Tag Archives: poverty

A Feminist Sociologist’s Thoughts on the Zika Virus

Courtesy of Independent 1.23.16

The emergence and spread of the Zika virus is worrisome on many levels: the impact of global warming on the spread of infectious and mosquito-borne diseases (see “Getting Dumped On: Snowmaggedon, Women’s Health and Human Rights“); indiscriminate aerial spraying of poisonous chemicals — especially in poor regions — whether well-intended or not; and the reality that the poorest families in Brazil and other countries disproportionately bear the burdens of global warming and are disproportionately exposed  to Zika virus due to living in crowded neighborhoods, reliance on public water pumps that often are surrounded by pools of standing water, and lack of adequate public health resources.

A related set of worries are products of structural gender inequalities: prohibitions on abortion in countries and US states at the same time as women are being warned not to become pregnant because of the presence of the Zika virus (see “Pregnant Bodies as Public Property“); the power of ‘rape cultures’ in which women may not be able to control access to their own sexuality and fertility (see “Fighting Rape Culture: Real Tips“); and a problematic history of public responses to viruses (such as HIV-AIDS) that may be spread through sexual contact, especially when the virus initially impacts disenfranchised or stigmatized groups.

In addition to alarm regarding the vectors of spread of the virus, there is cause for concern for the well-being of families affected by Zika virus. Here in the United States, Zika virus-bearing mosquitoes have shown up in Florida and other southern US states where many people are unable to access appropriate medical care because their state governments have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (see “The State(s) of the Affordable Care Act“). Shocked and saddened by the pictures we are seeing in the press of babies born with microcephaly, the US’s continued refusal to sign the International Convention on the Rights of Peoples with Disabilities (see “Disabled Rights“) seems particularly indefensible at this time.

For updated (August 19, 2016) information and further analysis, click here: The Social Implications of Zika

See also this statement put out by the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights: A Feminist Approach in Responding to the Zika Virus

Posted on February 5, 2016

In light of the recent outbreak of the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) and the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network (LACWHN) join the voices of our feminist and women’s rights partners[1] in admonishing regional governments’ limited public health advisories for women. In particular we denounce the calls of countries such as Colombia, Jamaica, Ecuador, and El Salvador, advising women to delay pregnancy until the virus is eradicated, and particularly the call of El Salvador for women to avoid becoming pregnant for a full two years.[2]

Governments must recognize that when combatting the Zika virus, any public health strategy that does not have human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) at its core, will be limited in its impact and sustainability, while also creating massive grounds for human rights violations.

As a region, Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by: high rates of unplanned pregnancy, where upwards of 56% of pregnancies are unintended;[3] high levels of sexual violence; limited access to contraceptives and sexual and reproductive health services; and restrictive laws on abortion, where in some cases such as El Salvador, abortion is prohibited under any circumstances and women are routinely persecuted and even criminalized on suspicion of having abortion.[4] Moreover, women who are young, from remote or low-income communities, and/or living in other vulnerable situations, disproportionately face multiple barriers when it comes to exercising meaningful decision-making power and control over their sexual and reproductive lives. In such a context, calls for women to simply delay or avoid pregnancy are not only unrealistic but irresponsible and negligent.

The rapid spread of the Zika virus and its strong association with marked increases in microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities is in many ways new terrain, with new elements continually coming to light, demonstrating a clear need for more research. This uncertainty makes it all the more imperative for governments to undertake from the beginning a holistic, sustainable, and rights-based approach to eradicating the virus and mitigating its effects. Anything less is careless and counter to governments’ human rights commitments under regional and international human rights law.

We thus urge the governments of affected countries both in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as other regions worldwide to undertake a rights-based, reproductive justice, and sustainable development approach towards the Zika virus and any other emerging health issue. Such an approach must be holistic, while recognizing gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment as a cross-cutting priority, in keeping with governments’ agreements and commitments under the 2030 Agenda.[5]

In practice, this approach to combatting the Zika virus must include:

