The War on Crime/Drugs/Poverty

Writing for The Nation, Bruce Western, a sociologist and the author of Punishment and Inequality in America, recently addressed the class component present in America's drug policy. He began by pointing out that:

America's drug policy aims to reduce illicit drug use by arresting and incarcerating dealers and, to a lesser extent, users. Whatever its merits (and there are some), the policy is deeply flawed because it is unjust. It applies only to the disadvantaged. As such, it reflects massive deficits in the areas of treatment, education and employment.

Western makes three clear and defensible claims in the quoted passage here: First, America's drug policy is punitive. It seeks neither to rehabilitate nor reintegrate a prisoner; it seeks instead to identify, isolate and punish some participants in America's underground drug economy.

Second, America's drug policy is and has long been unfair. It is unfair because, as Western puts it, "Drugs are intensively criminalized among the poor but largely unregulated among the rich." Drug sales and use allegedly is a poor black thing. Americans commonly believe that blacks use them, sell them and steal for them. The black pusher and user is a common racial stereotype. But the facts now refute this belief (.pdf). Still, if race is not the decisive factor in the criminalization of the drug economy, class is. Thus, for the poor individual who goes to court seeking a just resolution of his or her case, who believes he or she has been wrongly accused or is a victim of adverse conditions, what that person soon discovers (if, that is, he or she actually needed to discover this fact) is that it is "just us," as Richard Pryor quipped with respect to black folk, in the queue which supplies the defendant's chair. The rich and well-connected, on the other hand, can indulge their 'illicit' appetites without also immediately fearing the legal consequences of their actions. The upshot: America's drug policy is class and race biased if not also age and gender based.

Third, "In the absence of any serious effort to improve economic opportunity, particularly among young men with little schooling, drug control has become our surrogate social policy "[my emphasis]. It is unfortunate that, for the poor, drug control has meant being the object of aggressive policing and imprisonment. This is the kind of social policy one can expect to have when a society refuses to commit itself to providing equal opportunity to everyone. It is a kind of policy that produces low social mobility, which is to say, rigid class boundaries.

Drug policy in America has acquired social policy goals because punitive drug control directly and adversely impinges upon the already fragile and undernourished social subsystem in which the poor live and attempt to survive (Western, 2007, p. 11). Punitive drug control produces its destructive effects by removing potential and actual income earners from families; by normalizing criminal behavior, direct crime prevention and high rates of incarceration within the everyday life of the poor; and by disrupting familial and communal networks within impoverished neighborhoods. When one couples punitive drug enforcement to the pervasive and multigenerational poverty commonly found within poor areas, to the lack of opportunity available to the poor, to the inferiority of their educational, medical and service systems, it becomes clear that both the prison and the neighborhoods of the poor are little more than warehouses for America's outcasts. It is ironic that the prison today is a symbol of social order, for, with respect to the poor and their immediate environment, the criminal justice system is a producer of social disintegration. America, having rejected the public commitment to personal rehabilitation, has dedicated itself instead to the severe management of the poor (Wacquant, 2009, pp. 2-3). America has paired the poor and their habitats to its prison system.

Simply put, America's drug policy is a class thing. Unsurprisingly, it has "made an enemy of the poor," as Western declared. Because of America's drug policy, the poor embody and thereby express the stigmata (Goffman, 1963) applicable to some of the individuals America wants to hold at arm's length. These are their marks of shame. As stigmatized, the impoverished are not considered "real Americans." Rather, they sit on the far side of the boundary which separates the normal from the abnormal life in America. They are thus not like "real Americans," they are different, and are dangerous and pathogenic because of their peculiar identity (Douglas, 1966). The stigmatized represent the existence of a collective other. Their criminality reflects their impoverished lives and their intractable poverty points to the crimes they have and are likely to commit in the future. Considered differently, the categories "crime" and "poverty," "criminal" and "poor" are stigma signals (Goffman, 1963, pp.43-44). They mark an individual as a bearer of a "damaged identity." Considered together, these stigma signals are also class markers. They identify the poor as members of America's underclass. Members of the underclass are Americans that America excludes from normal social life, excluded because they typically lack work, are considered unemployable and, as a consequence, have no economic role to play. America today considers them undeserving of help and compassion.

