The Criminalization of Poverty

64 Pages Posted: 8 May 2009 Last revised: 11 Sep 2014

See all articles by Kaaryn Gustafson

Kaaryn Gustafson

University of California, Irvine School of Law

Date Written: May 7, 2009


The welfare system and the criminal justice system in the United States are becoming ever more tightly interwoven. Scholars, however, have not yet examined the processes involved in these developments and what these developments mean for both the welfare system and for criminal jurisprudence. Many people, including welfare recipients, treat the welfare and criminal justice systems as analytically distinct. As a practical matter, however, the systems now work in tandem.

This Article maps the criminalization of welfare. First, this Article describes the social construction of welfare fraud, tracing how "welfare queens" and welfare cheating came to be the targets of considerable governmental attention and resources. The Article then describes the various ways that criminal justice goals and strategies have become embedded in the welfare system, as well as the ways that the welfare system has become a tool of law enforcement. Next, the Article examines the treatment of welfare recipients in the courts, where the poor have been relegated to an inferior status of rights-bearing citizenship, a status on par with parolees and probationers. In the end, the Article encourages more careful policy analysis of these criminalizing practices, proposes a de-coupling of the economic security and crime control functions of the state, and offers recommendations for ensuring the constitutional rights of welfare recipients. Specifically, administrative and criminal procedures must adapt to the transformations in welfare law to ensure that welfare recipients enjoy basic constitutional protections. More research is suggested to measure the unmeasured and the externalized costs associated with the criminalization of welfare.

Keywords: criminalization, welfare, welfare fraud, Fourth Amendment, poverty, crime, public policy

JEL Classification: H1, I3, J78

Suggested Citation

Gustafson, Kaaryn, The Criminalization of Poverty (May 7, 2009). Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 99, No. 3, 2009, UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2009-1401107, Available at SSRN:

Kaaryn Gustafson (Contact Author)

University of California, Irvine School of Law ( email )

401 E. Peltason Dr.
Ste. 1000
Irvine, CA 92612
United States

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