Poor and criminalized: a feminist scholar exposes the welfare-to-prison pipeline

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Talking to Rebecca Castner, one is instantly drawn to her intensity. A Ph.D. graduate from Women Studies at the University of Washington, Castner has researched how poor mothers, in particular women of color, are criminalized by the welfare system. As a single mom who supported her family on low-wage jobs, Castner knows firsthand the trials of the women she studied.

Welfare “reform” has forced millions of women and children off TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) by imposing time limits, family caps and sanctions. Castner argues that these policies not only drastically shrank social services but also resulted in massive expansion of the U.S. penal system.

According to the Census Bureau, the poverty rate among women in 2011 was 14.6 percent, or almost 18 million females. Rates of poverty were higher for women of color — 25 percent for Blacks and 23 percent for Latinas. One in five children live in poverty and the majority of poor children live in female-headed families.

Making poverty a crime. Given that the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) is charged with both helping families and conducting criminal investigations against them, Castner believes the frequent downward spiral from welfare to prison is not mere coincidence.

In fact, she hypothesizes that asking for assistance puts the needy at risk of being criminalized. Welfare doesn’t provide enough to survive, leaving its recipients in desperation. Following the mind-boggling and intrusive rules is nearly impossible. Breaking the rules can lead to criminal charges.

Castner reached her conclusions by reviewing in depth 13 cases of welfare fraud from the 103 files provided by King County. The cases occurred between 2000 and 2005.

One of her subjects, Lisa Bandy (a pseudonym assigned by Castner), was a mother of four living in Renton, Wash. To adequately survive without additional assistance, a family of two in that town needed an income of $2,862. But Bandy only received $1,018 a month in assistance.

Unable to afford housing, Bandy and her four children moved at least seven times and endured stretches of homelessness over a 31-month period. To gain welfare benefits, Bandy completed over 22 pages of questions. She had to provide additional documents including her car title, wage and bank statements, birth certificates and proof of who fathered her children. This paperwork is more invasive than alleged criminals are subject to. Castner aptly calls it “getting booked” into welfare.

In 39 months, Bandy was subjected to 45 additional requests for verification, on top of the routine paperwork she was regularly submitting. Failure or inability to provide requested information caused her benefits to be withheld or denied. This happened time and again.

Crime and punishment. When signing up for food stamps, a recipient is warned that those who knowingly break a rule can be prosecuted and fined up to $250,000, imprisoned up to 20 years, or both. As Castner puts it, “using food stamps may lead to life in prison.”

Comparing the high penalty for food stamp “fraud” with leniency toward bank CEOs who stole billions and nearly collapsed the economy, Castner observes that being poor is about the worst crime there is in the eyes of capitalism.

In 2001, Lisa Bandy was convicted of a felony — Theft in the First Degree — for inaccurately reporting the date she started working and her earnings. She was found guilty of defrauding the state of $8,112 over the course of 13 months. Her punishment: 240 hours of community service, 12 months of probation and restitution of over $8,500. In 2002, she was given another 12 months probation because she had not paid any of her financial obligation. After four years, her case was still open.

During Castner’s years of research, only two of the 13 cases she followed were closed. She calls it “indefinite servitude to the penal system.” Since the debt will not go away until it’s paid, each of these desperately poor mothers live under the threat of imprisonment for failure to make restitution.

It’s no surprise the system is also rife with racial disparity. The majority of those convicted of welfare fraud in Castner’s study were women of color. They received more felony convictions and spent more time in jail. In fact, two Black women convicted of “stealing” the least amount of money spent the most time in jail.

The real cost. Washington state spent countless hours to prosecute the cases Castner followed. The court files averaged 108 pages. At least 183 attorneys were involved. Three State Patrol officers were assigned to stake out a woman’s house to see if the father of her children was spending the night. Dozens of DSHS personnel were subpoenaed to build the cases. Despite DSHS claims that only major offenders are prosecuted, two of Castner’s cases involved sums of less than $500.

The dehumanizing effects of the welfare bureaucracy shaped the system’s view of these women long before they got caught up in the criminal justice juggernaut. In the 1,400 pages of documents reviewed by Castner, not one word originated from the women themselves. She says they were invisible, removed from humanity and reduced to a series of numbers (height, weight, age), characteristics (ethnicity, hair color, eye color, tattoos) and the negative opinions of others. Their lives were reshaped and retold by a mountain of paperwork in which others spoke for and defined them. They were no longer people, but constructs of a hostile system.

Castner decries the enormous costs to the women, their children (the unseen victims), and to society. They suffered severe long-term financial repercussions and profound emotional, physical and mental tolls. It would have been far more productive and effective for society to assist them with childcare, shelter, food and other necessary essentials, than to lock them up.

Instead her subjects, as felons, found additional doors closed to them: they were denied voting rights and access to public housing, tuition aid, and future public benefits. They were ground deeper into poverty and further away from obtaining jobs that paid a livable wage.

Why would any system permit such an expensive, pointless waste of human potential? As capitalism struggles to stay afloat, it drives down the living standards of the entire working class. Millions of women and men of color are specially targeted by the “new” Jim Crow, which uses the prison-industrial complex and the welfare system to try to crush those who historically have been the most militant fighters for economic and social justice. History also shows, however, that resistance to injustice is a human instinct that cannot be crushed. The day of reckoning is not far off!

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