by Ron Powell
In the 1983 movie “Trading Places”, The well-healed Duke brothers, who own a commodities exchange, are engaged in the classic nature v nurture debate. Mortimer Duke believes that a well-bred individual will be able to conquer whatever challenges are presented to him, while an ill-bred one will fail even if he is given many advantages over others. Randolph Duke, on the other hand, thinks that the former will degenerate if stripped of his position, but the latter will become a changed man if given the proper chance. To settle the dispute, the Dukes decide to ruin a successful man’s life, allow a poor man to take his place, and observe the results. They wager their “usual amount” (one dollar) on the outcome. Written as a comedy, the prophetic results portrayed in the film don’t seem quite as funny when you realize that today’s papers are full of the results of what happens to otherwise law-abiding people when they are thrown out of work and into poverty literally overnight.
Conservatives do not deny that the poor commit more crimes than the rich. But instead of assuming that poverty causes crime, conservatives, like Mortimer Duke in the film, usually assume that poverty and crime have a common cause, namely the deficient character or misguided values of the poor. Sleeping outside or in a vehicle, soliciting employment, suffering in public from a mental illness are citable offenses in the United States.
Whites are discovering in growing numbers what black people have known all along. They are learning that it is a crime to be poor in America. They are finding out that the poorer you become, the more criminal you are assumed to be. They are learning that if you have no job and are so poor that you have no place to live, and you live on the pavement or sleep in a car or in a park, you have committed a crime.
In a country where nearly everyone violates some laws, and many people knowingly run afoul of the law without ever being considered, or considering themselves, criminals, it's against the law to sleep on the streets or in a park. People who once exaggerated tax-deductible expenses, lied to customs officials, bet on card games and sports events, disregarded jury notices, drove while intoxicated, and hired illegal aliens to work for substandard wages are discovering that they are subject to being profiled as criminals simply because they are out of work.
When the government fails to be responsible to its citizens and ignores the social dynamics of poverty, people will seek alternate, often illicit, means to eke out an existence. As joblessness rises, more and more middle class whites will encounter police harassment, abuse, and incarceration simply for no longer being middle class. Jails are full, but that hasn’t reduced criminal activity because the real criminals aren't in jail.
Social repression has increased over the past several decades as evidenced in the willingness to spend more on building prisons than repairing or building schools, and increasing law enforcement budgets while cutting education and social service budgets. During the same time, harsher legal sanctions have been developed and passed by legislators who are apparently blind to the social implications of poverty as an impetus to committing crime. The current economic crisis and the continuing trend toward the criminalization of poverty, will combine to turn America’s middle class into a sort of criminal class and correction facilities will become shelters for the jobless. In many jurisdictions, joblessness will do that to people whose only offense is being broke.