Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Prison as Public Housing






 "Some might argue that it’s unfair to judge Hillary Clinton for the policies her husband championed years ago. But Hillary wasn’t picking out china while she was first lady. She bravely broke the mold and redefined that job in ways no woman ever had before. She not only campaigned for Bill; she also wielded power and significant influence once he was elected, lobbying for legislation and other measures. That record, and her statements from that era, should be scrutinized. In her support for the 1994 crime bill, for example, she used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."...

On the campaign trail, she continues to invoke the economy and country that Bill Clinton left behind as a legacy she would continue. So what exactly did the Clinton economy look like for black Americans?...

Harvard sociologist Bruce Western explains: “Much of the optimism about declines in racial inequality and the power of the US model of economic growth is misplaced once we account for the invisible poor, behind the walls of America’s prisons and jails.” When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent. This figure was never reported. Instead, the media claimed that unemployment rates for African Americans had fallen to record lows, neglecting to mention that this miracle was possible only because incarceration rates were now at record highs. Young black men weren’t looking for work at high rates during the Clinton era because they were now behind bars—out of sight, out of mind, and no longer counted in poverty and unemployment statistics...


 Despite claims that radical changes in crime and welfare policy were driven by a desire to end big government and save taxpayer dollars, the reality is that the Clinton administration didn’t reduce the amount of money devoted to the management of the urban poor; it changed what the funds would be used for. Billions of dollars were slashed from public-housing and child-welfare budgets and transferred to the mass-incarceration machine. By 1996, the penal budget was twice the amount that had been allocated to food stamps. During Clinton’s tenure, funding for public housing was slashed by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent), while funding for corrections was boosted by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), according to sociologist Loïc Wacquant “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor."

Bill Clinton championed discriminatory laws against formerly incarcerated people that have kept millions of Americans locked in a cycle of poverty and desperation. The Clinton administration eliminated Pell grants for prisoners seeking higher education to prepare for their release, supported laws denying federal financial aid to students with drug convictions, and signed legislation imposing a lifetime ban on welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense—an exceptionally harsh provision given the racially biased drug war that was raging in inner cities.
 Perhaps most alarming, Clinton also made it easier for public-housing agencies to deny shelter to anyone with any sort of criminal history (even an arrest without conviction) and championed the “one strike and you’re out” initiative, which meant that families could be evicted from public housing because one member (or a guest) had committed even a minor offense. People released from prison with no money, no job, and nowhere to go could no longer return home to their loved ones living in federally assisted housing without placing the entire family at risk of eviction. Purging “the criminal element” from public housing played well on the evening news, but no provisions were made for people and families as they were forced out on the street. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, more than half of working-age African-American men in many large urban areas were saddled with criminal records and subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and basic public benefits—relegated to a permanent second-class status eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow. 
It is difficult to overstate the damage that’s been done. Generations have been lost to the prison system; countless families have been torn apart or rendered homeless; and a school-to-prison pipeline has been born that shuttles young people from their decrepit, underfunded schools to brand-new high-tech prisons.
-Michelle Alexander, Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve the Black Vote, The Nation

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