Driving While Poor Is Dangerous

Whether or not race is also a factor, driving while poor can destroy your life whether you are black, white, Hispanic, or other.

I consider it a triumph of reality over myth that the picture used to illustrate this Yahoo News story shows a black cop issuing a ticket to a black driver.

driving while poor

Obviously, any news about how poor people are being hurt will find the damage is suffered by a disproportionate number of African Americans because they are more likely to be poor. Furthermore, if the issue is targeting poor people, then blacks, being disproportionately likely to be poor, will probably be profiled.

But it needs to be pointed out that the real color difference is not black and white, but blue and everyone else. Plenty of poor whites have ended up in debtors’ prison (see here, here, and here) along with poor blacks. Ferguson is being treated like it is entirely a matter of race when in fact there is plenty of black-on-black and white-on-white “law enforcement” revenue enhancement going on. (Of course, this has nothing to do with allegations about police brutality. The issue isn’t the character of the police but the way the courts and municipalities are using them as revenue collectors.)

So I was pleased that, while the story did touch on race, the headline pointed to poverty as the deciding factor: “Driving While Poor Is Deepening Inequality in America.”

There’s a high cost to driving while poor, according to a new report from East Bay Express, a Northern California alternative newspaper. The paper notes that traffic citation fines of $100 have risen to $500 as municipalities rely more heavily on fine collection to build revenue. Many low-income people can’t afford to pay. In the last eight years, 4.2 million driver’s licenses have been suspended because people have failed to pay fines or show up to traffic court. This effectively creates a painful spiral of inequality: People can’t drive, so they can’t get to work. Many lose their jobs. 

The problem isn’t isolated to California. Across the country, fees and fines associated with traffic citations have steadily increased over the past several decades, according to a relatively new report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, a left-leaning legal group based in Washington, D.C.

A friend of mine who sent me a link to this headline pointed out that in the long run this technique actually decreases the revenue available to the political class. If you are driving to your third shift job in your clunker and you get a fix-it ticket, can’t pay, and lose your job, that means no more state income tax or federal income tax from that person. If they get jailed they go from being producers to consumers of government revenue.

The problem is that the decision-makers in a local jurisdiction don’t suffer any ill consequences for ending employment for these people. They only see the revenue they are able to shake out of them.

Legal aid groups have argued that the civil assessment penalties should go to the state’s general fund instead of the courts, so that judges don’t have incentives to issue the maximum $300 penalty and ignore a defendant’s inability to pay.

That sounds reasonable to me!