Government can’t punish the poor out of West Virginians

August 17, 2023 5:57 am

Mathew and his girlfriend Vicki, who are both homeless, panhandle on a street on August 05, 2021 in Springfield, Missouri. (Spencer Platt | Getty Images)

If punishment were a successful deterrent to poverty, there would be no poor people in West Virginia. 

And yet, policymakers continue to cling to the notion they can punish the poor out of people rather than providing the kind of support that will actually lift people out of poverty.  

Rather than providing low-barrier housing, we arrest people for loitering and trespassing. Rather than providing accessible bathroom facilities, we punish people for public urination. 

Another prime example are the continuing efforts to criminalize panhandling in recent years. 

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia successfully sued Parkersburg to stop enforcement of such an ordinance. Three years later, we sent a letter to Morgantown warning against passing a similar measure. Those are just some of the efforts ACLU-WV has thwarted over the past decade.

Why? Because the First Amendment gives each of us the right to speak freely. Whether you’re asking someone for a quarter for the meter, or to donate to your local volunteer fire department, or to vote for Donald Trump, free speech is free speech. 

And so, the hellbent poor punishers have decided to change their approach. No longer are they concerned about folks asking for change (they claim) but rather, they are concerned about the safety of traffic intersections. There are already countless traffic laws and regulations on the books, and yet we’re being told that we need more because our intersections are simply too dangerous.

Rather than banning people from asking for money or requiring a permit to do so, this new wave of anti-panhandling ordinances have focused on “traffic safety” and “jaywalking.” But we all know what’s really behind them, and we all know how they will be enforced. 

On Wednesday, Monongalia County considered such an ordinance. Its language is broad enough to cover most major intersections, and no data was provided to indicate these intersections are especially unsafe. When laws are so broad they have to be enforced arbitrarily, it creates cause for concern.  

Beyond that, we can reasonably assume that these laws will, in fact, be enforced only against people who are asking for money, and not against anyone else who may violate the actual letter of the law.  

People who violate traffic laws can already be cited. If they can’t be cited under existing laws, it’s a fair assumption that we aren’t talking about an actual safety risk, but rather an inconvenience. 

These laws are as heartless and counter-productive as they are dishonest. Of course, none of them actually does a thing to alleviate poverty. In fact, they often have the opposite effect. What they do achieve is driving poverty and those suffering from it deeper into the shadows, allowing people to ignore the problem.  

According to a Wall Street Journal report this week, the number of unhoused people has skyrocketed 11 percent over the past year. The increase isn’t due to a lack of laws criminalizing poverty. In fact, we’ve probably never had so many laws doing just that. Rather, the newspaper reported the increase was due to a decrease in assistance as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.

We’ve said it before and we’ll keep saying it. Poverty is not a crime, and therefore criminal laws aren’t going to make it go away.  

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Eli Baumwell
Eli Baumwell

Eli Baumwell is the advocacy director for American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia. He helps manage ACLU-WV's political advocacy efforts and develop its policy platform and priorities. He works closely with other advocacy and community outreach staff members to direct campaigns for federal, state and local policy efforts.