Criminalization of Poverty in Capitalist America

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An anonymous poet in the 1700's wrote about crime: "The law will punish a man or woman who steals the goose from the hillside, but lets the greater robber loose who steals the hillside from the goose."[l]

When talking about "the greater robber" it seemed particularly appropriate in the midst of the biggest financial rip-off in history of this country to think about the billions of dollars the Savings & Loan criminals stole, and about how most of them have gotten away with it. I thought about the complete insanity of how this country defines crimes in society. If you steal $5 you're a thief, but if you steal $5 million --you're a financier.

Thirty percent of the wealth of this country is controlled by one-half of one percent of the people. Eighty percent of the wealth is controlled by ten percent of the people. I think that is a crime. In the dictionary, the word "crime" means "an act which is against the law." Crime applies particularly to an act that breaks a law that has been made for public good. Crime in one country, the dictionary continued, "may be entirely overlooked by the law in another country or may not apply at all in a different historical period."

That was interesting. What that really said was that concepts of "crime" are not eternal. The very nature of crime is sociopsychological and defined by time and place and those who have the power to make definitions; by those who write dictionaries, so to speak.

The more I thought about that and about those who write the laws, or at least define what law is, the more profound it became. I believe we all will agree that the United States is a nation of criminals. From its inception as a settler nation, exiled British criminals stole the land and lives from Na...

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... to confront their oppression.


Taken from an edited version of a speech by Sabina Virgo, given in L.A. on International Human Rights Day, December 8, 1990.

Quoted from the text, Criminology, by Larry Siegel., pg. 40.

Quoted from An Introduction to Sociology, by Michael S. Bassis, Richard J. Gelles and Ann Levine, pages 238-239.

Justice Expenditure and Employment, 1988 (NCJ-124132).


Hacker, Andrew. Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

Jencks, Christopher. Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty and the Underclass, New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Time Magazine. Lockem Up: Outrage over crime has America talking tough, Feb. 7, 1994.

Trattner, Walter I. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America, New York: Free Press, 1989.
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