  • Ensuring universal access to a full range of high-quality, voluntary, and user-friendly contraceptive methods, including barrier methods such as female and male condoms, and emergency contraception, as well as comprehensive SRH information and services, including antenatal services to enable early detection of microcephaly.
  • Targeting both men and women in public health awareness campaigns, especially in light of recent evidence that Zika may be sexually transmitted,[6] recognizing that the responsibility for safer sex methods falls on both men and women and cannot be shouldered by women alone.
  • Decriminalizing abortion, and removing all legal and implementation barriers to expand and ensure access to safe, comprehensive, free and high-quality procedures for pregnancy termination, free of requirements for marital or parental consent. As has been flagged by partners,[7] in the context of the many uncertainties and increasing public fears surrounding the Zika virus, calling on women to simply not become pregnant when access to safe abortion is limited or even completely criminalized will inevitably risk driving up rates of unsafe abortion, and ensuing maternal mortality and morbidity. Moreover, restrictive and punitive abortion laws that force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy violate women’s right to be free from inhuman and cruel treatment, as noted by Human Rights Bodies.[8]
  • Supporting pregnant women in Zika-affected countries who decide to remain pregnant to be able to carry the pregnancy safely to term, including access to comprehensive pregnancy, safe delivery, pre- and post-partum care and neo-natal care services; as well as the provision of special needs therapy, health and educational services as needed for children with microcephaly.
  • Systemic policy and programme changes that account for the intersections between climate change and SRHR.[9]
  • Immediate implementation of related recommendations under the Montevideo Consensus as well as targets under the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda, particularly those related to health and gender equality, in order undertake effective and holistic protection measures and help curb the spread of the virus.

Trickle DOWN Economics

My friend Tonya, a woman in her late thirties who has lived in poverty for decades, called me today. “I feel like a sponge,” she said. “Everyone’s problems trickle down onto me and I absorb them all.”

Tonya was referring to the term “trickle-down economics.” While she didn’t have the exact definition of trickle-down economic theory in mind (trickle-down economics is the idea that tax breaks and other economic benefits provided to businesses and upper income levels “trickle down” to benefit all members of society), she clearly understood that trickle-down economic policies have not worked for her over the decades in which the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically.

Trickle-down prosperity is at best “voodoo economics” and at worst a cruel trick played on the majority of the American people. But trickle-down poverty is all-too-true at the level of families and households. Eighty percent of Americans do not have sufficient savings to weather a two month loss of income. For these millions of people, an illness or job loss affecting one member of a household trickles down and out to networks of friends and family shouldering the responsibility to help pay for basic housing and subsistence food.

Poverty also trickles down from generation to generation. Children who experience poverty are more likely than other children to grow up to be poor. Tonya is already keenly aware of this fact. As a young mother, she could not afford housing. She and her daughter lived in shelters, parks, friends’ living rooms, and – for a time – in the stairwells of local universities. Tonya eventually lost custody of her daughter on the grounds of not providing a safe environment for her. Her daughter did not thrive in the years she lived with relatives, a foster family and in institutional settings. Now in her early twenties, she does not have a high school diploma, struggles with reading and writing, and has never held a job. She does, however, have a baby. And just like when she herself was a young child, she is dependent upon other people offering her a place to stay.

Everyone –extended family and social workers alike – expects that Tonya will take the grandbaby. But Tonya, who finally has a stable place to live, is raising a young son of her own and barely scraping by on a few hundred dollars a month of welfare payments. (Full disclosure: I have known her son since the day he was born and can vouch for Tonya’s dedicated parenting and for her son’s unbelievable cuteness!) For a variety of reasons – lack of education, health challenges, bias against out-spoken Black women – she has not been able to keep a steady job. Most recently she was hired to work at a local supermarket for wages that she describes as “high school kid wages” but was fired after a few weeks when she had to call in sick with a throat infection, despite showing her boss a note from her doctor attesting to her infectious health status.

For the past six months Tonya has been stretching her welfare check to help support her daughter, grandchild and a brother who has mental health problems as well as a criminal record that essentially makes him unemployable. She is terrified that the expenses of taking on another person will take away resources that her son needs. There are days when she does not have the money for bus fare so she cannot take her son to school – a sort of trickle-down educational deficit issue that gravely worries her. She also is behind in her rent and in danger of losing her housing, which would likely mean that her son would be taken from her.

