Living in poverty is punishment itself

Richard Garside
Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Speech given to the ‘Is it a crime to be poor’ online event, hosted by the University of Birmingham on behalf of the Is it a crime to be poor? alliance

I start with an observation made in 1867 by Karl Marx, towards the end of volume 1 of Capital:

The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as ‘voluntary’ criminals, and assumed that it was entirely within their powers to go on working under the old conditions which in fact no longer existed

The “fathers of the present working class” Marx refers to in this passage were the rural peasantry. Their “enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers” was their expulsion from the land, from the late fifteenth century on, in the face of the emerging agricultural system based on capitalist, rather than feudal, principles. Their descendants were to make up the emergent manufacturing and industrial working class.

The penalties for poverty faced by the dispossessed peasantry during the formative period of the capitalist mode of production – flogging, branding, mutilation, slavery, execution – were brutal by our standards. Today’s penalties are far less severe: fines, community penalties, imprisonment. Yet the connection between certain forms of criminalisation and poverty continue to run deep.

Five or six years ago, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies looked in detail at the relationship between poverty and imprisonment. Our study formed part of a wider piece of work for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, looking at the relationship between poverty and institutional settings, including prisons, immigration detention, psychiatric detention, and local authority care for children.

Here are some of the things we found:

  • In one study, only one third of prisoners reported being in paid employment prior to imprisonment, with gross weekly pay only around half the national average.
  • In another study, only around one in ten prisoners were in P45 employment in the month prior to imprisonment, with half claiming out-of-work benefits.
  • Prisoners on release, if they found work at all, often faced years of lower wages than the national average, in many cases working in the informal and gig economies.

Is it a crime to be poor? Taken at face value, the answer is surely ‘no’.

The poor certainly get criminalised, and at rates greater than the rich. As the title of one book, famous within criminological circles, puts it: The rich get richer and the poor get prison.

But saying that those living in poverty face a greater likelihood of criminalisation and punishment than the rich is not the same as saying that being poor is, of itself, a crime.

The dispossessed peasantry Marx wrote about were, to use his phrase, treated by legislation “as ‘voluntary’ criminals”. It was assumed, he wrote, “that it was entirely within their powers to go on working under the old conditions which in fact no longer existed”.

In the examples in the briefing our alliance has produced, those prosecuted for council tax or TV licence non-payment are likewise considered to be voluntary criminals. They could pay, the implication appears to be, but have chosen not to do so. Sleeping rough or begging, the other example in our briefing, is likewise a life-situation presumably entered into voluntarily.

The striking thing, for me, about the three examples of the criminalisation highlighted in the briefing is that two of them – council tax non-payment and TV licence non-payment – relate to the enforcement of the rights of powerful organisations to revenue, pursued against largely powerless individuals struggling to get by. The other example – rough sleeping and begging – relates to the failure to spend relatively modest sums to support those in crisis.

In theory, we may be equal before the law. In practice, the law reflects and reproduces the inequalities in wealth and power of British society. So it is that we devote a portion of our social wealth to processing as criminals those living in poverty, while failing to use that social wealth, or organise our society, in a way that stops them being poor.

At the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, we see this alliance as both important and complementary to our own work. Through our After Prison programme, for instance, we are building the case for the redevelopment of land currently occupied by prisons. There is always a better way to use a piece of land than as a place for a prison.

Through our work on public health approaches to violence, and challenging police stop and search practices, we champion more inclusive and just policy solutions to the problems our society faces. In our work on anti-social behaviour enforcement practices we have challenged unfair and discriminatory practices, particularly as they target young adults.

The justice system tends towards conserving and reproducing our current social antagonisms and injustices, including poor people in their place. The challenge is one of transformative change that overcomes these social antagonisms and injustices.

Living in poverty is itself a punishment. It is a punishment only intensified when those living in poverty are criminalised for doing their best to survive in circumstances largely not of their making.

The real crime is not being poor. It is our continued punishment of those living in poverty.