Americans like to think of our country as a land of opportunity where every man, woman and child has a shot at success. With hard work and dedication, anyone can make it.
The growing income gap belies the idealistic rhetoric. There are many straightforward ways in which low-income people struggle–if you aren’t making enough money, feeding and housing your family can be difficult to impossible. But beyond meeting these basic needs, there are also fundamental rights we as Americans like to think are income blind. The reality is quite different.
1. The right to privacy. The internet has made information readily accessible to a wide range of people, with free services like Google and relatively inexpensive access on cell phones. But that information comes at a price, as Julia Angwin points out in a New York Times piece. Angwin wrote a book about her extensive efforts to protect her privacy and worries that it may become a “luxury good.” She spent $2,200 and “countless hours” trying to keep her data and her movements private. As she argues, it’s not simply about keeping advertisers from accessing your data. It’s used to give people different information and prices based on their data, and the government has used it in broad sweeps to identify criminal suspects.
2. The right to vote. This is one of our most fundamental rights and without it, we may be stripped of many others. The rights of low-income people are only going to be reflected in our government if they have the power to put people in office. On the surface level, it seems as though people at all income levels (with some notable exceptions) should be able to vote since the days of the direct poll tax are gone. But there are costs just the same, and efforts to crack down on nonexistent voting fraud are bringing about a de facto poll tax.
With a wave of new voter ID laws, proponents will argue that the required photo IDs can be obtained for free. But often voters must pay for documents needed to qualify for the ID. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice showed that a birth certificate could cost between $8 and $25, more than the $10.64 the poll tax would be in today’s dollars. There are also transportation barriers and scheduling issues involved. The study found that one town in Wisconsin only offered IDs on the fifth Wednesday of every month. Even if all these obstacles are overcome, it can often be more challenging for low-income voters to get away from work to vote, despite laws requiring that flexibility.
3. The right to a fair trial. Technically, every American is entitled to legal representation regardless of income. But if you really want the best criminal defense, it’s going to cost you. While public defenders may have the best of intentions, the system makes it nearly impossible for them to inadequately represent indigent clients.
The low pay for public defenders makes it difficult for law graduates saddled with student loans to take on the job. Greg Apt, who worked as a public defender in Los Angeles County, describes taking a night job delivering pizzas to pay off his loans.
The lack of funding means a huge case load for public defenders. A 2009 report showed that public defenders can carry as many as 500 felony cases and 2,225 misdemeanors. Public defenders also don’t have the resources to pay for expert testimony and do thorough investigations. These factors combined mean poor clients don’t get the most effective representation possible, which can have huge ripple effects throughout their lives. The system also incentivizes plea bargaining, shoving people into a criminal justice system that can throw up subsequent obstacles to everything from employment to voting.
4. Reproductive rights. Women’s reproductive freedom has been under attack in this country, making it harder for women to access proper medical care. This is doubly true for poor women. The clearest obstacle for low-income women is the Hyde amendment, a restriction on using Medicaid funds to pay for abortions that is regularly renewed by Congress. This impractical, ideologically-driven prohibition leads to desperate situations, like the woman in Jessica Arons’ Talking Points Memo piece who said, “I’m thinking of ways I can fall or what I can do to end this pregnancy [myself].”
Other restrictions on abortion access also disproportionately affect poor women. Restrictive laws and violent attacks have reduced the number of abortion clinics, meaning women sometimes need to take long and expensive journeys to get the procedure. Mississippi has only one abortion clinic left in the entire state. Regulations that require waiting periods can mean that women who want abortions have to travel far and stay for multiple days, and many can’t afford to take that much time off of work or provide care to their other children.
Women who can’t afford child care can be driven even further into poverty by an unintended pregnancy. As Arons writes, “Indeed, a recent study revealed that a woman who seeks an abortion and is turned away is three times as likely to fall into poverty as a woman who obtains an abortion, rendering both Roe and the War on Poverty empty rhetoric for them.”
Our rights should never be for sale to the highest bidder. If we want to make rhetoric about equality ring true, we can’t can’t cling to an ideal and be willfully blind to the ways inequality is shaping our society.