I asked her, “Can’t anyone help you out? Can your mother help? Your son’s father?” “No one has any money,” she replied. “We’re all in the same boat. And I’m the one who’s been keeping it going for everyone but there are days when my head is bobbing up and down to get air. I’m near the snapping point; my hair is falling out and I am having nightmares every night. I don’t know why I can’t get ahead. I can’t even catch up. I see people who have the life I want – a job and a house. There’s something wrong with me that I can’t have those things.”

“Tonya,” I told her. “There’s nothing wrong with you that a good dose of fair and rational economic policies wouldn’t cure.”

explaintrickledowneconomicssmall

You can read more about Tonya here: Sex, race and prison’s violent double standard: Incarcerating men hurts women, too

The Women of Can’t Catch a Break – Christmas 2014 Updates

This is the second “Reader’s Guide to Updates” on the women of Can’t Catch a Break. (Click here for the previous update.) Not all of the conversations, observations and anecdotes that I’ve posted here are profound, but I post them to help all of us (my readers as well as myself) remember that these women are real, multi-faceted people who, like us, face challenges both trivial and great, and who, like us, respond to those challenges in a variety of (often inconsistent) ways.

This post centers on their experiences around the Christmas 2014 holiday season. For many Americans, holidays present economic and interpersonal challenges. For poor, marginalized, ill, criminalized and homeless Americans those challenges are magnified. How can one afford to buy gifts when living on a monthly $700 SSI check? How can one put on the kind of family Christmas celebrations that television and movies show (incessantly!) when one doesn’t even have a home, or when one has lost custody of her children, or even worse – when one is sitting in jail or in a closed rehab facility?

But it’s not all bad news. The holidays can also bring out the best in people. Several women of Can’t Catch a Break received donations of toys to give their children — toys donated by generous strangers. One woman celebrated with her children for the first time in a decade. And one woman cooked her first Christmas dinner ever with a group of new friends. Continue reading The Women of Can’t Catch a Break – Christmas 2014 Updates

Outcast Island

October 9, 2014 marked the end of an era for Boston’s homeless, ill and marginalized residents when the sole bridge to Long Island was closed after a state inspection declared it too unstable for vehicles. One of several small islands (“Harbor Islands”) of the Massachusetts Bay, Long Island’s geographic separation from the mainland has made it a prime location for isolating social outcasts over the years. In 1882, the City of Boston purchased property on Long Island for an almshouse, a residence for unwed mothers, a chronic disease hospital, a nursing school and a “Home for the Indigent.” In subsequent decades, a treatment center for alcoholics was added. Recently, it’s the site of homeless shelters, Boston Public Health residential facilities and a variety of residential programs for “recovering” addicts and people involved with the Courts.

According to reports in the Boston Globe, the decrepit state of the bridge was well-known to government officials. But it’s been years since the City or State has invested resources in replacing or fundamentally repairing the bridge to the metaphorical “nowhere” of shelters for the homeless and other social undesirables. Reachable only by limited shuttles, Long Island effectively served to keep homeless and sick people out of sight and out of mind for over a century.

Isolated from the mainland, people who stay at the various shelters cannot get to the Island before 2 PM or after 9 PM; once there, they cannot leave after the shuttles are finished running for the day; and (except on rare occasions such as blizzards) shelter residents must depart the Island no later than by the 9 AM mainland-bound shuttle.

Elizabeth, a woman who has navigated what she calls “the homeless life” for ten years explains, “Everyone knew the bridge was dangerous. I always went on the bus [that crosses the bridge to the shelter] with my heart in my throat and just prayed to God that we’d get across. But I had nowhere else to go.” Francesca, insecurely housed for nearly as long as Elizabeth, declares, “I hate that bridge. I always felt that if it went, I’m gonna be swimming with the fishes.”  Continue reading Outcast Island

Why Brain Science Won’t Cure Poverty

This article was first published by The Conversation.

Recently I’ve seen news reports with headlines like this one: “Can Brain Science Help Lift People Out Of Poverty?

This particular article described the near miraculous recovery of a woman who grew up surrounded by violence in the housing projects, became a “single mom on welfare” who wasted her money and damaged her health with a pack-a-day smoking habit, and was stuck in an abusive relationship. Then, with the help of “a novel program that uses the latest neuroscience research to help women dig themselves out of poverty” by making better choices, she quit smoking, got rid of the bad boyfriend, earned a business management degree and landed a job as an administrative assistant. It’s not the only article I’ve seen recently that is looking at brain science as a way to cure poverty.

