Governing poverty: risking rights

The regime of controls, conditionalities and sanctions that characterise the governance of poverty - in stark contrast to laissez faire financial governance - threatens the rights and the dignity of those it ostensibly protects, say Kate Donald and Smriti Upadhyay
Smriti Upadhyay Kate Donald
1 August 2011

Social policy in diverse areas, including public health, urban planning and migration, is increasingly characterised by a tendency to construct and control people, behaviour, and status - defined as undesirable, dangerous, risky, criminal or socially problematic. With social problems more frequently being treated as policing or law and order problems, it is not surprising that ideas and technologies from policing, crime control and security are now highly influential in social policy. A recent study on social control policies undertaken by the International Council on Human Rights Policy, highlighted that in both the global North and South, people living in poverty are disproportionately subject to surveillance, stigmatisation, segregation, and even criminalisation as a result of control measures embedded in the governance of poverty. There is an urgent need to strengthen the critique of such policies and posit alternatives.

A recent meeting of grassroots advocates, scholars, human rights lawyers, and policy experts highlighted a number of developments around the world that point to the penalisation of people in poverty.  For example, a number of cities in the USA, Canada and Australia have laws or rules that in effect bar homeless people from many public places and in some cases restrict or even penalise providing food to the homeless in public spaces. In India, anti-beggary laws are used to detain a large number of destitute and homeless working populations—rendering ostensible poverty a crime. In South Africa, poor communities have been forcibly evicted using health and fire safety laws, as a way to get around otherwise stringent human rights safeguards. Argentina is one of several countries in which the criminalisation of abortion disproportionately  impacts women in poverty who depend on the public health system, undermining not only their right to life and health but also exposing them to economic extortion and sexual abuse by police and doctors.

The homeless or those who lack secure accommodation are especially vulnerable because behaviour that would be routine and perfectly lawful if performed within a home, such as sleeping, going to the toilet, or drinking a beer, can suddenly become unlawful when performed in a public space. Moreover, such laws are often applied in a discriminatory fashion; as one advocate told us, “It does not tend to be picnickers who are arrested for having open containers of alcohol.”

As Vivien Stern observed, “crime control is impacting more and more on people with problems that society has failed to deal with in other ways... we are choosing to punish many people whom life has already punished severely.” She went on to note that factors in the risk assessment system used by the English probation service include a number of indicators of poverty, homelessness and disadvantage. “So if you score highly on measures of poverty, you are by definition ‘risky’. If you are risky you will be subject to more controls and thrust more deeply into the suspect part of the population from which it is hard to get out”.

It is no surprise, then, that people in poverty are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system; research shows  that globally they will spend much longer periods in pre-trial detention, often because they are unable to afford a penalty fine or bail.

The implementation of criminal justice policy in other areas also disproportionately penalises people in poverty. Sentencing practices for drug offences in the US have incarcerated a disproportionate number of urban African-Americans, who already faced “concentrated socio-economic disadvantage”, because drug use tends to be more visible in poorer inner city areas, which are in any case more intensely policed, whereas in suburban areas or upper- and middle-class households it is less easily detected. Moreover, penalties are higher for crack cocaine offenders, a drug associated with “the underclass”.

From Buenos Aires to Istanbul to Managua urban governance and planning, aided by policing practices, has become a tool for controlling and segregating people . The  Beggars’ Squad of the Mumbai Police—which arrests beggars or homeless working people—is based in the affluent area of south Mumbai, housing government offices, upmarket apartments and frequented by foreign tourists. Canadian bylaws enable planned exclusion, keeping people in poverty out of certain neighbourhoods through distancing requirements on homeless shelters. Zoning rules or the application of ‘move-on’ powers tend to have much of the same effect.

Cities are increasingly marked by ‘internal frontiers’—the geographical exclusion of populations by socio-economic status—for example, through the emergence of gated communities, to which access is controlled by police or private security agents. In areas that are not “secured”, by contrast, public services such as  public policing, schools and health services are often underfinanced and fail to address social and economic problems including crime and deviancy, further deepening public fear and anxiety. Slum areas may even be abandoned to the control of criminal gangs.

Even the vast informal economy—the special economic zone of the poor—is not spared, often subject to increasing negative regulation: many cities across the world subject street-vending to a maze of restrictions laced with strong and often arbitrary punitive sanctions. Last week  Nyarugenge District in Kigali (Rwanda), passed a resolution to penalize people who purchase goods from the street vendors as a way of getting rid of all vendors operating in the city.  

The contemporary obsession with risk and security has created an insatiable appetite for surveillance. Such approaches involve both ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ forms of surveillance The latter is more intensive, involves more restrictions on mobility and is overwhelmingly focused on people living in poverty such as the urban poor and homeless.  Proposals to issue national or local identity cards or to introduce biometric identification schemes must be examined in the light of their potentially disproportionate or discriminatory impact on the poor.

Homeless populations or those who rely on government services are particularly vulnerable to surveillance, which is increasingly integrated into welfare governance. The use of drug registries in countries such as Russia and China comes with high levels of surveillance and policing and can have a severe impact on access to welfare and job opportunities.  This  has been exacerbated by the growing imposition of conditionalities in welfare regimes such as tying benefits to participation in workfare programs, and media-stoked public furore surrounding ‘welfare cheats’. The use of fingerprinting, home visits by state agents, and onerous reporting requirements as a way of policing welfare is common; every aspect of the lives of those on welfare must apparently be documented to verify and justify their benefits – as if the right to privacy applied less to people living in poverty.  In the USA, California, Texas, Arizona and New York City fingerprint welfare recipients. In addition, low-tech methods such as welfare fraud hotlines (or ‘snitchlines’—for neighbours and ex-partners to report welfare ‘cheats’) encourage widespread participation in the surveillance of the poor and reveal a gendered dimension to this form of penalisation; in Canada, for example, single mothers are most often reported on these hotlines. 

All of these actions and policies draw their legitimacy from, and reinforce, the stigma attached to people living in poverty. The discourse surrounding ‘welfare cheats’ is particularly revealing, but underlying this are public attitudes that stereotype all welfare recipients and people in poverty as lacking in self-control, liable to bad habits and lazy. Neo-liberalism’s glorification of self-sufficiency and ‘responsibility’ has fuelled the idea that poverty results from an individual’s unwillingness to remedy his or her economic situation.  As a result, social policy is crafted in such a way that those in need must earn rather than be entitled to state support. 

In addition to stigmatising people in poverty, such policies further penalise them by strengthening the penal arm of the state while severely attenuating welfare programs.  It is no surprise that  the first few years of zero tolerance policing in New York—now exported to many other areas of the world—saw a decrease in the welfare budget in nearly direct proportion to the significant increase in the policing budget.   Similarly, political and public resources are devoted to punishing welfare fraud rather than, say, tax evasion; to stamping out “crime” rather than reducing unemployment. 

The regime of controls, conditionalities and sanctions that characterise the contemporary governance of poverty is in stark contrast to the laissez faire approach to the governance of the economy or the financial sector. While perceptions of moral hazards hardly stood in the way of massive bailouts for banks, they prove to be debilitating for the most vulnerable and desperate. The contemporary governance of poverty has itself emerged as one of the most significant threats to rights and the dignity of those it seeks to protect. Yet, this is not solely a problem of poorly informed policy or unjust legislation; the penalisation of poverty must be understood in its social context as much in its legal and administrative manifestations. It thus also poses significant challenges for human rights thinking and practice, beyond policy and legal reform to the construction of a new moral consensus on ending poverty.

This article is part of the new dialogue Governing poverty: risking rights?  on openDemocracy 5050






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