On April 7, a group of attorneys and legal scholars convened at Fordham Law School for a day-long symposium entitled “How the Poor Still Pay More: A Reexamination of Urban Poverty in the Twenty-First Century.”
Co-sponsored by Fordham’s Stein Center for Law and Ethics, Urban Law Center, Urban Consortium, and Center on Race, Law, and Justice, the symposium framed its discussion using sociologist David Caplovitz’s landmark 1963 book The Poor Pay More: Consumer Practices of Low-Income Families. The study earned universal praise for revealing the ways in which the consumer economy exploited and marginalized the poor.
“Essentially you had a cycle, in which the poor were encouraged to purchase goods they couldn’t afford,” said keynote speaker Norman I. Silber, a professor of law at Hofstra Law and a senior research scholar at Yale Law. “And they did this because of marketing in America, which encouraged them to treat consumption as compensatory for loss of social status.”
The day’s panelists and speakers agreed that this state of affairs had remained for the most part unchanged in the 54 years since The Poor Pay More’s publication.
“What we have in the contemporary food system today is a paradox that I call ‘abundance and injustice,’” said Fordham University Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies Garrett Broad, speaking on a panel concerning food, housing, and healthcare. “Right here in New York City, we have some of the most lavish access to the food that’s being distributed from all over the world. But at the same time, we still have 48 million people in the United States who are considered ‘food insecure.’”
Speaking on the same panel, Brietta Clark, associate dean for faculty and professor of law at Loyola Law School–Los Angeles, and David Dana of Northwestern University School of Law, described similar disparities in the United States’ healthcare and housing systems, respectively.
“Low-income people, especially in urban areas, are paying a higher percentage of their income for housing than they did years ago. And in many instances, the percentage seems unsustainable,” said Dana.
The panel “Borrowing to Stay Afloat” explored similar themes regarding the consumer credit options on offer for the urban poor. Moderator Susan Block-Lieb, professor of law and Cooper Family Chair in Urban Legal Studies at Fordham Law, led a panel that included Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of Georgia School of Law; Kathleen C. Engel of Suffolk University Law School; Dalié Jiménez of the University of Connecticut School of Law; and Lois R. Lupica of the University of Maine School of Law.
“Half the U.S. population would have to borrow if they had a shortfall of $400 or $500 due to an unexpected expense,” said Baradaran. “As for basic financial services, there are 30 to 40 million people who are unbanked or underbanked.”
Engel proposed alleviating this circumstance by using artificial intelligence to help consumers with a less than commanding grasp of their credit options to select appropriate credit products. Speaking immediately afterwards, Jiménez and Lupica described a project they were already engaged in to do exactly that.
“For poor people who cannot afford professional help, using technology can provide a way out of things that we—‘we’ being professionals—wouldn’t necessarily need a lawyer for,” said Lupica.
Lupica and Jiménez described an initiative born from the Financial Distress Research Project to develop an app that would help low-income debtors navigate their legal options.
“Four-fifths of the individual legal needs of the poor, and a majority of the legal needs of many middle-income Americans, go unmet,” said Lupica. “And many people are even unaware that they have a problem that can be solved by the smallest understanding of the system that they have to navigate.”
The day’s final panel, entitled “Staying Out of Court: How Criminal Justice Penalties and Fees Intensify Urban Poverty” addressed the ways in which criminal charges, and their attendant financial burdens, help perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Clare Huntington, associate dean for research and professor of law at Fordham, moderated the panel. Speakers Ann Cammett, professor of law at the City University of New York School of Law; Sarah Lustbader, senior program associate for sentencing and corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice; and David Patton, executive director and attorney-in-chief for the Federal Defenders of New York, described a justice system that heavily disfavored impoverished defendants.
From the legal challenges of simply litigating their cases, as described by Lustbader and Patton, to the “carceral debt” that defendants accrued while passing through the justice system, the panelists described a system that penalized poverty, and ensured the poor limited access to justice.