The enchantment with neuroscience to explain social misery has spread among individuals and organizations with longstanding commitments to progressive social change. “What the new brain science says is that the stresses created by living in poverty often work against us, make it harder for our brains to find the best solutions to our problems. This is a part of the reason why poverty is so ‘sticky,’” explained Elisabeth Babcock, chief executive of the nonprofit Crittenton Women’s Union. Recent research from Princeton University has suggested that living in poverty can have an impact on concentration. Other research has found a similar correlation between poverty and neuroscience.

There is growing public discourse invoking neuroscience to re-emphasize that poverty really is bad, that bullying and abuse really hurt children, and that someone who has experienced rape or torture really is suffering. But uncritically invoking neuroscience is a risky propositionContinue reading Why Brain Science Won’t Cure Poverty

Can’t Catch a Break

9780520282780_SeredOur new book Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs and the Limits of Personal Responsibility is now available through University of California Press, Amazon and other bookstores.

The book presents the work Maureen Norton-Hawk and I have been doing for the past six years following the experiences of a group of women post-incarceration in Massachusetts. Through interviews and ethnographic fieldwork we accompanied the women as they navigated a variety of programs, services and life events.Most of the book is made up of the women’s stories and how their stories evolved over time.

Each chapter focuses on a particular woman as she moves among  home, the streets, rehabilitation programs, correctional institutions, hospitals, clinics and shelters; among happy, sad, abusive and deeply caring relationships with friends, family and romantic partners; and among churches, Twelve Step groups, therapists and therapeutic treatment of various sorts.

We remain in touch with some of the women. You can read about their recent experiences here.

Here is an excerpt from the Introduction:

“The majority of the forty-seven of the women we first met in 2008 began their lives in working class families. Most were sexually abused as children. Nearly all witnessed their mothers’ being beat on or yelled at by husbands or boyfriends. Several women became addicts through prescribed pain or anxiety medication in the wake of an illness, injury or a botched medical procedure. In their twenties most scraped by in the unstable occupational sectors of the working poor: food service and nursing homes, and raised their young children with sporadic financial contributions of male partners and public assistance. Poor health eventually made it impossible for nearly all of the women to hold down jobs, leading to homelessness and vulnerability to violence and exploitation. Several remember pleasant childhoods with strong and positive family relations, but found their lives spiraling downward as adults when in a period of a few years their parents died and they could not afford to keep up the rent or mortgage payments. Almost all of the project participants have used drugs, in their words, “to numb myself” – particularly in the context of engaging in sex work in order to feed themselves and their children.

“All of the project women have been incarcerated, typically for a few months at a time and typically for prostitution, shoplifting (often of small cosmetic items), possession of small amounts of drugs, accessory in a crime committed by a boyfriend or husband, in several cases public drunkenness, and – most frequently – violation of the terms of probation or parole associated with a minor charge. (Only one of the forty-seven women in the project was incarcerated for a crime against another person.) Incarceration leads to loss of custody of, and often loss of contact with, their children. Coming out of prison with no money, no home, their children gone, and a criminal record that makes them unemployable, the women became dependent upon men, public services and the underground economy.”

“Over the past five years we have seen the same women sober and high, homeless and housed, employed and unemployed, in a supportive relationship and abused by a boyfriend, enthusiastically attending church and stigmatized by church members, involved on a daily basis with their children and out of the children’s lives, sick and healthy, happy and despondent. Sometimes they tell us how well things are going: perhaps they finally got housing, a kind boyfriend, sobriety, charges dropped, health care, surgery, better medication, food stamps, visits with children, a part-time job, a wonderful new caseworker, or reconciliation with estranged family members. We have learned over the years that how well things are going one month or one year is unlikely to predict how things will go later down the line. An individual sometimes will look and sound and act like a poster child for the category “working poor” as it was used during the Clinton administration: A worthy, productive, hardworking soul who with a bit of help will climb the rungs of America’s economic ladder. The same woman a year earlier or a year later will look and sound and act strung out, down and out, “shit out of luck” – the unworthy, unproductive “welfare queen” or “crack whore” who cares more about dope than about jobs or her children. That these transitions are so commonplace suggests to us that the line between scraping by and not scraping by has become exceedingly fragile in contemporary America.”

