer. The wealthy are living longer. The expansion and glorification of police, the courts, and penitentiary system are a response not to criminal insecurity, but to the social insecurity caused by the casualization of wage labour – the process by which employment is changing from full-time and contract positions to casual positions. How do neoliberals maintain the illusion that their ideology promotes human well-being and freedom for all?

In the second decade of the 21st century we now realize that the Canadian and American middle class has been stripped of jobs, income, and security over the past forty years. We need to replace socioeconomic status with class as the significant structural factor in determining health. These structural changes in society have created a rapidly increasing underclass of the working poor. Social inequalities, such as income, are a consequence of structural change in class power. It is about the rise of business power and the decline in labor power (as part of the era of globalization) along with the attacks of the “new right” on the welfare state – consequently there is a rapid rise in social, income and health inequalities. These changes create increased inequities and insecurity. Class, now an important social determinant of health, needs to be addressed to ensure the social mobility necessary for all individuals have an opportunity to reach their potential.

The increased investment in the penal system is a response to social insecurity, not a reaction to crime trends. The police, the courts, and the prisons have been deployed to contain the consequences of urban dislocation wrought by economic dislocation and underemployment, and to impose the discipline of insecure employment at the bottom of the polarized class structure. These institutions are needed to bend the factions of the post-industrial working class to precarious wage-work, to warehouse their most disruptive and superfluous elements, and to patrol the boundaries of the ‘deserving’ citizenry while reasserting the authority of the state in the restricted domain that it now finds itself. The increasing penalization of poverty is a response to social insecurity; a result of public policy that weds the ‘invisible hand’ of the market to the ‘iron fist’ of the penal state, says Loïc Wacquant.1

The rule of the ‘free market’ and the coming of ‘small government’ captures the ideology of neoliberalism, not its reality. There are two realities. There is the ‘laissez-faire’ attitude towards the corporations and the economic elite. Then there is the fiercely interventionist and authoritarian actions when it comes to dealing with the destructive consequences of economic deregulation for those at the lower end of the class and status spectrum. The imposition of market discipline translates into diffusion of social instability and turbulence among the working class. The stinginess of the welfare system and the munificence of the penal system are linked under the guidance of morals. In the punitive management of poverty, police have a role in regulating and disciplining subjects of the neoliberal state. Neoliberalism requires institutions along with specific tools to support it, among them an enlarged and energetic police and penal institution.

In the 1990s New York City cut taxes, eliminated thousands of city jobs, and significantly decreased funding to the city university system, health system, and the housing support system. The philosophy was that the job of government was to get out of the way. This was accompanied by simultaneously upsizing its police force. Over the 1990s New York City added 6,000 new police officers to its ranks, giving it the most police officers per capita of any of the ten largest cities in the US, and expanded public safety funding by fifty-three per cent. Neoliberals ushered in increasing government intervention around the idea of crime which led to punitive governance of disproportionate marginalized communities – eroding the police’s legitimacy and ultimately making poor people, and people of colour, feel less secure. This supports a punitive state that turns to incarceration as a solution to structural economic inequality and political instability. Basically, the government gets out of the way, except in the penal system.2

Neoliberalism systematically protects white privilege through the colour blind and seductive rhetoric of free enterprise, free markets and common sense. In the US at the time of the welfare cuts of the 1990s, the images of young black male ‘gangsta’ and the ‘welfare queen’ were portrayed as grave threat to the financial recovery. Wacquant considers the tightening of the punitive system as a political response not to rising criminality but to defuse the sense of social insecurity caused by labour deregulation and welfare cuts. Football players in the US taking a knee during the national anthem is a silent protest against racial and social injustice against minorities. Trump’s attack on the NFL is to keep workers distracted from the real causes of economic inequality in order to sustain the status quo. His ‘America first’ anti-globalist, nationalist neoliberal agenda still requires the infrastructure for the punitive management of poverty.

Obamacare was part of the neoliberal restructuring of healthcare in America. Its structure was dictated by the perceived political need to change the existing coverage and challenge entrenched interests as little as possible. However, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with its tax-funded subsidies remained a significant challenge to neoliberals. The latest Republican proposal to undo the ACA would grant states much greater flexibility and all but guarantee much greater uncertainty for tens of millions of people. Such legislation would roll back popular consumer protections in the ACA, leaving each state to decide what minimum benefits must be covered or if customers with pre-existing illnesses should be protected from higher prices. The changes would reduce the amount of federal funding for coverage over the next decade, which would guarantee death rates soar and life spans of the working class shortened due to reduced affordable health care options after the implementation.

In 2005, an early apologist for globalization, Tom Friedman declared, “the world is flat.” He was suggesting that technology was a great leveling force that would soon topple all the old political and economic oligarchies, and give more people more chances to reach their potential. In the past twelve years Canada and the US have grown more economically stratified and politically corrupt, and have fewer well-paying jobs. Globalization is the spread of the economic system of capitalism. Neoliberalism is the main driver of globalization – the economic elite claim laissez-faire capitalism promotes human well-being, economic efficiency, and personal freedom. This implies that the state should assume a highly minimal and purely regulatory form and should refrain from most forms of economic intervention, even in the face of market mechanisms leading to reduced economic efficiency. Under national neoliberalism, the goal to wholly deregulate the global market society is not possible.

Real life is nothing like the neoliberal narrative. Support for neoliberalism comes from enabling the myths of privatization, deregulation, and retrenchment of the welfare state. The 2016 election was all about jobs and growth and a belief that tax cuts and reducing government spending is the way to achieve both. Neoliberal myths constrain our understanding of poverty. The neoliberal narrative has run into some inconvenient facts: The 2008 global economic crisis might suggest that the neoliberal promise – that markets can self-regulate and deliver sustained prosperity for all – was a lie. The oligarchs ensure the public conversation is mired in misinformation. The Great Depression taught us that without government intervention, capitalism is inherently unstable and prone to delivering lengthy periods of unemployment. Rather than a failure of the system to create enough jobs, an idea that underpinned the New Deal consensus, mass unemployment is now depicted as an individual problem – poor work attitudes leading to a lack of job-seeking – exacerbated by excessively generous welfare payments.

While many believe they have special access to the truth, the reality is that we all see the world not as it is, but as we want it to be. The Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels said, “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” The ‘free marketplace’ is a grand illusion for those in power to promote to justify dominance over those who are less privileged. Of course, it is based on greed being a virtue, relying on a system to harness the selfishness of people and direct it to public good, thus freeing itself from the need to depend unrealistically upon the uncertain moral virtues of its participants. Neoliberal economics is a sleight-of-hand maneuver to convince the electorate that tax cuts were really in the interest of the middle class, not simply the superrich, because the cuts more than paid for themselves. Incarceration and the penalization of poverty must be rejected as a solution to structural economic inequality and political gridlock. We must walk through the doors of illusion and stand firm, spreading the new awareness and reinforcing and supporting thoughts and actions that affirm our humanity, and work for a better future.

1 Wacquant, Loïc. (1 Aug 2011) The Punitive Regulation of Poverty in the Neoliberal Age

2 Kaplan-Lyman, Jeremy. (18 Feb 2014) A Punitive Bind: Policing, Poverty, and Neoliberalism in New York City.

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