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How to End the Criminalization of Poverty

Homeless man sleeps on the street in NYC

This post continues our new blog series on poverty. As our nation reflects on its progress in fighting poverty over the last 50 years, this blog series will highlight how psychology can contribute further to this discussion.

By Dionne Jones, PhD (Member, APA Committee on Socioeconomic Status)

A New York Times article once stated, “It’s too bad so many people are falling into poverty at a time when it’s almost illegal to be poor.” There seems to be a nationwide trend among states and cities that target the poor as documented by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. For example, there are laws in an increasing number of cities and states that prohibit activities such as sitting on the sidewalks or aggressive panhandling (Landen, 2014; Villas, 2014).

In addition to homelessness, socioeconomic status is a major social determinant of health – with poorer health outcomes for those of low SES (Quon & McGrath, 2014). The community or neighborhood where people live is strongly linked to their development, behavior and health. Residential segregation by race and class exacerbates these conditions and is associated with disproportionate health problems in minority and poor communities, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and asthma. Predominantly minority and poor neighborhoods have an overrepresentation of fast food establishments and liquor stores, and an underrepresentation of healthy options available such as farmers’ markets, and recreational open spaces within the neighborhood. These structural conditions have been associated with overweight and obesity in minority communities (Duncan et al., 2012).

Residential segregation also affects education and employment opportunities. A study conducted in an urban area in a southern city in the U.S. found race-based discrimination in housing and work (Sjoquist, 2000). This leads to poor people being concentrated in densely poor areas and not in close proximity to their jobs. Among racial groups, African Americans have been reported to be most physically segregated from jobs (Stoll & Raphael, 2002). There seems to be increased law enforcement presence in these communities with the activities of the poor being more intensely scrutinized and criminalized than in other areas. It appears that poverty, race and socioeconomic status have an influence on incarceration practices.

Minorities, particularly Black men, are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system in the US (Braithwaite & Arriola, 2003). Minorities are overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice pipeline, from arrest to penalties imposed and time served.

  1. In 2010, minorities represented 30% of the US population, but made up 65% of the prison population, 49% of the probation population, and 59% of the parole population (Glaze & Bonczar, 2011).

  2. The 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics data indicated that Black men were imprisoned at a rate that was 7 times that of white men and Black women are imprisoned at 3 times the rate of white women (Guerino, Harrison, & Sabol, 2011).

  3. Rates of incarceration of young men are even more distressing. One out of every 59 white men between the ages 25 and 29 years are incarcerated (1.7%) compared to 1 out of 26 Hispanic men (3.8%), and 1 out of every 9 Black men (11.1%) (Guerino, et al., 2011).

Armed with this knowledge, what can psychologists do?

Psychologists can work with policymakers, law enforcement officials, health care providers, and community members and to address the criminalization of individuals living in poverty. We must be mindful of how larger structural issues such as segregation and racial profiling can contribute to socioeconomic disparities, and how these disparities can then lead to differences in health outcomes and incarceration rates. Potential areas for advocacy, practice, and research include:

  1. Supporting programs and policies that can aid in curtailing poverty, including funding for schools, public transportation, and public housing

  2. Advocating for the provision of open spaces for physical activity and healthy food establishments, such as grocery stores and farmer’s markets, in socioeconomically and racially segregated communities

  3. Being mindful of the proximity of psychological services, and whether their location places an undue burden on clients to access mental health care

  4. Increasing our sensitivity to the discrimination our clients may face, and being mindful of our own biases and assumptions when working with individuals living in poverty

  5. Working with law enforcement officials on how stereotypes can affect policing decisions

These efforts can help move us away from a culture that punishes the poor, and move us toward reason and compassion. By working alongside individuals from various disciplines, we can help address policies that unfairly criminalize individuals living in poverty and move toward improving social conditions, health, and wellbeing.


Braithwaite, R. L., & Arriola, K. R. J. (2003). Male prisoners and HIV prevention: A call to action ignored. American Journal of Public Health, 93(5), 759-763. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.93.5.759

Duncan, D. T., Castro, M. C., Gortmaker, S. L., Aldstadt, J., Melly, S. J., & Bennett, G. G. (2012).  Racial differences in the built environment–body mass index relationship? A geospatial analysis of adolescents in urban neighborhoods. International Journal of Health Geographics, 11, 11. doi: 10.1186/1476-072X-11-11.

Ehrenreich, B. (2009, August 8). Is it now a crime to be poor? Opinion. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

Freedman, D., & Woods, G. W. (2013). Neighborhood effects, mental illness and criminal behavior: A review. Journal of Politics and Law, 6(3), 1-16. DOI: 10.5539/jpl.v6n3p1

Glaze, L. E., & Bonczar, T. P. (2011). Probation and parole in the United States, 2010. Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 236019. Retrieved from:

Guerino, P., Harrison, P. M., & Sabol, W. J. (2011). Prisoners in 2010 (Revised). Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from:

Landen, X. (2014, July 19). More cities across the U.S. consider homelessness a crime. PBS Newshour. The Rundown. Retrieved from:

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (2014). No safe place: The criminalization of homelessness in U.S. cities. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from:

Sjoquist, D. L. (Ed.). (2000). The Atlanta paradox (the multicity study of urban inequality). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Stoll, M. & Raphael, S. (2002). Modest progress: The narrowing spatial mismatch between blacks and jobs in the 1990s. The Brookings Institution. Retrieved from:

Quon, E. C., & McGrath, J. J. (2014). Community, family, and subjective socioeconomic status: Relative status and adolescent health. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. DOI:

Villas, R. (2014, October 7). How we punish people for being poor. Retrieved from:


Dionne J. Jones, PhD, is currently Acting Chief of the Services Research Branch in the Division of Epidemiology, Services and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH. Among other tasks, her responsibilities include identifying gaps and opportunities to promote and conduct health disparities research and to help develop the pipeline of new investigators. Before joining NIDA, Dr. Jones served in a number of administrative and research capacities at nonprofit and for profit organizations. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland University College, and is a member of APA’s Committee of Socioeconomic Status. She has published journal articles, book chapters and a monograph in a number of public health-related areas

Dr. Jones received her PhD in Educational Psychology and Master of Social Work degrees from Howard University in Washington, DC.

Image source: Flickr user Mo Riza via Creative Commons

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