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 1:

When Francesca came bursting onto the scene at the drop-in center for poor and homeless women she brought a quick spark of energy into the circle of worn-out faces and worn-down bodies slumped in armchairs, nodding off while watching the Jerry Springer show and waiting for the shelters to re-open at 4:00. Outspoken, energetic and full of plans, she declared how terrible it is that Boston’s “Mayor Menino stands by while so many people have to live on the street.” With a few tosses of her long, shiny hair, Francesca announced her dream of opening and running a facility that “welcomes everyone.” Five minutes later she swept out the door into the August heat with a promise to “buy Pepsi for everybody,” and Ginger resumed her desultory search through a pile of donated toiletries, Elizabeth carried on weeping into a handful of tissues and Vanessa went back to scratching her arm and poking around in the trash in hopes of finding a cigarette stub long enough to take outside and light up.

A week later Francesca returned to the women’s center. Flashing her brand-new bright turquoise acrylic nail extensions, she pulled a sequined mini-dress and a pair of 1960s style “go-go” boots out of a bag. With the recession of 2007 shutting down employment opportunities for undereducated and unskilled workers, she had taken one of the few jobs she could get — waitressing and dancing at a local strip club. Thrilled with the clothes and even more thrilled with the admiration from the male patrons, she was nevertheless firm that she would not have sex with the customers — she wouldn’t even let them kiss her on the cheek. But by late fall her situation became tense. At the club, she said, “the owners expect the girls to have sex for money.” As time went on, she began going out on “dates” and drinking more heavily as a way to put up with the pressures of the men at the club. “It is starting to get out of control.”

Just a few months later Francesca injured a ligament in her leg. Unable to go on dancing, she was fired on the spot. Initiating what would become our routine over the next five years, Francesca called us. We picked her up a block away from the club and drove her to the apartment of an old boyfriend who was willing to let her stay with him at night but would not give her a key or allow her to stay in the apartment by herself during the day. Now a regular at the women’s drop-in center, she maintained her outward tough “I don’t take crap from anyone” style but began to confide to us that she felt afraid and vulnerable. “All I do is walk around all day – I have no place to go.” Her arthritis had become increasingly painful (the joints in her fingers looked miserably swollen) and “I have a pain in my throat that my doctor thinks might be throat cancer. My father died of cancer.” Often on the verge of tears, she even considered suicide. “I just can’t catch a break anywhere.”

Here is the Table of Contents:

1. “Joey Spit on Me”: How Gender Inequality and Sexual Violence Make Women Sick
2. “Nowhere to Go”: Poverty, Homelessness, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility
3. “The Little Rock of the North”: Race, Gender, Class, and the Consequences of Mass Incarceration
4. Suffer the Women: Pain and Perfection in a Medicalized World
5. “It’s All in My Head”: Suffering, PTSD, and the Triumph of the Therapeutic
6. Higher Powers: The Unholy Alliance of Religion, Self-Help Ideology, and the State
7. “Suffer the Children”: Fostering the Caste of the Ill and Afflicted
8. Gender, Drugs, and Jail: “A System Designed for Us to Fail”
Conclusion: The Real Questions and a Blueprint for Moving Forward

Here is a review from Publisher’s Weekly:

In this passionate, deeply researched study, Suffolk University sociologists Sered and Norton-Hawk argue that prisons have “become the way that America deals with human suffering,” especially the suffering of women, who are being incarcerated at ever higher numbers. The authors, who closely studied 47 formerly incarcerated women in the Boston area for 5 years, examine both how women land in prison and how fragile their lives are after release. They discuss the inarguable connections between being abused and getting arrested. Reaganomics and welfare reform, Sered and Norton-Hawk argue, have had disastrous consequences for these women, both before and after incarceration. In particular, lack of stable housing makes women who have been imprisoned more dependent on men. In the study’s most original chapter, the authors argue that the therapeutic and mental health services available to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, rather than directing attention to how society has stacked the deck against marginal women and suggesting political solutions, teach that people’s problems are the result of their own unhealed trauma. This compelling and important book deserves to be widely read.

