Poverty Is Not a Crime

“It is no crime — no statutory crime, at least, to be poor. But yet, poor people are subject to having income, their food and shelter taken away by a simple administrative decision by welfare officials. And that comes pretty close to a criminal sentence in severity.”
Sargent Shriver | Cincinnati, OH| April 27, 1967

Our Quote of the Week highlights the fact that poverty is not a crime — a reality that our justice and other systems continue to ignore.

In the 1967 Address to the Cincinnati Bar Association, Sargent Shriver shares the positive aspects of Legal Services, the program of the War on Poverty that provides free legal representation to low-income communities. He makes the point that giving every citizen access to a lawyer has benefits for both citizens and attorneys. He expounds the benefits of a just system, one that all citizens can trust, and one that allows all citizens to seek justice. He also shrewdly addresses attorneys’ economic fear that Legal Services could take away business from law firms, noting that Legal Services clients would bring new cases to the system that would require fee-paying clients to engage attorneys, as well. For example, if a Legal Services client who couldn’t previously afford legal representation brought a negligent landlord to court, the landlord would need an attorney, generating more for-profit business.

In this context, Shriver makes the point that poverty is by no means a crime, but that in various ways our society treats people dealing with poverty as criminals, punishing them for not having the means to pay for their possessions or housing. “For reasons like these,” Shriver says, “the law has long been looked upon as the enemy of the poor.”

One noteworthy point that Shriver makes is that giving citizens access to justice would give them a greater sense of trust in our systems, which would, in the end, make for a safer society:

“Nothing is more likely to stimulate rioting in the streets than the belief that the courts and the law and the police are unfair; nothing is more likely to kill the desire to riot than the belief that the legal system is fair and just. The more confidence people have in the legal system, the less compulsion they feel to destroy the world around them.”

By saying these words, Shriver acknowledges that a significant cause of violence is an unjust legal system. It stands to reason, therefore, that creating a legal system that administers true justice for all would make for a more peaceful society.

Unfortunately, the practice of criminalizing poverty has gotten worse since Sargent Shriver spoke these words. Just this week, the US Supreme Court heard the case of City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, which could result in banning unhoused persons from sleeping outside. (Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that an outdoor sleeping ban amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” under the 8th Amendment.) This case could have repercussions nationwide, as many communities struggle with high numbers of unhoused citizens. While there are no easy solutions to the housing crisis, criminalizing homelessness is not the answer. As Sargent Shriver reasoned, if we want to create a more prosperous, secure society, we must ensure that our systems are more just and provide greater opportunity for all, particularly for those struggling economically.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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