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Not a Crime to Be Poor Summary

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Peter Edelman’s work Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America discusses a wide array of social dilemmas individuals within poverty are faced with. The book looks at the criminal justice system as related to poverty: probation, parole, jail, prisons, tickets, fines and fees all related to criminal charges. A host of other topics including tenancy, school resource officers and school discipline, healthcare and mental healthcare are also discussed. My writings will reflect many of the topics in the book and how poverty affects an individual’s everyday functions.

A Critique

What does it mean to be poor? What qualifies an individual as being in poverty? For a family of four this amount is $25,750 within the forty-eight continental states according to the Office of the Assistant Secretary For Planning and Evaluation (Planning and Evaluation, 2019). This is the federal poverty threshold, with each state having their own. As a household of three, my husband, my son and myself this number is $21,330. At first glance, these numbers seem astonishingly low. My family makes nearly double this amount and yet we still qualify for some government assistance programs. In the state in which I grew up nearly 14% of its population are considered poor and in Alabama, the numbers are staggering 21% in 2016. But these numbers are just numbers, they are not the faces or stories of the individuals contained within.

Poverty can, and unfortunately is often a cycle that is difficult to break. Individuals can become impoverished for a number of reasons: from birth, loss of job, disability, declining health, family issues and criminal behavior are just a few. Limited resources, programs, healthcare and support can all create obstacles difficult to overcome. Such individuals face daily struggles unbeknownst to the rest of society. Peter Edelman, in his work Not a Crime to be Poor: the Criminalization of Poverty in America, discusses many of the social quandaries that are forced upon those impoverished and the idea that because one is poor is a criminal act.

Poverty has been around since nearly the beginning of time, in the times of renaissance and medieval hierarchies, revolutions, restorations and more than a few wars. Today one would be hard-pressed to find a location in which money is not the exchange for all work and consumer products. As time has progressed money has become one of the major contributors of standards of living, employment, location and even health. The United States of America was founded on the free-market concept, that anyone can become rich with much work and effort. This has done the U.S. well in many respects, but what about those individuals left behind?

Mr. Edelman’s work discusses a wide variety of social problems and how these affect society, with those impoverished specifically. These topics include racism, bail, mental illness, child support, public benefits, schools, housing and the criminal justice system. Each of these topics, when taken separately can be their own topic of debate and intense feelings. All have been debated in legislation, in public forums, and in meetings all over the states. Legislation has been created and changed over time to better the individuals in poverty. These legislations include Social Security, Temporary Aid, Medicaid, Food Stamps and a host of other state and federal programs. These programs have made a tremendous impact on the population, bringing many out of poverty; however, many individuals are still held back.

As mentioned in the book, there are a host of factors that hold individuals back from exiting out of poverty. Those factors include the influx of low wage jobs due to many companies leaving for other less regulated and costly countries for production, increasing costs of living, deterioration of the public school system, discrimination, mass incarceration, and the weakening of unions. All of these factors continue to force and perpetuate many people to remain in the cycle of poverty. I have discussed a few of the key points in detail below.

Bail and Jail

The largest and most overt form of criminalization of poverty is that of the bail and jail systems. One receives a ticket, cannot pay the fine and thus fees are compounded. In the Supreme Court case of Bearden vs. In Georgia in 1983, the equal protection clause is breached when someone is “punished for his poverty” (Edelman, 2017, pg. 5). This means that one should not be jailed for inability to pay a fine unless one willfully refused to pay even though they have the power. Oftentimes failure to pay fines is considered criminal contempt which can also incur additional fines. This criminal content is a jailable offense in most jurisdictions. In addition forty-three states charge for the use of a public defender, further adding additional fees to fines one may owe. As shown, fees can incur fees which incur fines and possible jail.