Here is a short article about the gorgeous painting on the cover of the book:

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Color Drenched Acts of Resistance

by Caitlin O’Hara

Can’t Catch a Break, published this month, is a brilliant book that teases out the nuanced relationship between gender, drugs, and jail in many women’s lives.

We asked coauthor Susan Starr Sered the story behind the cover image, which features an abstract image of bold colored stripes, dripping paint, and few hints as to how to contextualize what we’re seeing.

In an email, Susan describes her search in vain for appropriate images dealing with women and prison. The results depicted literal prison imagery that didn’t capture the range of experiences of the women her book profiles, or “disgustingly voyeuristic male-fantasy pornography.”

And then she came upon “this gorgeous image.” The piece is part of an installation by artist Markus Linnenbrink, at the JVA/Prison in Düsseldorf, in a 132 ft long underground tunnel that connects its security check to the visitors’ area. The artist explains that the JVA prison is considered “a model institution and has been designed to deal with security and humanity as best as possible, thus the desire for a unique approach [to its visitor entrance].” You can find more images and information about the project at this Colossal profile.

“It’s hard for me to describe why this image struck me so forcefully,” Sered writes. “Perhaps the vertical lines look like bars made out of women’s make-up and nail polish. The color dripping down from the horizontal stripes looks as if it’s weeping. The ambitious horizontal stripes decaying down into drips on the wall evoke, for me, the mess that’s come of the good intentions behind trying to cut down on crime, drug use and so on. And finally, people in prison spend so much time with nothing to do but stare at blank walls, so I love imagining those walls as color drenched acts of resistance.”

And with that, Sered cuts to the heart with precision, as she does so often throughout the book. Beyond interpretations of line, color, drip, and context, what captivates is the image’s undefinable power: inviting yet defiant; strong despite, and owing to, its imperfections. Just like the women this book profiles.

And follow this link to the “Page 99 test” discussion of Can’t Catch a Break. “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

Caste Away: Mass Incarceration and the Hardening of Economic Inequality

“Caste Away” originally appeared as part of the University of California Press’s blog series coinciding with this month’s American Sociological Association’s annual conference: “Hard Times: The Impact of Economic Inequality on Families and Individuals.”

I first met Elizabeth at a drop-in center for poor and homeless women shortly after she was released from prison. Elizabeth’s father was a firefighter. Her mother worked for years at a stable job in a factory. Her parents owned their home in a working-class white community in a Boston suburb, and raised their children with aspirations of college and a middle-class life. By the time Elizabeth came of age America’s economic landscape had changed. Secure jobs that pay good wages were scarce and even though Elizabeth earned an associate’s degree she wasn’t able to do better than a series of unreliable jobs in food service. When a family tragedy (her sister’s illness and eventual death) made her too sad to smile at restaurant patrons she was fired. Broke and depressed, she lost her apartment, began to drink excessively, suffered several assaults, and was arrested and incarcerated on charges of creating a public disturbance and shoplifting. “Free” now for more than five years, she is stigmatized, unemployable, and sick.

As wealth and income gaps in the United States have dramatically widened over the past decades, the life paths of rich and poor Americans have diverged to the point in which, I believe, we should consider using the language of “caste” to describe American society. Caste arises when social differences become so significant that individual personalities, preferences, talents and weaknesses become subsumed to stereotypical images of the characteristics of a community or group as a whole – what we often call profiling. Groups are identified in terms of physical differences (real or imagined), inter-group interactions become formalized and limited, group characteristics become infused with moral meanings which justify and enforce differential access to valued resources and occupations, and group characteristics come to be seen as inherent and unchangeable.

Elizabeth has helped me understand the workings of caste. She experiences geographic segregation, whether in jail, in homeless shelters or in public housing. She has been arrested for trespassing simply for sitting down and relaxing in neighborhoods not assigned to, in her words, “people like me.” Elizabeth recognizes that there are structural barriers to changing her status, but most days she attributes her position to classic caste-like physical traits: a genetic tendency for alcohol abuse or to PTSD that has “rewired my brain.”

