Tailspins for the Poor

George Gershwin wrote “I’ve got plenty of nothing, and nothing’s plenty for me.” But sometimes it seems like politics is about the art of squeezing or taking as much as possible from people who have nothing at all – the villainy of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Robin Hood story but in modern dress.

The other night I drove past some form of encounter between a black man with a shopping cart and a policeman. Whatever was actually happening, what struck me is that when someone is down on his or her luck, any kind of setback can send them into a tailspin that they can’t recover from.

Ordinary events to a person who’s stretched to the limit can mean disaster. Unplanned expenses, even small ones, can lead to bankruptcy or worse. Going to the doctor or coming to the courthouse, trivial for most of us, may mean time off work, loss of wages or even being fired by an unsympathetic boss. Inability to pay a fine sometimes leads to imprisonment. Legal expenses can cost people their savings. Interruption in the flow of income can cost people their homes, their schools, their marriages, even their children. Little problems spiral into big ones, difficult to surmount. So I really don’t like to see unnecessary problems thrown in the way of people struggling to make life decent.

In that vein, it was upsetting when the Amsterdam City Council overruled Mayor Thane’s veto and passed a bill to criminalize playing basketball on the street. Now even the ordinary behavior of decent children can throw families into a tailspin.

I grew up playing stickball on the streets of Brooklyn. So did everyone I knew. But we were white and middle-class – we didn’t scare anyone. Heaven forbid poor kids, especially black or Latino, are on the street unsupervised playing basketball. If we harass them enough, they’ll really get in trouble and we can put them away, at great expense both to them and to the rest of us. Then we’ll have nothing to fear.

And as  Ladan Alomar, head of Centro Civico of Amsterdam, referring to the Amsterdam basketball playing kids, asked Chris Churchill of the Times Union, “Where are they going to go?” To quote Churchill, “the council’s Republican majority … apparently forgot that their party claims limited government and individual responsibility as principles.”

Those principles don’t apply to poor and minority children and their families except when they’re getting screwed. Leading to the financial crisis, lots of people got sold bills of goods with fine print that only lawyers can understand, clauses that left them much worse off than they had been. But when people prey on the poor, the results are never the fault of the perpetrators but only the fault of the victims. Poverty it seems, is a license for mistreatment. And by mistreating the poor, we give ourselves reason to fear them. Are we all really better off?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 5, 2014.

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