When one is arrested for a criminal offense oftentimes money bail can be granted. Money bail is the sum of money that must be posted as a guarantee the individual will show up to court on the charges. Bail is often called the “pay or stay” method of imprisonment. This means that if one cannot post the amount of money stated by the judge, or a portion to a bail bondsman, they must stay in the jail system until their case has been resolved. This system directly impacts those in poverty, those with little or no means to pay. Staying in jail for any amount of time can result in lost jobs, family time, loss of homes, vehicles or other possessions, credit and a host of other factors. Money bail does not consider the guilt of the individual, only their ability to pay. Of the 11.7 million people in the county and city jail systems in the United States three-fifths of them have not been convicted and more than three-quarters are there for minimal or traffic offenses (Edelman, 2017). The money bail system ultimately means the wealthy can be released pending trial, the poor cannot. With the slow wheel of the justice system, those awaiting trial and unable to post bond may stay for months or years awaiting the resolution of their case. In many cases defendants, needing and wanting release from jails or prisons may be pressured to plead guilty, ultimately granting them a criminal record. This criminal record can then affect future employment, requests for public benefits, housing and a host of other areas.

The idea of money bail and the socioeconomic imprisonment of individuals may stem from the Philadelphia prison management system of the 1800’s. In this system the Philadelphia prison management would classify and separate prisoners based on their socioeconomic status. This was viewed as the link to the crime the individual is said to have committed. It was said that “crimes originate from the misery, the distress…of the poor” (O’Brassil-Kulfan, 2019, pg. 268). From shortly after the United States was founded, we can see that socioeconomic status played an important role in the status of offenders incarceration.

Mental Health

We’ve all heard that jails and prisons are the largest mental health facility in America, where much of the inmate population suffers from some sort of mental illness. Whether this be related to the crime or not, mental illness plays a large part in how resources and staff are allotted and dispersed amongst the prison system. Mr. Peter Edelman said it best when he said “Mental illness and addiction are pathways to poverty, and poverty is a pathway to mental illness and addiction” (Edelman, 2017, pg 64). Many individuals suffering mental illness may resort to illicit drugs and other forms of self-medication, resulting in criminal behavior related to crimes to facilitate the use or possession itself. As noted in the Society for Community Research and Action 2017, since the deinstitutionalization of the mental health system individuals with mental illness still live in impoverished situations, regardless of the community mental health trend of recent decades. For those with mental-health-related disabilities, the poverty rate hovers around 30% when compared to those without disabilities at 10% (Sylvestre, et al. 2018). This poverty rate also limits the care many can receive for mental health improvement. Oftentimes one who has insurance may be forced to pay copays, deductibles or even a percentage of the treatment, it can be out of reach for many individuals. Thus mental health not only affects one’s chances of poverty but also improvement as well.

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A social crisis that affects everyone, with the poor most harshly affected, is that of the rising costs of the housing market. The housing market has recovered nearly fully from the 2008 housing market crash resulting in rents and mortgage costs to increase. With these increasing cost it is no wonder many individuals, as interviewed in the documentary Poverty in the USA are the working homeless. An April 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health established that the availability of housing, even established though housing assistance programs has a substantial impact on the psychological and physical wellbeing of individuals in poverty (Fenelon, et al., 2017). The same study also noted that those receiving housing benefits were less likely to experience psychological distress compared to those not receiving in similar situations.

There are roughly 6,300 evictions each day across the United States (Gilles, 2019). Depending on the state rent even five days late can result in the process of eviction beginning. I, personally, have always rented, and with the exception of one year my rent has increased at each yearly term. Even slight increases, for families with little spare, can drastically affect their standard and normalcy of life. For those with past evictions it can be extremely difficult to find further housing.

For those experiencing homelessness, many crime ordinances have strongly affected their ability to live. In the chapter regarding homelessness in Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America those that are homeless are eleven times more likely to be incarcerated than that of the general population as a whole (Edelman, 2017). With this, more than half of the homeless have previously been imprisoned (Edelman, 2017). Some states, counties and cities have ordinances that do not allow sleeping in public, sitting on benches for too long, makeshift housing, or moveable housing. These “broken window” law enforcement policies (idea that arrests for minor crimes promote order), “quality of life” rules and zero tolerance policies almost always directly affect the homeless solely. Homeless often thus perpetuates criminalization.

