Thursday, January 10, 2019

Being poor is very expensive

During his time overseeing the annual city budget process, Mitch Landrieu used to talk about the drying up of state and federal aid to cities by telling us "the cavalry was no longer coming" from Baton Rouge and Washington. Because we've spent several decades now dismantling federal policies intended to help cities house, feed, and educate and care for their populations, our cities have undergone a bloody cycle of deterioration, privatization, and, finally, reclamation as places that only the wealthy can afford to live comfortably.  Of course, Mitch's policy response was mainly focused on conforming to rather than resisting these circumstances but at least he understood the problem.

Not that that was ever much help to the non-wealthy people of New Orleans who, over the course of what we euphemistically refer to as this city's "recovery" from the Katrina disaster, faced the hardships of diminished services, increased cost of living, the privatization of their schools, and the selling off of their neighborhoods to predatory investors.  All the while this was going on, Mitch continually warned of a time when even the federal disaster aid would run out and the city would be on the hook to cover the costs of repairing and maintaining its vital infrastructure.

The main part of Mitch's strategy for dealing with this was to do everything he could to encourage the rapid gentrification of New Orleans. Never mind that this necessarily meant the city would have to become a glorified resort where nobody actually lives. Anything to keep inflating those property values, and hopefully, the potential tax revenue along with them. Outside of this, the strategy in New Orleans has been little different from what cities all over the country have done to fill their growing budget gaps.  Namely, they've gotten more and more aggressive about shaking down the poor
In areas hit by recession or falling tax revenue, fines and fees help pay the bills. (The costs of housing and feeding inmates can be subsidized by the state.) As the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy organization based in New York, has documented, financial penalties on the poor are now a leading source of revenue for municipalities around the country. In Alabama, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center took up the case of a woman who was jailed for missing a court date related to an unpaid utility bill. In Oregon, courts have issued hefty fines to the parents of truant schoolchildren. Many counties around the country engage in civil forfeiture, the seizure of vehicles and cash from people suspected (but not necessarily proven in court) of having broken the law. In Louisiana, pretrial diversion laws empower the police to offer traffic offenders a choice: Pay up quickly, and the ticket won’t go on your record; fight the ticket in court, and you’ll face additional fees.
As that Times article shows us, poor people in cities all over the country can be sucked into a suffocating spiral of imprisonment and legal fees by something as simple as an expired brake tag. But perhaps the tide is turning. 

Late last year, a federal judge ruled that Orleans Criminal Court's fee structure was tantamount to the operation of an unconstitutional "debtor's prison." Presumably steps are being taken to rectify this. But a lasting solution has not yet become evident. Mayor Cantrell ran on a promise to take down the city's hated traffic cameras which she herself criticized for "nickel and diming" the citizenry. But, as we've seen, she's really only partially lived up to that promise. Basically the money still has to come from somewhere. And while we appear to be getting better at recognizing it shouldn't come from those least able to pay, we've only just begun to where it probably ought to come from instead. And that is still going to be a fight.

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