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"Criminalization of Poverty"

January/February 2012 issue of Poverty & Race

In August of last year, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights issued her report to the U.N. General Assembly on the criminalization of poverty. We were struck by how many of the U.N. report’s findings are echoed in recent critiques of policy here in the U.S. Below, we present excerpts from the Special Rapporteur’s report, along with excerpts of recent studies by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and Professor Kaaryn Gustafson’s work on criminalization in the welfare system.

Selected Excerpts from the U.N. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

Report prepared by Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, Special Rapporteur; transmitted 11 August 2011 by the Secretary General to the U.N. General Assembly.

The full report is available at .


In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights analyses several laws, regulations and practices that punish, segregate, control and undermine the autonomy of persons living in poverty. Such measures have been adopted with increasing frequency over the past three decades, intensifying in recent years owing to the economic and financial crises, and now represent a serious threat to the enjoyment of human rights by persons living in poverty.

The ways in which States and social forces penalize those living in poverty are interconnected and multidimensional, and cannot be analysed in isolation. For the purpose of this report, the Special Rapporteur identifies the following four areas of concern: (a) laws, regulations and practices which unduly restrict the performance of life-sustaining behaviours in public spaces by persons living in poverty; (b) urban planning regulations and measures related to the gentrification and privatization of public spaces that disproportionately impact persons living in poverty; (c) requirements and conditions imposed on access to public services and social benefits which interfere with the autonomy, privacy and family life of persons living in poverty; and (d) excessive and arbitrary use of detention and incarceration that threatens the liberty and personal security of persons living in poverty.

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10. In every country, developed or developing, historical social divisions and power structures ensure that the poorest and most excluded are at a constant disadvantage in their relations with State authorities. Asymmetries of power mean that persons living in poverty are unable to claim rights or protest their violation.

29. Increasingly, States are implementing laws, regulations and practices limiting the behaviour, actions and movements of people in public space, which greatly impede the lives and livelihoods of those living in poverty. These measures vary considerably across and within States, with the common denominator being the penalization of actions and behaviours which are considered “undesirable” or a “nuisance” in public spaces. States justify these measures by classifying the prohibited behaviours as dangerous, conflicting with the demands of public safety or order, disturbing the normal activities for which public spaces are intended, or contrary to the images and preconceptions that authorities want to associate with such places.

36. These laws are being implemented in a context in which the economic and financial crises have resulted in an unprecedented increase in foreclosures and evictions, forcing a growing number of families to live on the streets. Instead of using public funds to assist these families, States are instead carrying out costly operations to penalize them for their behaviour. Where there is insufficient public infrastructure and services to provide families with alternative places to perform such behaviours, persons living in poverty and homelessness are left with no viable place to sleep, sit, eat or drink. These measures can thus have serious adverse physical and psychological effects on persons living in poverty, undermining their right to an adequate standard of physical and mental health and even amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

49. It is becoming increasingly common for States to impose strict requirements and conditions on access to public services and social benefits. By imposing excessive requirements and conditions on access to services and benefits, and severe sanctions for non-compliance, States punish, humiliate and undermine the autonomy of persons living in poverty, exacerbating the challenges they face in overcoming their situation. Moreover, beneficiaries are kept in a state of uncertainty about their future and are unable to plan for the long term.

57. To ensure that beneficiaries comply with conditions and requirements, States often subject them to intensive examinations and intrusive investigations. Social benefit administrators are empowered to interrogate beneficiaries about a wide range of personal issues and to search their homes for evidence of fraudulent activity. Beneficiaries are required to report regularly and disclose excessive amounts of information whenever it is demanded of them. In some countries, they must even submit to mandatory screening for drug use. They must also give their consent to authorities to scrutinize every aspect of their lives and to question their friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Beneficiaries are encouraged to watch each other and report abuses to programme administrators through anonymous channels. These intrusive measures undermine beneficiaries’ personal independence, seriously interfere in their right to privacy and family life, make them vulnerable to abuse and harassment, and weaken community solidarity.

61. Being excluded from social benefit assistance has an especially harsh effect on women, who make up the majority of social benefit beneficiaries, and who generally hold primary responsibility for the care of children and maintenance of the household. If women are denied access to social benefits, it will generally have implications for the whole family. Furthermore, there is an increased likelihood that women will remain in or return to abusive relationships, or be forced to live in other vulnerable situations, if they are unable to access social benefits.

68. The economic and social costs of detention and incarceration can be devastating for persons living in poverty. Detention not only means a temporary loss of income, but also often leads to the loss of employment, particularly where individuals are employed in the informal sector. The imposition of a criminal record creates an additional obstacle to finding employment. Detention and incarceration, even for minor non-violent offences, will often result in the temporary or permanent withdrawal of social benefits or the denial of access to social housing, for both the detainee and his or her family.

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23. In many cases, the cost of employing reactive penalization measures greatly outweighs the costs that would be incurred in addressing the root causes of poverty and exclusion. If resources dedicated to policing, surveillance and detention were instead invested in addressing the causes of poverty and improving access to public services, including social housing, States could drastically improve the lives of persons living in poverty and ensure that the maximum available resources are dedicated to increasing the levels of enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights.

75. Measures that result in the penalization of those living in poverty do nothing to tackle the root causes of poverty and social exclusion. They serve only to entrench further the multiple deprivations faced by those living in poverty and create barriers to poverty reduction and social inclusion. Consequently, they greatly undermine the ability of States to comply with their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.

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