Jazmine Headley's Arrest Shows We Need to Do More to Support America's Poor

The incident underlines America's misunderstanding of poverty, and how we fail those living in it.

By Aisha K. Staggers

Nearly two weeks ago, at a New York City area office for social services, police officers forcefully snatched a 1-year-old boy from the arms of his mother while she was waiting in line for assistance. Jazmine Headley, 23, had been waiting to renew a child care voucher and stood in line for more than four hours holding her baby before deciding to take a seat on the floor.

The situation escalated to the point where more than four officers were called to confront Headley, ostensibly because sitting on the floor wasn’t allowed. The officers attempted to hold her down as they forcefully removed her child from her arms. Understandably, she refused to surrender him. In the video of the encounter that surfaced, it appeared Headley was simply trying to protect her son from the strangers who were threatening to take him away. By the end of the melee, Headley was arrested, and her child was placed in the care of her family while she spent five days in Rikers without bail.

There are so many things wrong with the scenario and how it unfolded, but equally disturbing are the reactions from the general public to the video of the incident and Headley’s subsequent arrest. While many were rightfully outraged, a significant portion of those who saw it chose to blame the mother for provoking the situation. Comments like, “Just another criminal posing as a MOM,” “looking for a payday,” and “should have shot her 5, 6 times.

These comments make it all too clear that what some thought was the mother’s most unforgivable “crime” is the fact that she is young, black, and poor. We have laws that protect specific classes of people from blatant discrimination and discriminatory practices with regards to race, gender, disabilities, sexual orientation and identity, and more. In many cases, these protections don’t extend to people in poverty.

As a professor, director of research and scholar on race, poverty, and criminal justice, I have referenced and contributed to a host of studies that point to the criminalization of the poor. Working for legislative commissions with mandates to advise policymakers on the impact of race on poverty based on my research, the correlation between the two was undeniable. I found the value we place on human lives was based on race, age, gender, and socioeconomic status. I also found it was easier to criminalize the poor because we don’t fully understand poverty. We don’t know who it really impacts and we feel incapacitated when it comes to solving it.

So, let’s try to understand who we’re talking about.

In 2018, the poverty line in America was $12,140 for an individual and $25,001 for a family of four. Over 46.2 million Americans (29 million of whom are children) are reportedly living "in poverty," but aren't what most Americans would consider "poor." Why is that? Well, poverty in America comes in many forms and looks differently across the spectrum. Media and individual prejudices leave us with an unrealistic picture in our minds as to what poverty should look like — complete with negative stereotypes and social markers, even when the majority of those living below the poverty line do in fact work. Many are either employed on a part-time basis and/or make an hourly wage that is not a livable wage. Others earn money under the table doing small jobs that can’t offer consistent income.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reports the lowest minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25 and the highest is $11.50. By December 31, some New Yorkers will have the highest minimum wage in the nation at $15.00. In 2015, M.I.T. researchers found $15.12 to be the ideal hourly wage, so for a four-person household with two working adults, each of them would have to have two jobs. For a single-parent household, it theoretically means one person working four jobs to make ends meet.

Those living below the poverty line are most represented in the service industry, where they can experience wage theft, discriminatory tipping practices, and more. Until a living wage has been achieved for all, most working, poor Americans cannot make ends meet and need public assistance in the form of food stamps, utility subsidies, transportation assistance, and child care vouchers.

Research shows women and children suffer the most. For many women, finding quality and affordable child care poses a problem when it comes to seeking gainful employment — unless they have access to programs like the child care voucher Jazmine Headley was waiting that day to renew.

How Do We Fix It?

We can do more than just donate goods during the holidays. While they are much appreciated, the problem with singular donations is that they are not policy. In order to eradicate poverty, as citizens, we must call upon our elected officials at every level to pass and implement policies aimed at preventing poverty.

Tax credits like Earned Income (EITC), Additional Child (ACTC), and Making Work Pay put money back in families’ pockets in the form of annual tax refunds. We need to ensure better access to health insurance through Medicaid and Medicare expansion and advocate for paid sick and personal days for part-time and hourly employees. Raise the salary cap for child care subsidy eligibility to $40,000 and expand Head Start programs or weigh the benefits of offering universal pre-K.

Finally, we must offer programs that promote healthy saving habits among the “asset-poor” in the form of the Individual Development Accounts (IDA) program and Saving for Education, Entrepreneurship, and Downpayment (SEED) initiative. Having a safety net can avert homelessness or worse if the primary income source is tapped.

These are all policy positions that The Brookings Institute, a public policy think tank, identifies as fundamental to the Democratic Party's political platform. They are also difficult to pass on a federal level because of partisan politics. While the implementation of programs like SEED had the support of conservatives under the second Bush administration and Democratic support under President Obama, in 2010 a shift in power toward the GOP splinter Tea Party Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives eventually tabled any discussion of such programs and these policies were never brought to the floor for debate at the federal level. However, individual states have had varied success in implementing similar policies as is the case with Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program.

It is also a good idea to look at developing programs that will teach the importance of investing in life insurance. Having life insurance policies or supplement insurance like AFLAC can avert or delay a family's descent into poverty if the primary income earner dies or is incapacitated, and can’t work temporarily or permanently. Depending on the type of policy, life insurance can also be turned into cash, in the event of an emergency.

For many of those who are already struggle to pay for basic needs, life insurance is thought of as a luxury the poor cannot afford. Recognizing the quagmire this poses for those who earn the least, insurance companies in India and Romania have begun offering micro life insurance policies — lower-cost life insurance policies with affordable premiums and lower payouts. The first round of micro life insurance policies yielded significantly positive results. Research findings indicate this could also work in America and relieve some of the financial burden placed on very lean or indebted state budgets.

Headley was released on December 11, 2018 and her child was returned into her care. She was also able to get what she needed and a GoFundMe was set up to help offset the costs of legal representation and child care, raising more than $36,000. She was lucky. There were people present who had the forethought to take out their phones and record the incident. Those same people then posted the videos to social media that got the attention of of news outlets and elected officials.

What happened to Headley happened in front of an audience. Imagine how many more similar incidents go undocumented. It happens more often than we are aware and could happen to anyone regardless of who you are or where you live. All it takes is one financial disaster, a major illness or a major layoff and you, too, could find yourself standing in line at a social services office. No one is immune, because poverty does not discriminate. America, however, does.

Aisha K. Staggers is a journalist and co-host of the internationally syndicated "Staggers' State of Things" and "All Our Own Show" produced by the award-winning Dr. Vibe Show. Aisha spent 17 years as a professor of social sciences and 20 years as a public policy researcher with nearly 100 professional publications, including four textbook contributions. Aisha has also served two legislative commissions and over a dozen governor's task forces on poverty, education, gun violence, and the arts.