People who write exposes on great societal injustice walk a fine line: they must mix their facts and figures with enough interest to keep reader’s interest, temper their own rage at what they’ve found with a rational enough tone that they won’t be dismissed as “radical”, and often find a way to insert a little hope lest too many people avoid their book entirely because it’s “too depressing”. I’ve found a handful of books that have walked this line expertly. Books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace, and Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. I think Not a Crime to Be Poor deserves to join those ranks.
Deftly combining horrific stories of class-based injustice with hopeful stories of people who are fighting hard to bring an end to these things, Edelman calls out truancy courts, eviction proceedings, “nuisance tenant” statutes, money bond, and many other parts of our “justice” system for the traps they are, meant to keep poor people either poor or in prison for the entirety of their lives. He shares both studies and stories to back up the central thesis, which is that American has successfully criminalized poverty, especially poverty in racial minority groups. The stories in particular are completely horrific, even if they come as no surprise to a cynic like myself: a woman who was evicted for calling the police to protect her from her abuser, a teen who ended up in jail for missing too many days of school to take care of a sick parent, a homeless person with six figures worth of debt…incurred for being homeless. I appreciate that Edelson’s rage is palpable as he writes these stories.
But his hope is also palpable as he shares stories of programs around the country fighting against poverty and against the court system, and individuals trying their best to make a difference. Edelman does not pretend that these people are going to magically fix everything: he knows that in the Trump era this is more than an uphill battle. You don’t leave this book thinking you can sit back and let other people fix things. You leave this book wondering what you can do to help, too.