Transcript: Thom Hartmann Program: Barbara Ehrenreich - Nickled and Dimed. 15 August '11

David Sirota: I’m David Sirota filling in for Thom Hartmann. The criminalization of poverty, the effort to just kick poor people out of our communities. This is happening all across the country. Punitive laws being passed to essentially, again, criminalize poverty in the middle of the recession. Now we’re going to be talking about this in this coming hour.

Also coming up at around 19 after the hour, speaking about the opposite of, well maybe not the opposite of criminalizing poverty, but the effort to further enrich the rich, Michelle Bachmann the winner of the Iowa straw poll, making some comments about jobless benefits and corporate tax cuts for the wealthy. Which does she favor? Let’s see if you can guess, I bet you can guess. We’ll play you some audio from her at about 19 after the hour. And then coming up at the bottom of the hour, at 34 after the hour, a republican congressman’s call to end scientific testing on chimpanzees and monkeys. We’re going to talk to that republican congressman at 34 after the hour.

But first, again, inside the new effort, the intensifying effort to criminalize poverty in America. Joining us now to look at how that has unfolded, over the last many years and especially as being intensified now, is the acclaimed and great author, Barbara Ehrenreich. This is the ten year anniversary of her fantastic book, “Nickel and Dimed.” If you haven’t read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, run out of your house right now and go get it. It is one of the best books I have ever read. Now it’s the ten year anniversary of the book, which I should say as a side note, makes me feel really old because it feels like yesterday that I read it.

And she has a new article out for Tom Dispatch that looks at how in the last ten years since this book was published, how things for the, I guess the, what you could call in socioeconomic terms, the lower middle class, and those in, near the poverty line, have gotten even tougher and how states and communities have reacted. Not necessarily by helping those folks but by essentially criminalizing poverty. Barbara Ehrenreich, thanks for your time today.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Oh it’s a pleasure to be with you David and I enjoy reading your books and columns.

David Sirota: Thank you, I really appreciate that. All right, let’s talk about, and you were on my local show, here in Colorado on AM 760, but for the national audience, Thom Hartmann’s national audience, just tell us what we’re talking about when we talk about criminalizing poverty. It sounds like a kind of a sensationalist idea. What specifically are we talking about?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Well there are a number of things. You know the most blatant I would say, there was an example just last week from Lancaster, California, where, which was once an all sort of a white community, now more and more Latinos have moved in, into Section 8 housing. So that kind of identifies them as poor, because they’re in Section 8 housing. And there has been a concerted campaign to drive them out, you know, by the city. They don’t want having these people who are not, you know, what they thought they should traditionally have. So cops come into your house, checking for minor violations of this or that code or something.

Now that sort of thing has been going on in urban areas, in communities of color, for quite a while since the, really since the mid ‘80s. It was all part of the Giuliani, Benjamin Bratton, so-called zero tolerance kind of policing. You know, just stop people from doing any little thing that looks illegal. And it has increased since, this kind of policing, this kind of interference, has increased since the recession which just doesn’t make sense, there’s so many more people in poverty. But you know one way, the reason is that municipalities and counties use it as a fundraising method. When you get stopped for doing whatever little bad thing you’re doing, littering, which could mean throwing a cigarette on the sidewalk or whatever, you’re slapped with a fine. A fine probably in three figures. Which can be devastating to a person who is working near the minimum wage.

David Sirota: Now what would you say to folks who would say that these laws and the panhandling laws, fines, for people who don’t show up to court, that these are not meant to criminalize poverty they only inadvertently do so and that there’s not necessarily method to the madness it’s just straight up random madness?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, yes as I think the major of one of the cities that was doing more and more of this sort of harassment type of policing, said there’s no prejudice whatsoever involved. A very rich person can be arrested for the same thing at any time. Which is, you know, give me a break. If you’re very rich, you may not be standing in the street, you can pay your two hundred dollar fine. These things seem very targeted.

David Sirota: And I think they are targeted. I think the fact is, is that you’re right. That we’ve seen a trend in this country where things are intended to do one thing and then sold as trying to do something else. I mean the whole effort to, in the drug war, has been on law and order, law and order. Meanwhile we have a disproportionately poor and African American incarceration, incarcerated population. All of these things play into a deep class politics. Let me ask you then the follow up question, what can be done about this? Are we so far gone, are we so far down this road that we can’t turn back?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Well there are some groups that are trying. There’s the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, based in Washington DC, which monitors these things like anti-begging statutes. Isn’t it funny, you know corporations now have freedom of speech to support candidates but a poor person is not supposed to come up on the freeway and ask for a quarter?

David Sirota: That’s right.

Barbara Ehrenreich: But anyway, leaving that aside. So groups like that, National Law Center, are working, are trying to keep track of these things. But there’ve been so many. There are municipalities in this country where it is against the law or against local ordinance to offer food, share food, with a person who appears to be “indigent.” That is, who doesn’t look quite right. That’s pretty…

David Sirota: That’s incredible.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Yeah, I mean that says you cannot, if you are a practicing believing Christian or a member of some other kind of faith that enjoins you to help the poor at every opportunity, then your faith is being violated. But…

David Sirota: And it’s incredible. And your point about how corporations are people supposedly with the right to speak but a poor person on the street in many communities is not allowed to ask somebody for money. It puts it all really, really into perspective. And I think your article that you did for Tom Dispatch is really, just puts it all into perspective as well. We are in the throes of a political system, a political age that would seek to demonize people like public workers, people like the poor, and absolve, if not fully protect the richest and most powerful people in this country.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed” is at it’s ten year anniversary. It is being re-released. You should pick it up if you haven’t picked it up. Barbara Ehrenreich, it is always an honor and a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much for your time today.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Oh thank you.

David Sirota: Really appreciate it. And as I said, please, anybody who hasn’t read this book, go find it at your library, go get the newly released edition of it, with that new section on it. It is just a terrific, terrific book. And it’s a harrowing, and I use that term sparingly. It is a harrowing, harrowing read.

Transcribed by Suzanne Roberts, Portland Psychology Clinic.

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