Poverty as a Tool

Poverty is a form of control.

This is something that’s deeply impactful, but is rarely, if ever, directly stated. There is a substantial body of work written about the ways people can become impoverished, what poverty does to the people living through it, or how those in poverty are exploited. These are the trees that create this very important forest which doesn’t seem to be discussed or acknowledged. So, let’s break that mold and say it one more time, just to be safe.

Poverty is, in and of itself, a form of control.

It is a form of control that is more subtle than a surveillance state, less directed than conditioning, and less shocking than police inflicted violence, but is just as—or more—effective depending on the situation or goal.

No politician would ever come out as pro-poverty, but one can only hear the weak excuses of “it’s socialism” or “bootstraps” before one wonders if it’s not just about how difficult it is for them to tax the wealthy, but rather more about the powerful holding onto power, keeping it away from the “undesirables” lest they use their own power to exercise agency. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Poverty as social control has a long history in the United States. This dates back to the institution of slavery, where economic deprivation and direct violence were used to control and subjugate, giving slavers near-total control over the people they claimed to own. After the civil war and the 14th amendment was passed, poverty was used as a tool to maintain control over the freedmen supplemented by terrorist groups like the KKK. The decision to not provide 40 acres and a mule arguably did more to disempower black americans than any racist mob. Leaving literally millions of people without the ability to fend for themselves also left them without economic security and they often ended up “employed” by the very landowners who held them as slaves. Who then once more began the process of economic extraction with a clear incentive to keep freedmen as impoverished as possible to maintain their death grip on power. To ensure this control, laws were passed to prevent black people from acquiring land or property, which would have enabled them to seize their own economic security and instead forced them into low-paying jobs, debt traps, and deprived them of economic opportunities.

In the 20th century, poverty was further entrenched through policies such as redlining, which denied black people access to affordable housing and prevented them from building wealth through homeownership.These policies were reinforced by discriminatory practices in education, employment, and incarceration, which perpetuated poverty and inequality for generations. In the 21st century, it appears that rather than explicitly racist policy, access to liberty and justice relies more and more on a person’s checking account. Whether or not you have one massively dictates if you can even attempt access. Since control via legal discrimination was diminished, poverty was further leveraged. 

Other forms of societal control, such as the legal system, are also largely amplified by poverty. These two methods of control harmonize making each even more effective as ways to deny liberty and agency to people, particularly against poor, non-white communities. Don’t think that makes poor whites immune from powerful bad actors trying to take away their agency. Once the powerful run out of vulnerable non-white targets, they are next on the chopping block.

 People who are poor are more likely to be targeted by law enforcement, arrested, and jailed because they can not afford adequate legal defense. Then, after conviction, the prison system does everything it can to extract the maximum value out of those incarcerated. Whether a private company uses their prisoners to ensure a return on investment for private individuals or a state or federal government uses their prisoners to reduce the cost of imprisonment: the methods are the same. Through fines, fees, selling prison labor, billing prisoners for their own medical care, and constantly putting pressure on prisoner’s families to send their loved ones money to purchase massively upcharges products or services. It doesn’t matter if it’s for profit or a reduction of monetary impact, powerful institutions use imprisonment as a means of value extraction. 

Those who come into contact with the prison system are often ladened with burdens that are much more difficult to break out of without significant resources. To a middle class family, a son going to prison is a huge financial burden. For a working class family it is a catastrophe that constantly bleeds money. For the wealthy it was only ever a matter of buying the right lawyers since the system is set up for their benefit. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty and criminalization, in which people are unable to break out of poverty due to criminal records and lack of job opportunities. And let’s not forget, those who are charged with felonies lose their right to vote in many states, including right here in Wisconsin when people are on supervision after a felony. Which further disempowers the individual and represents a shifting of power from them to powerful entities.

Why is this allowed to happen? Why is this blatantly unfair system of exploitation and burden allowed to continue on such a massive scale? Remember: the United State of America has a higher per-capita rate of incarceration than any other country and by extension the largest amount of incarcerated individuals by sheer numbers.

Because those most affected are already strained by the other methods of value extraction used when someone’s liberty are not being actively withheld by the state.

As anyone who has been poor can tell you: it is expensive to not have any money in the United States. If you don’t have banks because your area is impoverished, then an average of 2.3% of your paycheck goes to just cashing that check. Transportation costs eat further into that, especially in areas with no public transit. Being unable to buy long lasting goods in bulk leads to more dollars spent per product. Being unable to pay for an emergency in full leads to debt, immediately forcing the poor to pay more than the wealthy for the exact same product or service.

This is the premise of the “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

If you haven’t heard of it, it comes from this excellent excerpt from Terry Pratchett’s “Men at Arms”:

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet. This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

All of this leads to a large body of people who are too broke and stressed to effectively fight back against a system that is actively draining them of all they are worth. This is a vicious cycle for those trapped within it. As a way to keep people in line by the wealthy it is extremely effective. No laws need to be passed, no violence needs to be inflicted, and it is easy to blame the poor for being poor. But almost as important as that: this is a lucrative cycle for those with power. You don’t make much money by being poor but you can make a lot of money by exploiting those who are poor and unable to stop you from doing so. 

For those with a lot of money but a lack of morals, keeping people trapped in poverty not only guarantees a return on their investments, but also ensures those investments are secure from ever being replaced by something more equitable. Extracting money from the poor benefits someone who has enough capital to buy means of production so they can amass even more money and capital. Then, using the money you have extracted from people who do the most work for the least reward you can buy political influence and leverage those systems to your own advantage, further entrapping people. Poverty is a vicious cycle that requires sustained, focused efforts to claw out of and that can be interrupted by those who built the trap in the first place. Make money by controlling people, it’s such a win-win for the psychopathically wealthy. Which is exactly why it is such an effective method of preventing people from exercising their agency.

Something to keep in mind about these kinds of people is that they won’t stop either. The USA is steadily becoming a nation of haves and have-nots, despite what politicians might say. Every generation from the baby boomers forwards has had less wealth than their parents and less social mobility as the decades pass on. We are not moving towards a society that is becoming more and more equal. Instead, the tools of oppression unleashed upon marginalized people are being spread to affect anyone who is vulnerable enough to become trapped. The psychopathically wealthy do not just want as much money as they can get, they want all of the money. All of it. And so long as you have some, they aren’t going to be happy until it is in their pockets and you are renting the shirt off your back to them.

If you want to picture the future, one doesn’t need to imagine a boot stamping on your face forever. That takes too much effort and energy. But rather a future of either $10 boots that need to be replaced year after year or $500 boots that you were never supposed to buy unless you’re already in The Club.

This is what we as socialist fight against. Every successful strike, every workplace unionized, every restriction placed upon the wealthy, and every time the disempowered many stand up to the powerful few it is a victory in a multi-generational war against that kind of future. Our project: building a fairer, more equitable world is a rejection of that future. Our cause isn’t just a loud, unapologetic declaration that every human being deserves the dignity of a good life but is a battle against a nightmare too many are already sleepwalking towards.

Make no mistake, economic security is liberty. The liberty to not be exploited by greedy individuals who’d rather burn the world down with them than see it filled with happy, healthy people making their own decisions. Many on the right paint socialism as an idealistic, unrealistic movement of people trying to be nice. But always remember that without this fight we would find ourselves shackled not by chains made of iron, but a chain of debts that are never supposed to be paid off.

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