Effects of Incarceration and Resulting Poverty

So it has been established that poverty perpetuates criminal behavior and criminal behavior perpetuates poverty. For those impoverished mental health problems are increased, health deteriorates, housing can become crisis, resources are limited and quality of life suffers. When an individual is incarcerated, without the ability to bail out, the time spent incarcerated and the resulting criminal record will follow them with re-entry into the workforce. In one year following incarceration of 122 individuals it was found that in any given month at least half of those released were still unemployed and incarceration alone reduced employment and wages drastically (Western and Sirois, 2019). The average earnings of these individuals also fell below the poverty line.


The second half of the book discusses multiple different programs, both city and state, that have worked to reform many of the social problems that have an effect on the poor. These programs work to end poverty and support individuals in all aspects of life. What all these programs have in common is the pursuit of “collective impact”, working on all aspects of the individual and not the overall poverty. These programs also involve partnerships among different and often numerous agencies in support of the individual and family unit, specifically related to that person’s situation. Although each example of program mentioned impacted different areas of concern, they each had success in their chosen area by decriminalizing poverty and working to improve the neighborhood, employment market, housing crises, available resources and mentorship in the community.


I would highly recommend this book to anyone in the Social Work, Criminal Justice and Nonprofit sector. Many of the examples mentioned of successful initiatives can be taken and altered to impact the area and field of reform. It is a true eye-opener to the impact poverty has on the individual, and society as a whole. With the ever increasing income gap and the influx of low wage jobs, poverty is likely to continue; with that, criminalization. For those in the criminal justice system, poverty is preserved due to fines, fees, bail, probation costs, court costs and attorney costs. Fines can increase and jail becomes a possible consequence.

Previously to this reading I was aware that impoverished people tended to be more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system, but unaware of the true reasons behind this. From the endless cycles of fines and fees to the costs for “free” public defenders and. It has made me motivated to see reform within the area of criminal justice and to look for organizations within this arena.

I must say that I agree with nearly all the points mentioned in the book. Poverty is not an individual problem but a societal problem, to be shared by everyone. Not much will change without the strength, willpower and efforts of advocates to change the system, to continue to challenge the “status quo.” I do not agree that money bail is the correct method of determining the credibility and reliability of an individual, as neither does the money an individual brings home.

I do not think advocating for housing for the poor, public benefits expansion or health insurance change is all that it will take. Poverty has persisted since nearly the beginning of civilization and has over time become increasingly difficult to manage and change. It is possible though, with community unity and involvement and focus on the individual.

It was an incredible read, keeping me interested all the time. As an outsider it could be difficult to follow, if unfamiliar with many of the social constructs in the United States but an informative and motivational read.


  1. Fenelon, A., Mayne, P., Simon, A., Rossen, L., Helms, V., Lloyd, P., . . . Steffen, B. (2017). Housing Assistance Programs and Adult Health in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 107(4), 571-578.
  2. O’Brassill-Kulfan, K. (2019). “Severe punishment for their misfortunes and poverty”: Philadelphia’s Arch Street Prison, 1804–37. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 143(3), 247-269.
  3. Facts Maps. (2016). Facts Maps. Retrieved from
  4. Poverty in the Usa. (2019). Retrieved from
  5. Sylvestre, J., Notten, G., Kerman, N., Polillo, A., & Czechowki, K. (2018). Poverty and Serious Mental Illness: Toward Action on a Seemingly Intractable Problem. American Journal of Community Psychology, 61(1-2), 153-165.
  6. U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines Used to Determine Financial Eligibility for Certain Federal Programs. (2019). Retrieved November 30, 2019, from
  7. Western, B., & Sirois, C. (2019). Racialized Re-entry: Labor Market Inequality After Incarceration. Social Forces, 97(4), 1517-1542.

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