Having been raised in a working-class community, Elizabeth is aware of how differently she is treated now that she has lost some of her teeth and acquired the clothes and mannerisms of the untouchable caste. She once told me that people don’t like to sit next to her on public transportation. “They look at me like I smell bad even though I shower every day.” The only non-poor people she has contact with these days are service providers such as therapists and doctors, or law enforcement agents. Her caseworkers berate her for being involved with men who are, as she puts it, “messed up.” But, Elizabeth explains, “no man who is any good is going to want a woman like me.”

In the twenty-first century health and wealth are tightly correlated. Poor Americans are sick because the housing they can afford is clustered in environmentally unsound neighborhoods; the jobs they can get involve debilitating physical labor, ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals, or harassment by bosses or customers; the food they can afford is nutritionally unsound; and access to consistent health care (especially dental care) is limited. In a cyclical manner, poor health, and especially visually obvious signs such as rotting teeth, limits the ability to get the kinds of jobs that pay living wages.

For Elizabeth, as for many Americans, a prison record sealed her caste membership. She is not alone. By age 23, 49% percent of black men and 16% of black women, 44% of Hispanic men and 18% of Hispanic women, and 38% percent of white men and 20% of white women have been arrested. Poor and low-income Americans are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than better off Americans. Over half of the incarcerated population has been diagnosed with a mental health issue and at least 40% suffer from chronic illness. Unhealthy prison conditions partly explain the substandard health profile of Americans involved with the correctional system. But the fact is that people entering prison are already sicker and poorer than other Americans.

Elizabeth often says that before her life fell apart she didn’t even know that there are people who live the way she lives now. But of course, caste is not a new phenomenon. In the United States racial categories traditionally have constituted a caste system and African Americans have long experienced segregation, barriers to occupational advancement, and ascription of morally suspect traits and behaviors such as mental illness, cognitive impairment, infectious diseases, hypersexuality, promiscuity, drug use, defective parenting, and childlike dependence on public assistance. The news, then, is not that America is a caste society. Rather, it’s how easy it has become to join the ranks of the caste of the ill, impoverished and criminalized.

You can read more about Elizabeth in my new book: Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility.

Disabled Rights

This article was first published on Truthout

According to reports from Washington, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) may come up for a vote in the Senate (again) this week. The last time it came up, two years ago, it did not pass.

On the face of it, the Convention does not seem in conflict with American laws or values. The core principles spelled out in the Convention are respect for the inherent dignity of all persons, the right to individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, non-discrimination against persons on the basis of disabilities, full participation and inclusion in society, equality of opportunity, accessibility, respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities, and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.

Initially negotiated under President George W. Bush and signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, the Convention has been ratified by 146 countries and is backed by virtually all US disability organizations, veterans’ organizations and women’s organizations. According to supporters, the Convention reaffirms many of the same safeguards already legislated in the Americans With Disabilities Act, including access to education and prohibitions of discrimination in hiring. And while it does not in any way weaken US domestic law or surrender US sovereignty, it provides a clear statement that America has joined with the international community in recognizing the rights of all people regardless of abilities or disabilities.

The most vocal opponent, pressing Republicans to vote nay, has been the Home School Legal Defense Association which maintains that the Convention could undermine the rights of parents, supersede US law and compel government funding of abortions. (There is nothing in the Convention that suggests this would be the case, but “abortion” is always a good buzz word for ginning up opposition to just about anything.).

Our failure to ratify UNCRPD is consistent with US refusal to sign other human rights treaties. For example, the US is one of only three countries not to have signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (The other two are South Sudan and Somalia.) We haven’t ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the world’s primary document on women’s equality. And we haven’t signed The Convention against Enforced Disappearance, which prohibits the secret detention and abduction of people by the state.

Opposition to ratifying all of these treaties follows a fairly consistent line of argument: International treaties infringe on US autonomy and sovereignty, and anyway, “we” don’t need these treaties since we already are “better” than the rest of the world. Regarding the UNCRPD, Will Estrada, HSLDA’s Director of Federal Relations declared, “Our country has been a world leader for people with disabilities. We don’t need to ratify this treaty to do that.”

Disability and Poverty

Mr. Estrada is incorrect. In the United States close to 38% of working age adults with severe disabilities live in poverty; the children of poor parents are substantially more likely than children of non-poor parents to have a physical or mental disability thatlimits their activities and having a child with chronic illnesses or disabilities is associated with greater poverty for parents.

