Review in Labour/LeTravail

Poverty, Regulation & Social Justice
Readings on the Criminalization of Poverty

Edited by Diane Crocker and Val Marie Johnson  

With the demise of the National Council of Welfare and the long form census it is even more critical that we have books that document the lives of the marginalized. This is precisely what Poverty, Regulation & social Justice: Readings on the Criminalization of Poverty attempts to do. And for the most part the authors admirably succeed. In four important ways this edited collection moves forward debates about poverty.

First, this collection is vital because it links poverty with criminalization in a way that much of the literature on welfare, retraining, and inequality does not. This is particularly important in the shadow of the Harper Government’s crime agenda when increasing numbers of our citizens are deemed criminal and severely punished. We see how neo-liberal policies support market capitalism and ensure that those who remain outside the labour market (as squatter, beggars and welfare recipients) are excessively punished. Through case studies of the homeless in Vancouver, the squatters in Ottawa, and the squeegee kids in Toronto we see a growing pattern of how local police forces harass, charge and imprison those who are not in the workforce. Through case studies of welfare fraud in Alberta and single-mom welfare recipients in Nova Scotia we also see how state administrators investigate and punish, often in similar ways to the police. We also wee how the public discourse is shaped to ensure that those who are marginalized from the workforce are blamed for this marginalization, thus justifying any heightened state coercion.

Second, this collection appreciates how racism accounts for who amongst the poor are criminalized. In particular, Grace-Edward Galabuzi’s chapter “The Intersecting experience of Racialized Poverty and the Criminalization of the Poor” is a must-read for all scholars of social work, sociology, politics and gender studies. Too often we have ignored the profound ways race and poverty merge, and specific racialized groups, i.e. African Canadian and First Nations citizens, have been discriminated against in the labour market, on welfare, and on our streets. Galabuzi attempts to rectify this glaring omission.

A third strength of this collection is that it includes the voices of the marginalized. We hear from Wayne MacNaughton who recounts his experiences of homelessness in Halifax and how the bus station has established new rules that prevent the homeless from using the station’s lockers. And we also hear from Greg X, a homeless youth, who provides an important class analysis of how the wealthy can drink alcohol in public but the poor cannot. These are important contributions that enhance our understanding of how poverty and criminalization are experienced in the everyday.

Lastly, the collection addresses some complexities that occur when gender, race and class privileges and oppressions interweave. Galabuzi addresses how race and masculinity come together so that low-income African Canadian men experience gender privilege at the same time as race and class oppression. Amanda Glasbeek appreciates how women’s anxieties about public safety can justify further demonization and criminalization of poor people eking out a living in the streets. These are important contributions that dispel the myth that all are equally criminalized in their poverty and encourage social justice leaders to think carefully about how to frame campaigns that may promote safety for some people at the expense of others.

Of course with any book on poverty I want even more. I would like to see the important critical race analysis developed in Galabuzi’s chapter to be central to many of the other authors in this collection. Except for Galabuzi there is no mention of the legacy and current practices of colonialism that deeply affect the degree that First Nations peoples experience poverty. Surely we need to do better than make a passing reference to those who are most impoverished. And I’m still waiting for a book, and a social justice movement, that entwines issues of sexuality with poverty. When will we address the fact that there are a number of queer citizens who do not fit the DINK stereotype but are part of the working poor as sex workers, shelter workers, and otherwise impoverished?

I’d like to see more of the sophisticated analysis of both Galabuzi and Glasbeek in their unpacking of gender, class, and race privilege as well as oppression to provide a more nuanced understanding of how identities of privilege and oppression complicate social justice politics.

So I’m hopeful that this is the beginning of a new conversation about the criminalization of poverty - an conversation that needs to grow to more fully encompass the lives of all those impoverished by race, class, gender and sexual identities. And I’ll do my part to promote this conversation by using this collection as a central text in my courses about inequality. - Margaret Hillyard Little, Queens University

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