Cart 0 x

At the center of the modern debtors’ prison conversation, these debts are deeply linked to labor

At the center of the modern debtors’ prison conversation, these debts are deeply linked to labor

An even stronger analogy to work requirements in aid programs comes from court-ordered debts, such as child support obligations and criminal justice fines and fees. The connection arises from the same simple question at the heart of income support programs: Why don’t you have more money? For means-tested benefits, lacking income is why the government gives you money as assistance. For court-ordered debt, lacking income is why you don’t have to give money to the government: the Constitution forbids imprisoning those who simply are unable to pay their debts. But in both contexts, the suspicion arises that lack of income is voluntary if additional earnings could be generated by working more. Notably, that suspicion is thoroughly shaped by racial stereotyping.

When no jobs are available, the next step is to create a degraded tier of second-class work

personal loans guaranteed instant approval no credit check

Take child support enforcement, for example. State agencies’ collection efforts begin by scrutinizing non-custodial parents’ inability to pay and end by scrutinizing their inability to work. Most states construe child support obligations as a duty to earn enough to pay. As a result, a penniless parent can end up behind bars if, as the Supreme Court of California explained, that parent fails or refuses to seek and accept available employment for which the parent is suited by virtue of education, experience, and physical ability. The courts consistently have upheld incarceration for nonwork in the child support context, despite the striking similarities to Jim Crow-era debt peonage practices that the Supreme Court long ago struck down as unconstitutional involuntary servitude. These similarities include shocking disparities of race and class, with African-American fathers ten times more likely than other fathers to be jailed for child support.

That is one legacy of persistent racial stereotypes concerning labor discipline

Detecting voluntary unemployment is notoriously difficult. The more you distrust those who say they cannot find jobs, the more tempting it is to surveil them. This sort of surveillance is a crucial function of employment programs, even when they are bundled with services, which often have dubious value. When participation in employment programs is mandatory, they generally are designed to push people to accept jobs they can already find, or to blame them for not finding any-not to improve their employment prospects in a meaningful way. That framework is explicit in the Obama Administration’s recently proposed child-support regulations, which promote rapid labor force attachment and reject services to promote access to better jobs and careers. While better than simply locking up noncustodial parents who can’t afford to pay, this work first model returns us to the questions of labor standards and diminished bargaining power.

Unpaid workfare or work experience programs have served that function in the years since 1990s welfare reform. Today, we see something similar happening with criminal justice debt. Mandatory community service may seem enlightened compared to throwing unemployed people in jail. Similarly, offering workfare is arguably better than simply terminating benefits for lack of work, as occurs under SNAP’s harsh able-bodied adults without dependents work rules that can cut off assistance even when no work is available.

Thus, a widely touted progressive reform when it comes to court-ordered debts is to offer unpaid community service as an alternative to debtors’ prison. This policy already is in place in Los Angeles, where every year an estimated 100,000 people are ordered to work for free or go to jail. By labeling it community service, the authorities attempt to shield this unpaid work from labor and employment protections such as the minimum wage and workers’ compensation for job-related injury. A federal judge upheld a similar policy in a recent New York case.