“You have a broken headlight, you get stopped….”

Time mag asked arch-leftwinger Barbara Ehrenreich about the best single way to reduce income inequality. I’d never have dreamed that David Henderson would agree with the answer she gave — or that I would too. More here on Ehrenreich’s views on the “criminalization of poverty” (which, not surprisingly, head off in directions very different from mine once you’re past the initial area of agreement).

One reader points out that laws against behaviors like driving with broken headlights or lapsed insurance are of universal benefit and improve road safety. But I don’t think Ehrenreich’s point (or Henderson’s or mine) amounts to “let’s legalize driving with broken headlights.” Not so long ago, many petty offenses of traffic and street life were illegal but the consequences of violation were much less harsh. The other day I got a transponder toll in the mail amounting to maybe $10, which would jump to $150+ if I didn’t get in a payment within 20 days; being your basic organized middle-class person, I dashed off a check that same day. Add one complicating factor — say I was a person whose mail was forwarded to me from another address — and it would have been a closer thing.

Why has government chosen to escalate once-petty fines over the past couple of generations? 1) It wants revenue and likes the idea of making agencies self-financing or better; 2) it listens more closely to its own agencies than to the populace; 3) when middle class policymakers (as they nearly always are) consider the issue, they think of what level of fine it would take to deter someone like themselves and worry less about whether fines at that level might capsize the little guy or small business (I hear often about how this framework of punitive small fines is a key deterrent to trying to run a small business with a couple of delivery trucks and maybe an urban commercial building or two to run up inspection and property fines.)

The reformist consumer finance literature, to which Elizabeth Warren was a big contributor as an academic, and with which Ehrenreich is no doubt well acquainted, decries $30 late fees and 20 percent interest rates as a business plan by which credit card companies can turn small debts into big ones at the expense of persons without middle-class money habits and skills. Which raises the question: why spend so much time belaboring the banks if government’s own policy on late fees, bounced checks, etc. is going to be so much less merciful? (& welcome Radley Balko readers)

P.S. An example? South Carolina man says he didn’t realize you needed to pay for a soda refill at VA hospital canteen. Contemplated consequences: $525 fine, federal criminal conviction, unable to return to workplace. (Update: following national publicity, let off with warning).


  • This web of governement greed toward the poor is much broader than the odd fine. Minor offenses often carry fines, court costs, probation costs, costs for required classes, mandated tracking equipment or ignition breathalyzer interlocks and on and on and on. Once in the system, it’s nearly impossible for poorer offenders to climb out from under the state’s financial thumb. How do they cope? Often by progressing to property crime and robbery.

  • Another good example of this is the Texas “Driver Responsibility Program”: Scott Henson has done some really good work covering this issue over at his Grits For Breakfast blog.

  • Thanks, updated.

  • If you rob from the rich, and give to the poor, you are Robin Hood.

    If you rob from the poor, and give to the rich, you are government.

  • I remember when I was that poor and the state of Virginia stole my car. It went down like this: my water pump went out. I needed to wait until my next payday to buy a replacement. So two weeks go by and that Friday , paycheck in hand, I buy the pump. Meanwhile, the state tows my car for being “inoperable on a city street” while it was in fact parked in my marked parking spot in my apartment complex and not on a street at all. The office I need to call is closed by this time and won’t be open again until Monday. When I call them Monday, they say sure they’ll release it, as long as I pay the storage fee. So next payday I show up to get my car (carrying the water pump which I figure I will install there so I can drive it home). Turns out the storage fee is $100 a day and my car has been “stored” (parked in THEIR parking lot) 18 days. There was absolutely no way I could come up with nearly two grand if I could barely manage to scrape enough wiggle room in my budget to buy a water pump in the first place.The car itself was not worth $1800, so there was no way I could get even a crappy high interest loan to pay the fees. I told them to keep it.