Inequalities cannot be solved simply by establishing new standards, criteria, and rules that will apply equally to everyone. When inequality exists, creating new policies and laws designed to be more equitable in how they treat everyone can have the effect of locking in inequality. Such rules can inadvertently give inequality the appearance of fairness and institutional approval.
Matthew Desmond demonstrates how this has happened within housing markets across the country in his book Evicted. For decades, discriminatory housing policy was the norm in our country. At times in our past it has been explicitly authorized in laws and statutes. At other times, it has been openly, yet unofficially, practiced. Today, explicit housing discrimination still exists, but it at least has to be hidden under innocuous motives or carefully crafted lies. Implicit housing discrimination, however, with no one feeling as though they are being discriminatory, is still common and open.
Desmond argues that the history of racial discrimination in housing markets has created a system that perpetuates the inequalities that discrimination deliberately fostered, while appearing race neutral. He writes, “landlords and property management companies … tried to avoid discriminating by setting clear criteria and holding all applicants to the same standards. But equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality.” Applying universal rules in a system that has been shaped and defined by inequalities does not mean that discrimination goes away. It means that it is codified and approved though seemingly eliminated.
When black people have been incarcerated for years following discriminatory and prejudiced practices, they will be overly burdened by legal denials of housing. When housing policies have driven black people toward eviction at disproportionately higher rates than other groups for centuries, then denying someone on the grounds of prior evictions will disproportionately impact black people. The result is that the discriminatory practices that once existed openly and deliberately to harm minority groups for the benefit of the majority will continue, but with the presentation of authority and fairness under the law. This is how ostensibly equal treatment under the law can have such unequal impacts for people in an unequal society.
In $2.00 A Day Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer explore the connection between illicit activity and poverty in an interesting way. The authors go beyond the trite idea that law breakers lose trust and opportunity for good jobs and advancement and end up poor because of their own actions and behaviors. This is the standard story we tell in the United States, but the reality is that poverty and crime are connected in complex ways and that poverty can often drive people to crime out of desperation or out of a lack of other viable options. This is something we all know, but don’t really like to acknowledge or think too deeply about.
Edin and Shaefer write, “to put it simply, not having cash basically ensures that you have to break the law and expose yourself to humiliation in order to survive.” The authors write about young and single mothers who have trouble finding stable jobs that will allow them to earn enough money to care for their children and families. These young mothers, often regardless of how hard and how many hours they work, are unable to fully provide for their family and face difficult trade-offs such as the choice between purchasing food with food stamps or selling food stamps for cash to pay electrical bills.
Selling food stamps is illegal and those who do sell them often end up with far less cash then what their food stamps are worth. However, when the choice is between electricity, gas for a vehicle, and food stamps, sometimes engaging in illegal food stamp bartering is necessary, even if it means there may be hungry stomachs in the house.
The authors also write about the ways in which poverty drives these women to provide sexual favors in exchange for money, breaks on rent, or help when things go wrong, like a car breaking down. Not only is this illegal for the women involved, it is also humiliating and potentially harmful and dangerous for the women’s health.
Edin and Shaefer present these examples and stories because they reflect a failure and painful reality in the United States that most of us try to ignore or pretend that we are not connected to. Our country has decided that what is more important than dignity and aid to the needy is an external measure of deservingness. We have decided that we will only help those who do what we deem necessary to receive aid. We have decided that there is no floor, whether $2.00 a day poverty or lower, that is too low for an individual if they are not either capable or willing to work and do what we deem necessary to be worthy of assistance. This is a choice we have made across the nation, and within each state and region the dynamics are different, but the outcomes are often the same. People face homelessness, are driven to illicit activity, and must expose themselves to shame and harm if they cannot do what society decided is necessary for them to receive help when they are poor. We are more worried in our country about laziness and dependence on government aid than we are worried about the harms that are associated by poverty and about the potential for a downward and self-reinforcing cycle of poverty.