American responses to disability are based on needs rather than on rights; that is, we allocate resources to help individuals on the basis of shifting definitions and thresholds of “neediness” rather than on a stable foundation of inherent rights to goods such as food, housing and healthcare. We also tend to be suspicious of claims of neediness. Services for those who are disabled typically require recipients to spend great amounts of time and energy certifying their eligibility and place a great deal of power in the hands of doctors, courts and bureaucrats to decide whose needs are legitimate. Our safety nets for people too disabled to work – SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and SSI (Supplemental Security Income) – allot average monthly stipends of $1,186.60 and $536.75 respectively. That is not enough to cover the cost of daily necessities of life in most American cities, let alone sufficient for disabled people to live with dignity.

The higher SSDI are provided to individuals who have worked a sufficient number of years for employers who paid into Social Security; SSI is for those who have either been unable to work or whose employers did not pay into Social Security. At this time nearly 8.4 million people receive SSI. More than half of those recipients have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, and the majority of recipients are women (about 55%). These large numbers suggest either that as a nation we are losing our minds and / or that millions of Americans submit to being labeled mentally ill in order to receive the $536.75 per month that allows them access to (minimal) food and shelter in an economic climate that has not been friendly towards the 90% of us who are not born into wealth.

Disability and Punishment

The number of Americans receiving SSI went up at about the same rate as the number of Americans receiving welfare went down in the wake of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (so-called “welfare reform”). Shifting people from welfare to SSI may be seen as a simple bookkeeping ploy, but by labeling certain people or groups as “needy” or “disabled,” we in fact define them as weak, as lacking in the attributes that we as a society admire. Indeed, given the negative qualities associated with need and weakness in American culture, disabled individuals are more likely than other Americans to become targets of correction and punishment.

According to a recent report by the National Center for Special Education Research forty-seven percent of young adults with disabilities report having been stopped by police for other-than-a-traffic violation and twenty-three percent report having been arrested. These rates are twice those for youth in the general population. Young adults with disabilities enter the juvenile correctional system at rates four to five times those of non-disabled youth. An estimated 37 percent of youth in state juvenile corrections facilities are eligible for special education and related services under IDEA, yet 16 percent of youth in short-term youth detention facilities, 52 percent of those in long-term youth corrections facilities, and 71 percent of those in adult corrections facilities were not enrolled in any kind of educational program during their incarceration. And the school to prison pipeline disproportionately picks up disabled youth of color.

Involvement with the juvenile justice system increases one’s probability for involvement with the adult correctional system. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, over seven million Americans are under some form of correctional supervision. Over half of the incarcerated population has a serious mental health issue and 40% suffer from chronic physical illness. Among women the numbers are even bleaker. Of the 47 formerly incarcerated Massachusetts women whom I have come to know over the past six years, 81% live with chronic physical illnesses including asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV, chronic headaches, chronic pain, arthritis, disk degeneration, cancer and unresolved gynecological problems. Most live with more than one of these health challenges and more than half also have been identified as having learning disabilities. While unhealthy prison conditions coupled with the poor employment prospects facing ex-offenders partly explain the substandard health profile of Americans involved with the correctional system, the fact is that Americans entering prison are already sicker and poorer than other Americans.

Health, Wealth and Moral Worth

Americans are no more mean-spirited than people in the 146 countries that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. When I read books or see movies that describe cultures in which disabled people are mocked, teased or even killed, I am thankful for our sense of decency, for the Americans With Disabilities Act, for the accommodations (however deficient they may be) for disabled people. At the same time, however, I can’t help but notice that we are criminalizing disability. And that trend, while particularly dramatic during this age of mass incarceration, is deeply rooted in American culture. Since the time of the Puritans, Americans have identified good health (as well as wealth) with moral worth – with living an estimable life style, with working hard, “taking care of oneself,” doing the “right thing.”  This association between health and moral worth is neither natural nor universal; in many cultures people who struggle with pain, illness or disability are recognized for having greater spiritual gifts, for being closer to or chosen by God or for developing greater sensitivity to the suffering of others. In our culture people living with disabilities are recognized as having greater needs – and we do a great deal to meet those needs. But we have not yet recognized that while needs make one “needy,” rights give pride, autonomy and dignity.