The existence of an underground economy driven by illegal drug distribution and use does not reflect a culture of poverty among the poor or an unfortunate genetic endowment that fatefully governs their lives; rather, the underground drug economy reflects badly on America's larger, more inclusive economic system that has long been incapable of providing a good job to everyone who wants one. By a "good job" I refer to a job that employs someone and pays them a living wage for their work. By "living wage" I refer to a wage rate that realizes this norm: "[T]hat people who work for a living should not have to raise a family in poverty" (Pollin, 2003, p. 8). The underground drug economy reflects badly on America's macroeconomy because this illicit economy is just an externality produced by a macroeconomy that inexorably fails to incorporate the jobless and working poor as fully qualified members of society, that is, as citizens in the fullest sense of that word (Marshall and Bottomore, 1992, p. 18 and Marshall's argument in general). The underground drug economy has, as it were, an economic rationale for many of those who participate within it. It generates work and income to places in which both are scarce. It sates the "animal spirits" of the would-be entrepreneurs willing to risk their lives plying this trade. It even generates utilities for those who take drugs. Nevertheless, Western reverses the terms found in the normal causal claim made about America's drug epidemic when he asserts that "America doesn't have a drug problem. It has a poverty problem."

What, in sum, does it mean to claim that America's drug problem is a poverty problem? It means:

1. That much of the unemployment found in America can be considered involuntary in nature (it is unemployment due to the structural features of the American economy).

2. Unemployment, underemployment and employment at a sub-living wage cause most of the poverty found in the United States.

3. For the poor, poverty persists across the generations. The poverty which affects one generation provides a decisive condition for the children of that cohort.

4. Poverty and joblessness facilitate participation in the drug economy.

5. The United States addresses drug economy participants with a punitive drug policy that feeds the incarceration system in the United States.

It is significant that America's drug problem is a poverty problem. For one thing, the truth of this claim speaks poorly indeed of those members of America's political elite who have turned drugs and crimes into casus belli. Their blunder can be found, as one would expect, in the general commitment to a zero-tolerance and broken windows policy (see also the source document by Wilson and Kelling, pdf), an approach that refuses to address the decisive causes of the underground drug economy and focuses instead on hiding the most obvious symptoms of the problem in prisons and jails. For another, America's punitive drug policy not only fails to provide a remedy for America's drug and crime problems, the implementation of this policy actually exacerbates the problems it is meant to address, thus make drug use among the poor and the underground drug economy inevitable. History concurs, for it has plainly demonstrated that America's punitive drug policy has only made "mass imprisonment…a fact of American life" (Western, 2007, p. 189). Today, the United States is the most dedicated jailer in the world, a fact that is wholly consistent with the astonishing inequality found in the country and with the qualitative decay of a form of life that was once the envy of the world.


Western believes that meaningful reform may become possible soon. He may be right about this. Driven by the costs of incarceration and declining state revenues, various states are seeking to reduce their prison populations. "Hard times," Western rightly asserts, "are forcing reform on a profligate policy."

Yet, he may be wrong, too. In order to assess this possibility, we ought to begin with the fact that America now confronts a divisive, critical and systemic problem, one that could undermine any drug policy reform effort: The recession. After all, the newly free will not remerge as fully qualified and working members of a well-integrated, fair and productive society. These days every boat does not rise with the tide. Some sink, drowning all aboard. An capitalist economy in its decline phase will see to that. Thus the lately-released prisoner is likely to be unemployed and to remain unemployable indefinitely. This outcome is ironic since it is the recession which now drives the various states to reduce their prison populations just as it is the recession that will severely inhibit the adoption of the social programs needed to manage the transition into society for the prisoners the cash-strapped states set free. This irony issues from the condition of the economy: America today has an aggregate real unemployment rate that exceeds 20 percent, according to Shadow Government Stats. This historically rare and high rate tells us that work is both scarce and an asset which work-blessed individuals and groups would likely defend against encroachments by putative outsiders. Given this labor market competition, which increases in intensity when the economy sheds jobs and when prisoners enter the labor market, we should not expect solidarity among the poor and insecure to spontaneously and efficiently emerge. Solidarity in this instance would be a historically significant political achievement. Nor should we expect America's capitalists and its upper-middle class to freely cover the costs for a full employment economy and a capable and humane system of social services. We know this because their political representatives in Washington are now fighting to increase their share of America's wealth. Employment policy, like drug policy, is a class thing.

What would the current and future jobless Americans provide to 'their' society? What will be their contribution to the integrity of the social whole? Their contribution will be to stand apart from the fully qualified Americans, to be a sign which points to the fate of those who cannot fit in. That fate: To be members of a "surplus population," to live "wasted lives" (Bauman, 2004).

As long as the United States as a whole, and as a self-aware and minimally free society, can tolerate a stable high-employment economy and inasmuch as the political elite continually refuses to generate a credible full-employment project, then some Americans will have their lives wasted by circumstances they cannot master. This fate now threatens more than the prisoner, the undereducated, the African, Latino and impoverished. It also threatens those who believed they had earned some respect with their lives.

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